How the World Wars Unmade God in the Late Poems of Djuna Barnes

Barnes 6The last project I was working on before I dropped out of school was about the reasons Djuna Barnes was written out of the cannon of American Modernist literature. I didn’t have to look very far to see that the overarching theme of her books is queer misandry. Her peer and friend T. S. Elliot had to fight to help her publish her work, and even then, much of it was censored and no longer exists in its original form. Her last novel, Nightwood (1936), is, according to Wikipedia, “…one of the earliest prominent novels to portray explicit homosexuality between women…” Four years after publishing her last major work, Barnes moved to a Greenwich Village apartment where she stayed until her death in 1982.

Where she was a previously prolific writer, Barnes only published five poems and an unsuccessful play, The Antiphon. In “Djuna Barnes and the Geriatric Avant-Garde”, Scott Herring theorizes that she spent these years working on an intensification of her earlier work, clinging to the main characteristics of Modernism: innovation, experimentalism, novelty, and difficulty. Still, in these years, she did not create a large body of unpublished work but put excruciating thought into the little she produced, working on a “decades long experimental art project that would result in something other than pubBarnes 3lication.”

Barnes’s novels and essays—including “How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed”, describing her Barnes 3experience being voluntarily force-fed in solidarity with suffragists—were
extremely anti-patriarchal, even for today’s standards. Therefore, she spent much of her time negotiating with (male) publishers to accept her work, editing it in accordance—or making drastic revisions to please Elliot who convinced companies to publish her work. She wanted to be able to work without censorship, after the publication of Nightwood, writing that she longed “to have my life to myself to do my work in”. Excluding a few essays that she wrote to support herself financially, this is what she did. Ironically, her late work is not permeated with patriarchal rage that men felt the need to censor but focused on furthering her structural experimentation and “blurring the modernist-postmodernist break.”

The way she plays with language, prosody, meter, and syntax, as well as appropriation, are fascinating. Her later poems revolve around two main themes. The first, like much post-WWI literature, attempts to make sense of the vileness of humanity seen in WWI and, to a greater extent in the years following, like in the works of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and even John Berryman. The second theme is ageism and internalized ageism. Although these themes often merge and overlap, the two poems I found most intriguing only focus on the former.

Barnes’s continued Modernist experimentation can best be seen by comparing two of her later poems: “Transfiguration” (1940, republished with revisions 1978) and “Fall-our over Heaven” (1958). There are many similarities between these two poems. Both are written in tetrameter couplets, all but one line of which are completely iambic or trochaic. Only two of the couplets do not end in perfect masculine rhymes, and one of the slant-rhymed couplets is repeated verbatim (but with different punctuation) in both poems, asking the reader to draw a closer relationship between the two.

The primary difference between the poems is in their length. “Transfiguration” is 18 lines, nine couplets long, where “Fall-out over Heaven” has only ten lines, five couplets. However, the latter poem begins with two epigraphs and ends with a third. I don’t know what an epigraph is called at the end of a work, but after reading some unreasonably hostile arguments about this on grammar forums, I’ve decided that—if it exists—nobody else knows the word either (—but it reminded me, future blog post: “Why are People on Grammar Forums so Vicious?”). Maybe there is not a word because it’s so uncommon, which would make it is another element of Barnes’s experimentation. These epigraphs function as lines in the poem. Not only is this clear because, if included, they would make up almost 25% of the length of the poem but because the epigraphs are also consistent with the meter of the poem. The first two epigraphs are written in tetrameter, one of which is iambic, the other of which uses anapestic substitution for the third and fourth feet. The ending epigraph is written in perfect iambic pentameter.

The first epigraph in “Fall-out over Heaven” is from Elliot’s post-WWI masterpiece, “The Wasteland”: “I’ll show you fear in a handful of dust,” (line 30). The second is from the book of Isiah in the Old Testament of the Bible: “And dust shall be the serpent’s meat.” (Isaiah 65:25, KJV). And the closing epigraph is from the Gospel of John in the New Testament: “She, supposing him to be the gardener…” (John 20:15, KJV). Neither of the epigrams from the Bible—they are both from prose sections of the Bible—quote the complete sentence, much less the whole verse; they are cut to contain only the necessary meaning to mirror the meter of the poem. However, the Elliot quote is one complete line of “The Wasteland”, which is written in free verse. Even though these epigraphs function as part of it, they do not preserve the end-rhyme of the rest of the poem.

In both “Fall-out over Heaven” and “Transfiguration”, the slant-rhymed couplets work to jar the reader; they draw attention to what the reader should find jarring. This is most important in the slant-rhymed couplet that is repeated in both poems. In “Transfiguration”, it is set as the sixth of nine couplets (lines 11-12); it is the only slant rhyme in the poem:

Lucifer roars up from earth;

Down falls Christ into his death.

In “Fall-out over Heaven”, it is placed as the final couplet (lines 9-10). However, in this poem, there is another slant-rhymed couplet in lines 3-4. As previously mentioned, the only difference between the instances of the mirrored couplet is in end punctuation. The above quote is one sentence, two independent clauses joined by a semi-colon. In “Fall-out over Heaven”, it is punctuated differently, split into two sentences, the second ending with ellipses:

Lucifer roars up from earth.

Down falls Christ into his death…

The placement and punctuation of the couplet is significant to understanding each poem in its historical context. “Transfiguration” was written in 1938, two years before its publication in 1940. Like “The Wasteland”, it holds similar hopelessness to most post-WWI poetry. However, in between its completion and publication, WWII began. “Fall-out over Heaven” was published 13 years after the war ended, and faith in humanity had gone from hopelessness to utter destitution. Lucifer, the spirit of evil, had taken over, and, by placing the couplet at the end of the poem and with the use of ellipses rather than a period, Barnes is implying and this is what happens after.

Barnes 4

A Drawing by Djuna Barnes

This sense of before and after—this split between the poems and the wars is further emphasized by the metrical patterns. Not including the epigraphs, “Fall-out over Heaven” is written in either perfect iambic or trochaic tetrameter; there is no foot substitution. In “Transfiguration”, all of the lines are written in either perfect iambic or trochaic tetrameter—all but one. Lines 1-2 scan:

  u      /   u      /   u      /   u      /

The prophet digs with iron hands

/   u      u      /   u      /   u      /

Into the shifting desert sands.

The first and second feet are reversed, switching from a trochee to an iamb. This one line easily could have been complete trochaic tetrameter with the elimination of “the”; I’m not going to discuss the omitted unstressed syllable since it’s historically common in English. The change in meter emphasizes the change (or “shift”) in the modern world.

“Transfiguration” continues to describe instances of the reversal of progress: the insect returns to larvae (lines 3-4); Moses’ commandments have become never spoken (lines 5-6); Eve becomes Adam’s rib once again and can only function through him. However, lines 7-8 reverse something with a negative: Cain un-kills Abel. Therefore, it reflects not Nietzche’s famous declaration frequently reiterated in Modernism, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”, but it proposes a different sentiment: we created God; we created these stories to make sense of evil, but these stories have become meaningless since we have now confronted a senseless evil—an evil that cannot be explained.

This can be seen in the relationship between the first couplet and the last. The first couplet introduces a prophet who is searching for meaning in a world that is proving itself to be meaningless. The final couplet (lines 17-18) describes the prophet’s hunger to use the past to make sense of the modern world: “The unchained sun, in raging thirst,/ Feeds the last day to the first.” The raging thirst is that of the prophet, he who wants to see goodness in the world.

“Fall-out over Heaven” works similarly, undoing morality and progress of the past. However, what I find most important about this poem is the repetition of “dust” in the first two epigrams. The word “dust” in mortal context automatically calls to mind the liturgical burial phrase, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. This phrase is said to be derived from a four verses in the Bible; two of these passages have a human speaker claiming to presently be “dust and ashes” (Job 30:19, Genesis 18:27). The other two disculde the ashes, but they directly state the “dust to dust” concept.

It is first said when God chastises Eve after the fall: “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19). This introduces the relation between sin and “dust to dust”. However, the second passage seems to be what the liturgical phrase is truly derived from. It appears in Ecclesiastes 3. The writer is describing how human evil cannot be eliminated. Before this verse, he introduces the very anti-Christain concept that men are just beasts and continues: “All go unto one place; all are of dust, and all turn to dust again,” (Ecclesiastes 3:20 KJV). He says in this chapter that all man has is his work,
and all man can do is rejoice in his work. The writer of Ecclesiastes is considered a poet.

Which leads me to one more thought about dust spoken by one of my all-time
least favorite fictional characters, Buddy Willard, in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The medical student, trying to sound articulate, says to his girlfriend, a poet, that a poem is “a piece of dust”. In exposition, the narrator says that nothing is more of dust than the human body and continues to defend art in that it feeds the soul. She introduces the concept that art may even feed the soul of others and encourage them to see things differently. This mirrors the concept in Ecclesiastes that we cannot make sense of the evils of humanity, but we can find small meaning in purposeful work.

Barnes 5

Barnes’s drawing of the bodily assumption of Dame Musset, the subversive Christ figure in The Ladie’s Almanac (1928).

That leads us to the closing epigraph, which takes place in the Bible after Jesus’ death. His body has been removed from his tomb and Mary Magdalene was weeping because she thought someone had taken Jesus’ body away. Here is John 20:15 in it’s entirety:

“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’”

This passage mirrors the prophet in “Transfiguration” clinging to meaning that has been taken away, clinging to the body. But the fragment included in the poem, “she, supposing him to be the gardener” shows the purposeful labor introduced in Ecclesiastes.

And that is what, in her late poems, Barnes is doing, after writing book after book fighting the patriarchy and being denied an audience without censoring it in accordance, after residing in inter-war Paris and watching it fall. She is not trying to make sense of incomprehensible evil; humans have been trying and failing to do that since humans were human. She is finding meaning in her work with the hope that others might as well. Because if human brutality cannot be explained and cannot be stopped, what else is there to do to fight it—start a war?


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