Rachel Moritz’s Night-Sea

In Night-Sea, Rachel Moritz looks at history through a lens that sharpens and then blurs with rain. She specifically focuses on Abraham Lincoln in this somber and sparse chapbook. Lincoln is a plain man described plainly in the first poem “Abduction.” He is “tired and worn out. / Such a homely face.” But he is undefined too since Moritz never refers to him by name in this poem. The reader can only infer his identity from an epigram at the beginning of the book, a quote from Lincoln himself: “Herewith is a little sketch, as you requested. There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me.”

The Lincoln that Moritz sketches in Night-Sea blends into the people he represented as President of the United States. At the end of “Abduction,” he becomes part of an audience that has gleaned elements of his character while listening to him, elements such as “his determined spirit” and the “sadness of his soul.” Lincoln comes to resemble the “blurred figure in rain” that arrives in the poem’s last lines since he too is vague around the edges and afflicted with a sadness as vast as rain.

Moritz goes on to blur the distinctions between not only people but time periods. The result can be overwhelmingly uncomfortable. In “Each Man Is,” the speaker is so submerged in the past that his or her words reverberate numbly, like an old trauma. While remembering a childhood home, the narrator brings up images vivid enough to overtake the present: “the moldy basement” in the rain-soaked house and “rifles propped in golden oil.” Moritz reveals how a well-armed past can take control of the present, ending the poem with: “How much nostalgia lives / inside rusty bullets, amputation kits. / This idea of the ‘great moment’ and the ‘hero’&#8212″

Here and there Night-Sea comes together to offer an antidote to the “great moment”: the ordinary moment formed from anonymous figures and seen in quick shifts in time. At some points, it seems as if Night-Sea is a coming together of the vague, the forgotten and traumatically remembered. Not far into the chapbook comes the question: “What is form but a moment / coalescing?” Silently answering the question, these poems, pulled by strong emotion and language, coalesce for a moment before drifting back into a dark sea.

Originally posted on 7.30.2009

Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants

Recent reviews of Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants reveal a similar slant. This bias is a subtle turning away – momentary and understandable – from the hardships of the servants whom Light profiles. With unflinching care, Light looks at the women who worked for Virginia Woolf as domestics. The result is a profound, fascinating biography and one of the best books I have read in recent years.

Light takes us from Woolf’s Victorian childhood to her death in 1941. During these years in England, housework drastically changed because of the increased use of indoor plumbing and improvements in stoves. Early on in Virginia Woolf’s life, the servants around her not only lit and stoked fires but hauled water, both boiled and cold, up several flights of stairs. On their way down, they brought chamber pots to be “scoured in the ‘slop-room’ where the row of brass cans stood.” The work was filthy and hard – the water buckets each weighed around thirty pounds – and the labor denigrated by the upper classes.

Publicly Virginia Woolf spoke of women with sympathy, but privately she wrote about her female servants with viciousness. She once remarked in her journals: “The poor have no chance; no manners of self-control to protect themselves with; we have a monopoly of all of the generous feelings.” The comment was inspired by a request for a raise from her longtime servant, Lottie Hope, whom Woolf admitted “work[ed] like a horse.” The wages Woolf paid were often low.

Light presents Woolf’s classism matter-of-factly. I disagree with Claire Messud, who says in her review in The New York Times that Light is “surprisingly waspish about Virginia’s blindness to her snobberies.” It is Woolf’s own waspishness that delivers the shock. Light ends up creating a deeply sympathetic portrait of the author by showing Woolf’s real need for care. Messud goes on to note this sympathy, saying that Light is “quick to acknowledge, too, the mutual dependence of mistress and servant.”

This phrase about dependence recalls a line from Light’s book. About Woolf and her servant of eighteen years Nellie Boxall, Light writes: “This was a story of mutual &#8211 and unequal &#8211 dependence.” And indeed the dependence was lopsided. Woolf got more from Boxall than she returned in pay, and the two fought frequently. While these emotionally charged conflicts never put Woolf in danger of losing her home, they did for Boxall since she lived with her employer.

Boxall did have certain advantages working for the unconventional writer. She didn’t have to wear a uniform or address her employer as “ma’am.” Woolf clearly saw the benefits her servants enjoyed. In her essay “Character in Fiction,” she famously described the modern servant as being relatively free. She asserted that while the “Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths,” the “Georgian cook” was “a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing-room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat.”

Light quotes this passage, and so does Mona Simpson in her review of Light’s book for The Atlantic. About Nellie, Simpson wisely adds: “Part of the difficulty of the job must have been the emotional component that required her to act the part of an equal – a daughter or a friend – while bringing Woolf food on a tray and washing her chemises.”

Mona Simpson also empathizes with Woolf at other points in her review, which isn’t difficult; Light shows a deep understanding not only of Woolf’s psychology but her circumstances. She for instance talks about how the Woolfs were not rich when they married: “Nothing in those early years was secure, except for [Virginia’s] private income, and even that must stretch to cover two.”

Simpson brings up this financial insecurity while discussing the couple’s stance on plumbing. For years, the Woolfs refused to install flush toilets, a decision that certainly had to do with money, although in the case of Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, who came to the same decision, the choice was also a “moral” one: he found indoor plumbing “mildly corrupting.” About his and his daughter’s idea to go with chamber pots, Simpson remarks: “This must have been exceedingly frustrating for the servants, to whom the Stephens and the Woolfs seemed rich. Why wouldn’t these people pay for the new, sanitary plumbing?”

Ultimately Mona Simpson’s sympathy for the Woolfs in this instance is misplaced since, as Light explains, it wasn’t solely the couple’s refusal to update the WCs that caused problems with the servants. It was their frugality with plumbing coupled with their generosity about having houseguests. The guests needed meals, which they, in turn, transformed into material for the chamber pots, a kind of bookkeeping of the body that the servants understood all too well. They had to stand up to the Woolfs to get another worker brought into Asheham House, the couple’s home in Sussex. In the end, they prevailed, and someone was hired to help with “emptying the chamber-pots (at the most sociable times at Asheham the volume of such work makes one shudder).”

It is hard not to look away from these servants’ lives as these reviewers do at moments. With Messud, this shift comes with a subtle change of words, a loss of the idea of inequality in the discussion of “mutual dependence.” With Simpson, it entails a brief looking away from scatological details &#8211 an understandable reaction. The servants’ work, both its volume and quality, truly “makes one shudder.” If Light were to focus solely on this domestic work, the book would be almost impossible to read. She, however, also looks at Woolf’s struggle to reconcile her concept of personal freedom with her dependency on servants. The resulting analysis is riveting; most reviews have discussed it. But there is another equally absorbing element that has gone unexamined in the reviews I have seen: Light’s analysis of how the servants coped.

And here Light looks at laughter. The servants of Bloomsbury, when interviewed for the B.B.C. in the 1950s, laughed frequently while recounting life with the Woolfs. Nellie Boxall and Lottie Hope shaped an account of the home that at times turned farcical. Lottie, describing mornings with the couple, spoke of having “to clean while Mr Woolf took his bath behind a curtain, then breakfasted, and the same performance all over again while Mrs Woolf took hers.” Nellie then interjected, “Yes, it was bread one end and bath the other!” And both of them laughed. In the final broadcast, though, both the laugher and the comments were edited down, causing Light to speculate: “Too much like saying, perhaps, that the Emperor had no clothes.”

Light, looking at the Emperor, creates a profound portrait of disparate lives: Virginia Woolf’s, Nettie Boxall’s, Lottie Hope’s. Some readers may flinch at the hardship behind the servants’ humor; others may not want to hear the laughter itself, even though Light describes it with complex beauty. About another servant, Happy Sturgeon, who also laughed during her interview, Light writes: “Her laugher was…that of a survivor. A defense against the painful feelings these memories might stir…She laughed with relief, but anyone who wanted to understand what it was like to be in service might listen to the laughter as much as words.” Happy’s pain was as hard as her humor. At the end of her life, she and her husband, also born into poverty, found some justice too. As Happy explained: “We’ve got all the material things we want, and we’ve got family – ’cause he had the same sort of experience – poor little boy on the farm &#8211 ‘open that gate, boy, or you get the riding crop across your shoulders’, you know – [she laughs].”

Originally posted on 5.17.2009

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men

I was reminded recently, when coming in from the cold, of a chill from Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men. So I reread the classic book of black folk tales, waiting for that chill to come. It arrives in the form of some practical advice from an older man named Dad Boykin. Dad interrupts the storytelling going on around him to explain how best to get warm. What my mind did with his advice since I last read Mules and Men is a story in itself. Or the absence of a story, a cold shutting-out of folk tales.

“You young poots won’t lissen to nothin’!” Dad interjects soon after someone else tells a story about “de King of de Beasts,” the lion. What Dad has to say has nothing to do with these sorts of magical animals found throughout the book. His words are purely pragmatic: “Not a one of you knows how to warm hisself right and youse so hard-headed you don’t want to be teached.” He goes on to advise sitting right in front of a fireplace, not off in the “chimbley corner.” And from the center, it’s best to turn around &#8211 “dat’s to knock de breezes offen yo’ back.”

It chilled me years ago to listen to Dad describe just how the body gets cold when exposed to wind. “You know, all de time youse outside in the weather, de li’l breezes and winds is jumpin’ on yo’ back and crawlin’ down yo’ neck, to hide.” It still chills me, although not as much. When I was younger, I saw Dad’s advice as a long-winded, cold interruption of the fantastic tales. I wanted to hear more about talking animals and God and the devil. When I reread the book, I was surprised to find that Dad speaks for only a few paragraphs. His monologue was longer in my memory. His words had acted like “li’l breezes and winds” that had hid inside my mind and spread.

So here is my advice: When a book comes to you in a shiver, reread it and see how it has changed while hiding inside of you.

Originally posted on 2.9.2009