Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lives of the Nineteenth Century Poetesses

Lives of the Nineteenth-Century Poetesses

As girls they were awkward and peculiar,
wept in church or refused to go at all.
their mothers saw right away no man would marry them.
So they must live at the sufferance of others,
timid and queer, as governesses out of Chekhov,
malnourished on theology, boiled eggs and tea,
but given to outbursts of cries that embarrass everyone.
After the final quarrel, the grand
renunciation, they retire upstairs to the attic,
or to the small room in the cheap off-season hotel,
and write, Today I burned all your letters, or
I dreamed the magnolia blazed like an avenging angel,
and when I woke, I knew I was in Hell.

No one is surprised when they die young,
having left their savings to a wastrel nephew,
to be remembered for a handful
of "minor but perfect" lyrics,
a passion for jam or charades,
and a letter still preserved in the family archives:
"I send you here with the papers of your aunt,
who died last Tuesday in the odor of sanctity,
although a little troubled in her mind
by her habit, much disapproved of by the ignorant,
of writing down the secrets of her heart."

Katha Pollitt

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