5 Dark Poems by Djuna Barnes
Of her first published collection, The Book of Repulsive Women (1915), Djuna Barnes said: “My first book of poems is a disgusting little item.” When, much later (1952) a publisher asked to reprint some of her early work, Barnes responded: “I feel it is a grave disservice to letters to reissue merely because one may have a name for later work — or for that unfortunately praised earlier work, or for the purpose of nostalgia or ‘history’ which might more happily be left interred.”
Though only “Suicide” appeared in the Repulsive collection, the four other early poems by Djuna Barnes that follow illustrate the morbid voice that became a hallmark of her writing style. Though undated, these poems were from the period between 1910 – 1920. Illustrations by Djuna Barnes are from Ladies’ Almanack (1928).
The night comes down, in ever-darkening shapes that seem—
To grope, with eerie fingers for the window—then—
To rest to sleep, enfolding me, as in a dream
Faith—might I awaken!
And drips the rain with seeming sad, insistent beat.
Shivering across the pane, drooping tear-wise,
And softly patters by, like little fearing feet.
The feathery ash is fluttered; there upon the pane,—
The dying fire casts a flickering ghostly beam,—
Then closes in the night and gently falling rain.
The Flowering Corpse
So still she lies in this closed place apart,
Her feet grown fragile for the ghostly tryst;
Her pulse no longer striking in her wrist,
Nor does its echo wander through her heart.
Over the body and the quiet head
Like stately ferns above an austere tomb,
Soft hairs blow; and beneath her armpits bloom
The drowsy passion flowers of the dead.
They brought her in, a shattered small
With a little bruised body like
A startled moon;
And all the subtle symphonies of her
A twilight rune.
They gave her hurried shoves this way
Her body shock-abbreviated
As a city cat.
She lay out listlessly like some small mug
Of beer gone flat.
When I was a young child I slept with a dog,
I lived without trouble and I thought no harm;
I ran with the boys and I played leap-frog;
Now it is a girl’s head that lies on my arm.
Then I grew a little, picked plantain in the yard;
Now I dwell in Greenwich, and the people do not call;
Then I plated pepper-seed and stamped on them hard.
Now I am very quiet and I hardly plan at all.
Then I pricked my finger on a thorn, or a thistle,
Put the finger in my mouth, and ran to my mother.
Now I lie here, with my eyes on a pistol.
And there will be a morrow, and another, and another.
To the Memory of Mary Pyne
The flame of your red hair does crawl and creep
Upon your body that denies the gloom
And feeds upon your flesh as ‘twould consume
The cold precision of your austere sleep –
And all night long I beat it back, and weep.
It is not gentleness but mad despair
That sets us kissing mouths, O Khalidine,
Your mouth and mine, and one sweet mouth unseen
We call our soul. Yet thick within our hair
The dusty ashes that our days prepare.
The dark comes up, my little love, and dyes
Your fallen lids with stain of ebony,
And draws a thread of fear ‘tween you and me
Pulling thin blindness down across your eyes –
And far within the vale a lost bird cries.
Does not the wind moan round your painted towers
Like rats within an empty granary?
The clapper lost, and long blown out to sea
Your windy doves. And here the black bat cowers
Against your clock that never strikes the hours.
And now I say, has not the mountain’s base
Here trembled long ago unto the cry
“I love you, ah, I love you!” Now we die
And lay, all silent, to the earth our face.
Shall that cast out the echo of this place?
Has not one in the dark funereal
Heard foot-fall fearful, born of no man’s tread,
And felt the wings of death, though no wing spread
And on his cheek a tear, though no tear fell –
And a voice saying without breath “Farewell!”
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