Sunday, November 25, 2007

Poetry by Marcia Nardi


I have joined you, my love,
In abandoning me

In love that is not love
I have set myself free
But not from you
Only from me

I have let myself be proved
In love without love
Neither rib nor tree

Do you feel me near?
Or have I below
Left with my limbs under the snow
That contact of earth with the sky
The heart forgoes?

Do you feel me close
As a star to a star?
Do you feel me as near, Love,

And as far?

I have joined you
In abandoning me.

By Marcia Nardi

As I’ve written earlier, Marcia Nardi was a correspondent of William Carlos Williams from 1942 until 1956 – with sporadic correspondence between the two of them. The extant correspondence are gathered by Elizabeth Murrie O’Neil in The Last Word: Letters between Marcia Nardi & William Carlos Williams, published by the University of Iowa Press in 1994.

Marcia Nardi was born in Boston, MA on August 6, 1901 with the name Lillian Massell. She attended Wellesley College from 1919 through 1921 and left during her junior year before graduating. She then moved to Greenwich Village and lived at one time in the same rooming house as Allen Tate and Hart Crane. Nardi seems to be writing regularly and publishing between 1924 and 1929. She works for the Modern Quarterly in Baltimore for a short time and has three poems published in the journal. She also has poems published in Measure, Bookman, the Nation, and the New York Times. She writes reviews including a review of H.D. Heliodora. Her son, Paul, is born on October 23, 1926. She never divulges the name of her son’s father. Throughout the entire Great Depression, Nardi works a variety of jobs in New York City to support herself and her son.

As a result of a medical issue with Paul, Nardi meets William Carlos Williams through a connection established by Nardi’s neighbor, Harvey Breit. This commences their correspondence and friendship. Williams provided professional assistance for Paul and also corresponded with Nardi and tried to aid her in making literary connections. As a result of Williams, seventeen of Nardi’s poems were published in New Directions Number Seven anthology. Shortly after their initial meeting – and Nardi granting Williams permission to use one of her earlier letters in Paterson, the two lost contact.

Nardi writes to Williams next in 1949 after seeing Paterson I and II at a local bookstore near Woodstock, New York, where she is living with her husband, Charles John Lang, a writer and painter. Nardi and Williams correspond sporadically between 1949 and 1956. At various times, Williams sends Nardi money and provides some assistance to her in making literary connections. One of the final things he does is serve as a reference for her for a Guggenheim fellowship, which is awarded to her in the spring of 1957. Nardi lives near Woodstock with Lang until 1950 when she leaves him and goes New York. For the next two decades, Nardi publishes her poems in a variety of places – and using different names – including Ladies Home Journal, Poetry, American Scholar, and The New Yorker. Her full-length collection is published in 1956.

In her letters to Willliams, Nardi wrote extensively about both her social and literary isolation – and even beyond the excerpts of her letters included in Paterson wrote eloquently about her plight as a woman artist. She lived often in abject poverty, for many years struggling to support herself and her son. She died on March 13, 1990 in Watertown, MA.

Williams used a portion of a letter from Nardi early in the first book of Paterson. Here it is in its entirety:

In regard to the poems I left with you; will you be so kind as to return them to me at my new address? And without bothering to comment upon them if you should find that embarrassing—for it was the human situation and not the literary one that motivated my phone call and visit.
Besides, I know myself to be more the woman than the poet; and to concern myself less with the publishers of poetry than with . . . living . . .
But they set up an investigation . . . and my doors are bolted forever (I hope forever) against all public welfare workers, professional do-gooders and the like.

This letter was heavily edited by Williams, as was his practice in the early parts of Paterson.

As Nardi’s correspondence with Williams continued, however, and the sequence of Paterson continued, Williams used longer passages from letters as a part of the text. The conclusion of the second book of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson is a five-page letter from Marcia Nardi to Williams. This is the beginning of the letter:

My attitude toward woman’s wretched position in society and my ideas about all the changes necessary there, were interesting to you, weren’t they, in so far as they made for literature? That my particular emotional orientation, in wrenching myself free from patterened standardized feminine feelings, enabled me to do some passably good work with poetry—all that was fine, wasn’t it—something for you to sit up and take notice of! And you saw in one of my first letters to you (the one you had wanted to make use of, then, in the Introduction to your Paterson) an indication that my thoughts were to be taken seriously because they too could be turned by you into literature, as something disconnected from life.
        But when my actual personal life crept in, stamped all over with the very same attitudes and sensibilities and preoccupations that you found quite admirable as literature—that was an entirely different matter, wasn’t it? No longer admirable, but, on the contrary, deplorable, annoying, stupid, or in some other way unpardonable; because those very ideas and feelings which make one a writer with some kind of vision, are often the very same ones which, in living itself, make one clumsy, awkward, absurd, ungrateful, confidential where most people are reticient and reticent where one should be confidential, and which cause one, all too often, to step on the toes of other people’s sensitive egos as a result of one’s stumbling earnestness or honesty carried too far. And that they are the very same ones—that’s important, something to be remembered at all times, especially by writers like yourself who are so sheltered from life in the raw by the glass-walled conditions of their own safe lives.
        Only my writing (when I write) is myself: only that is the real me in any essential way. Not because I bring to literature and to life two different inconsistent sets of values, as you do. No, I don’t do that; and I feel that when anyone does do it, literatures is into just so much intellectual excrement fit for the same stinking hole as any other kind.

After reading the sections of Nardi’s letters in Paterson and then the complete letters in O’Neill’s books, I was eager to read Nardi’s poems. There are twenty-two poems published in her collection from 1956. They are powerful poems individually and as a collection. The book does not include all of her published poems prior to 1956. Most notably, her long poem In the Asylum, which first was published in Botteghe Oscure in 1950, is absent with only two parts reprinted in the book.

Nardi writes powerfully about class in ways congruent with other women writers I’ve read, particularly in the Nekola and Rabinowitz anthology, Writing Red: An anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940. Her poetry also reminded me thematically of Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed – and there is another novel from the 1930s that I can’t recall, but has a fierce scene where the protagonist cuts off all of her pubic hair and mails it to her ex-lover in anger and then goes, I think, to Cuba to work for the revolution. I think Nardi’s anger in her poems is expressed in profoundly beautiful and constructive ways. I wasn’t anticipating that from reading the letters, which are simply more angry and direct and not as processed as her poems. In these ways, I think of Nardi’s book, even though it was published in the 1950s as more rooted in work from the 30s. This may simply be that I have more in my knowledge reference bank in that era however than in the 1950s.

I’ve included four additional poems below from her book. I was delighted by these ones in particular for both her content choices and the way that she uses images and metaphor.

Poems by Marcia Nardi
From Nardi, Marcia. Poems. Denver: Alan Swallow (New Poetry Series), 1956.


And now you are all going abroad
You to Saint Jean de Luz
And to Fontainebleau you and Menton,
And you with the numerous friends there
To Italy’s many suns
Now the autumn has come
While I here at home
Must go down with the chipmunk to the hole
That is there again this year
In the native land of my flesh-and-bone.

You will send me postcards
Of the Louvre and Coloseum
If I should send you one
You would say “Come,
My cousins can put you up
My aunt has extra rooms—
You are not Tom Thumb.”

But the place where I shall winter
Here at home
Is not so small at all
When you consider how small my soul has become
Measured beside this new grief
This little low moan just born

Which is only little
And only low
When I think of the Prado’s ceilings
As St. Peter’s over you,
But very big really. . . .too spacious really for keeping warm,

When you think of the size of the chipmunk
And the size of my soul
And also
Of the size of the mole
Who could do with a tinier niche than the one
That will house me again this year, the mind’s paths gone,
Here in that dark country where the same thrust
Makes no different burrow
Whether love’s or lust’s.


I write to you from the country—
Though the pavements have followed me here
And the florists stand by for the rose
If the winds of a few weeks ago
Had slipped through these hills
Had cut straight through
Them sideways
Slicing them off slicing away
My breasts like their ache you
I could come home to myself at least
To my sister grief
To the arms of Dido alive again
In the mirror of my pain
If not to you, my love, if not to you.

But faith, I know,
My faith of a year ago
When you absence not yet was real to my veins
Saw this land through
Those days when the March winds blew
The last armor away of the heart’s protective snow
And these valleys now
Gray still and leafless
Even toda in April—these
Are the vowels . . . the vowel sounds
In the words with the deep soft “u,”
The words with the vulva—deep as it—
And the feminine armpits shaved and smooth
Like “love,” my Love,
And the word tabooed
And waiting—as only women wait—
For God, in creating the world, to use.

In their prayer for greenness
I’d say that Heloise and her letters were here
And she who died in Portugal,
But too hopeful for prayer
These valleys and these hills.

I write to you from this country
But when I touch—in exile from your touch—
A shrub or tree
And sink my naked feet into the thawed-out fields
My hand to my hand is China far away
And to my heart my heart an ice-locked sea
And always the prison matron’s watchful eye
Goes with us to the bathing rooms
And haunts the darkness as we climb
Into our separate beds at night to sleep.

Not only my life is lost and betrayed
But my death also
Like that of mummies
Or those who in cities see
From a hospital window
Even their Potter’s Field filled in with bricks—
The pavements have followed me here
But I write to you from the country.


How the rich move softly
Through their injustices,
Softly as the uncut grasses on summer noons they move—
That tinkle? It’s their cocktail glasses,
That sound of hatchet blows?
I do not know,
For all is interstices
And open meadowland and willow laces
To their very gentle wickednesses
That knuckleless as summer breezes go.

So softly move the rich through their injustices,
Not softer is the breathing of a rose—
That tinkle’s not the sound of glasses?
It’s the bells then that the poor
Must sprout like antlers when too near
They venture to a rich man’s loaves.
Those other sounds? That thump and clatter
As of a crutch on rugless stairs, and wooden shoes?
Those are the sins of the poor
Against the poorer still—
The rich’s treat on moss with velvet soles,

And when the rich stretch out their arms
To grab and stab and kill,
You need not leave the tenement walls
Nor the asphalt walks to know
How easefully the purple hounds
That the delicate cream-puff clouds unloose
Do their dark hunting of the hillside’s green—
So softly move
The rich through their injustices,
From Cairo to Tuckahoe
The jostling of daisies they carry
And the drift, on the white fields, of snow
That cover up and make so beautiful the cruelty
Of life from destruction deep below.


It does not stay in the heart
It does not stay in the mind
(Ah, if it did, though. . . if . . . )
And when, the doors open and chafing against
Its narrow confines, forth it sets.
Oh what on those oceans where the clamorous flesh
Knows not the captain from the ship,
A lord still shall keep it. . .
The love untold and denied?
And what in the jungle of the thighs,
To the tiger, still a prince?
Love I make it because I write it
And as I say my darling again from the skies
Athena alights at Odysseus’s side.

Back on my book-shelves a hundred books of poems
Tell how the telling more than the knowing
Helpless as roses left the monsters
And all the enchanters dismayed
And quelled the waves, and saved,
While the glances thrown me
Down on the streets of my lonely roving
Change the story
To how on the tongues with a relish only
For the wine and honey a dollar buys
The word has died
That leaves with no crown and no shield and homeless and throneless
The trapped Ulysses-cry.

These lines I recall now:
“I am a woman, tell me lies,”
But where the caves are and those treacherous isles
And the cord of the gathered winds is untied,
The thrust is the same . . . . snatch the name,
And love I make it because I write it—
To find, as I say my darling,
The wax for the oarsmen again supplied
And the burning stick for the Cyclops-eye.

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