The new issue of Stone Telling has a very interesting article called “The Poetry of Joanna Russ, Part I: An Introduction,” by Brit Mandelo. It’s on the poetry that Joanna Russ wrote when she was young, just in college actually. It starts like this:
“Joanna Russ (1937-2011) is well-known for her incisive, transformative work in science fiction, feminist theory, and literary criticism—often, all three at once—but her early works, which include a considerable amount of poetry, are rarely discussed. While her first publication in the SF field was a short story, “Nor Custom Stale,” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959, it was not her first magazine appearance by far: she had already been published several times as a poet, from the age of seventeen onwards, and much of that poetry was what we would now deem speculative in that it dealt with apparitions, fantasies, and myths.”
Joanna Russ wrote poetry: who knew? I certainly didn’t. But it makes sense. So many of us do start writing poetry, and so many of us give it up. The article speculates as to why she would have given it up, and then makes a case for paying attention to that early work. What it doesn’t do, and I wish it did, is reprint any of the poems. For that, I think we need to wait for Part II. Mandelo writes, “In the second installment of this study, I will discuss the actual poems that are the subject of the preceding histories and speculations, the poems that are so generally invisible in the critical conversation about Russ-the-artist.” I assume that means she will at least be quoting from them. I’d love to see them – evidently they’re not actually available anywhere, and a Google search yields nothing. This is where scholars become important. They preserve and bring to our attention what would have been lost otherwise.
The article made me think of the poetry I wrote when I was younger. I don’t have time to write a real blog post tonight, because I’m still finishing some work from the semester. So I thought I would include a few of those poems. They’re from 1993-1995, when I was just graduating from law school and starting to work as a lawyer. I knew that I wanted to be a writer – I’d written part of a first novel, The Queen of Myr, during law school, when I should have been studying. (I’m sure it’s still somewhere, although I have no idea which of the boxes it’s in.) But I didn’t know how to get there. I would sit in my office on the 42nd floor of the MetLife building, during my lunch hour, and write poetry. I was pretty desperate, back then. And I’m not sure I could have imagined where I am now – in a place where I can write whatever I want to, where I’m not exactly financially free (because you know, stockings and fans), but where I don’t have the crushing burden of debt I did then. Anyway, because I have work to get back to, I’ll just give you these poems. The first one has been published (and I may have posted it here before). The others haven’t.
Beauty to the Beast
When I dare walk in fields, barefoot and tender,
trace thorns with my finger, swallow amber,
crawl into the badger’s chamber, comb
lightning’s loose hair in a crashing storm,
walk in a wolf’s eye, lie
naked on granite, ignore the curse
on the castle door, drive a tooth into the boar’s hide,
ride adders, tangle the horned horse,
when I dare watch the east
with unprotected eyes,
then I dare love you, Beast.
I Knew a Woman
I knew a woman kind as any star.
She wrapped the night wind warm about her neck.
She sang like crickets chirping in a jar.
She called the violet twilight her true home
and dusted constellations. For her sake
the moon swept out its pewter-powdered dome.
Black clouds would scorn to sail on common ponds
and light upon the liquid of her mind.
They flared and ruffed their fluted wings like swans.
And when she spoke the poplars strove to hear,
and when sometimes she cried out in the wind,
her voice was more than all the stars could bear.
If you have met him shining among the cobbles,
that genius whose yowl will frighten the moon,
that werewolf-man, if you have witnessed him at noon
whistling, walking tattered with the natty rabbles,
if you have seen him among bankers and bakers, ragged and shining,
and thought him lucky: every night the night devours him.
(I may have posted that last one here before as well, I don’t remember.) So that’s what you get today, my early poetry. Back to work:
(Almost. I found one more I want to post. And if they bother you as well, you will immediately know what this poem is about.)
I have frequented the ways, even the byways of men,
I have gone forth silently, still-countenanced and cold;
they have not noticed clustered at my hem
the tattered-earned smirking little goblins bold.
I have bowed and seemed to smile and seemed to converse with them,
while my face remained pale and my words retained their chill,
and the little goblins chattered and clattered at my hem
in voices triumphant and shrill.