[About a Bestiary] [8.27.07]

The verses on animals that commingle in Djuna Barnes’ alphabetized bestiary, Creatures in an Alphabet[1], might certainly live well together housed as a collection of nursery rhymes; this group of poems might even prove amusing to small children. However, despite the singsong effect of a consistent reliance on end-rhyme, and diction sometimes odd or sometimes seemingly forced, there is at hand here something subtle and mature, a cunning deftness and satisfaction in saying something witty, biting, insightful about human nature. Each four-line near-limerick exhibits more of Ms. Barnes’ abilities as a serious poet than that for which a modicum of silliness and an open thesaurus alone could ever account. The short lines allow her to display her quick wit, appropriate for the satirical snap that punctuates much of the sequence; and the frequent use of parentheses serves that trend well, creating space for tongue-in-cheek asides and snide commentaries alike.

On the surface, these poems are similar to works such as Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, fable-like and charming. A deeper reading, though, will expose this as a catalog of behaviors more human than animal. For these creatures about which Barnes writes are not denizens of any zoo or of the wilderness, but more likely caricatures of her peers, the family of humanity to which she belongs. Barnes, having reached the letter S, writes:

The Seal, she lounges like a bride,
Much too docile, there’s no doubt;
Madame Récamier, on side,
(If such she has), and bottom out.

The Madame in question, Jeanne Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier, was a 19th century Frenchwoman and salon hostess of wide repute. Napoleon eventually exiled Récamier from Paris for her views and alliances; judging by the sober portraits that exist of her, though, she was indeed a creature of docile appearance, “on side…and bottom out,” who reclined on divans in gowns of white, “like a bride.” There surfaces a hint of hostility directed toward the languorous attitude conveyed by such a pose, notable specifically in the parenthetical placed in the fourth line. The suggestion of the comment, “If such she has,” is that the figure has no discernable sides, either because too round or because too duplicitous for such distinction.

Many other instances of this kind of critical approach occur throughout the book; each poem is, in its way, a harsh treatment of its subject. Even dressed up with a garnish of sweet rhymes and idyllic imagery, Barnes’ poems pierce through their own optimism. This piece leads its reader right into an ironic deflation:

Though it be loud with auguries
Of summer sun and happy days;
Nonetheless the Blue Jay is
Lined with insect agonies.

This one offers salvation and quickly belittles the idea by likening “ascension” to the kinesis of popping corn:

If ascension is your hope,
Ride not the Nigor (antelope)
But mount the springbok for the run;
It jumps straight up, like hot popcorn.

Even when Barnes applauds human accomplishment, as she does in reference to William Blake’s “The Tyger” when she singles it out as something no other could have written, there is an element of facetiousness that accompanies the praise:

“Tyger! Tyger!” – Who wrote that?
You won’t take it with your hat,
Nor lure it with a golden cage;
It won’t leap its master’s page.

Among lampoons of such relative transparency, a poem like the following comes as strikingly opaque and difficult, Dickinsonian in its formulation:

When from mischief interdict,
The Imago perfected rise,
And lays its dool at Heaven’s Gate,
Then in this alphabet it is.

The text of this poem translates loosely as such: because of mischief done on Earth, the censured Imago will not receive Church blessings as it rises to Heaven (“interdict” taken as denial of Christian burial), where, barred entry it can only lay down its sorrows (“dool” being an archaic Scots word for sorrow), doomed then to exist only within the pages of Barnes’ book. The real difficulty of the poem arises because of the dual meaning of the term, “Imago”: in biology, an insect of mature sexual development; in psychology, an idealized personage from childhood, usually a parental figure. The combination in one word of seemingly unrelated themes as sexual maturity and the echoes of an idolized parent figure hint at sexual abuse and the fictions created by both victim and aggressor to obscure such history. Whether the Imago here represents a young girl approaching puberty or an adult undeserving of such a girl’s adulation is unclear; what is clear is that both are doomed, the former to blame herself for what has happened to her, and the latter to suffer pangs of due regret.

While these poems are punchy and at least sonically vibrant, they belie the deep-seated cynicism of their author’s mind. Never does she offer resolution to the ills she points out, nor point to the power of the will to effect positive change. In closing, it is worth visiting the opening poem of the sequence, in which Barnes reveals a fatalism that only accumulates a cache of sarcasm and resignation as the book progresses, a posteriori:

The adder in the grass can hiss
The lynxes in the dark can kiss
Each otter holds his otter’s hand
For this is how the Lord has planned.

[1] Barnes, Djuna. Creatures in an Alphabet. New York: The Dial Press, 1982.


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