Runswick: Smart Songs

Eight songs of Elizabeth Smart

Alison Truefitt
Daryl Runswick

 

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Elizabeth Smart: a note by Alison

Even as a teenager Elizabeth Smart (1913-1986) rebelled against the highlife of her wealthy Canadian family. She built herself a hideout in the wilderness of her father's huge estate which she named 'The Pulley' after a poem by George Herbert that links wealth and weariness. In her 20s, avidly reading and writing poetry, she chanced on a volume by George Barker, then a young Turk on the UK literary scene, and then and there fell in love with the man and his poems, vowing to marry him.

She arranged a visit for him and his wife to California, and had a wild and passionate affair with him, recorded in her first book, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, 1945, which Brigid Brophy described as 'a masterpiece of poetic prose'.

She never married George, but followed him to the UK where they continued a hectic and erratic affair for decades, during which she bore him four children — a socially stigmatized single mother, struggling on the 'dress allowance' she still received from her family. But she used her skills to make ends meet, becoming one of London's top advertising copywriters, and later editor of Queen magazine. She had other lovers now, men and women, and a fairly alcoholic social life in Soho. She did not really return to her own writing for 20 years, retiring to a Suffolk cottage in 1966 to write and garden — her other great passion — though she was getting old and felt pretty certain it was too late. But she was wrong. Four more volumes of hers were published and her posthumous fame is still growing.

Several of the poems in Daryl's Smart Songs concern her experience of this late-life re-birth: the difficulty of starting again so late, the challenge of age and of love which she began to see as an 'irrelevancy' that had kept her from her true calling.

She died of a heart attack aged 72 alone in her London flat.


1     A Bell

There’s a new bell on my door
It will ring as never before.

There’s a new fish on my hook
It’s giving me an old-fashioned look.

Unconscious says it’s good to eat.
Conscious says it looks like dirt.

Wily fishermen must be prepared
For novelties, old boots even, to be ensnared.

The new bell’s up. It’s ready to ring.
My God! It’s almost evening.

No sound. It must be Early Closing Day.
I thought you said to take the hard way.

Maybe I got confused. Most ways are hard.
(And frozen today.) Could I have not heard?

Don’t come. Don’t ring. Unless you’re the real McCoy
Rushing to open to duds I should not enjoy.

I’ll wait (the greater part of wisdom, life
And fishing)

But I’ll get my greeting ready and I’ll cook my fish
Today might just be the day that I get my wish.


2     Trying To Write

Why am I so frightened
To say I’m me
And publicly acknowledge
My small mastery?
Waiting sixty years
Till the people take out the horses
And draw me to the theatre
With triumphant voices?
I know this won’t happen
Until it’s too late
And the deed done (or not done)
So I prevaricate,
Egging them on, keeping
Roads open (just in case)
Go on! Go on and do it
In my place!
Giving love to get it
(The only way to behave).
But hated and naked
Could I stand up and say
Fuck off! or, be my slave?
To be in a very unfeminine
Very unloving state
Is the desperate need
Of anyone trying to write.


3     There Are Two Movements In A                                                     Woman's Life

Rock rock
Rub rub
Two movements
Life’s nub.
Soothe pain
With a rock.
Make clean
With a rub.
Be rubbed
For love.
Be rocked
For shock.
In a rub
The vigorous hand
From side to side
In aggressive stand.
But real aggression
Comes from above.
Vertical is pain.
Vertical is love.
But horizontal
To keep clean.
Horizontal
To lullaby.
From side to side to still the cry
To ease the ache to dull the pain
From side to side from side to side
Rocking and rubbing the women ride


4     Old Woman Flying

Why shouldn’t an old woman fly?
The Duchess of Bedford amazed in aeroplanes.
But it’s flights of fancy I’m thinking of, I
Feel fancy still tickling beloved epitomes.

        Old Mr Yeats
        Reached new heights
        Contained his rage
        Against old age
        And caused the best poems to be won
        When he was a very old person.

So, pale and pendulous on my shaky bough
I get ready for take-off, jeered by the hoi polloi.
But wait! watch! follow with eyes and mind,
(There are so many things far better left behind)
And then like a good bird-watcher you just might
See useful manoeuvring in this late flight

        A hello, a hooray,
        A greeting along the way
        A well, well, then
        So it can be done:
        An instigatory vesper
        In a setting sun.


5     Interlude

Words, my horses, roam unbroken in my head

Here I sit who am no wizard
Courting hazard
By the gas jets to keep my eyelashes dry.

What serene land is offered to my eye?

The castles of grain
Stand in a wilderness no one has measured
But many a wild woman has held upon her mind
Wider and wilder spaces before she went mad.

Words, my horses, roam unbroken in my head

As near as the centre of the world lies my bird
Whispering all mysteries.

But I swim like a swan not much caring.

On my mountain a house is
With a yellow door and The Pulley written for cheer
At the climb’s end.
But it is all ended, the house is sold.

Words, my horses, roam unbroken in my head

Time leaps! Time bounds!

My love my love when will you be here?
Your odour pervades my bed, and will not be laid.
Medicine is the touch of your lip.

Only O only.
A kiss at ending.


6     The Muse, His And Hers

His pampered Muse
Knew no veto.
Hers lived
In a female ghetto.

When his Muse cried
He replied
Loud and clear
Yes! Yes! I’m waiting here.

Her Muse screamed
But the children louder.
Then which strength
Made her prouder?

Neither. Either
Pushed and shoved
With the strength of the loved
And the unloved,

Clashed, rebuked:
All was wrong.
(Can you put opposites
In a song?)

Kettles boiling!
Cobwebs coiling!
Doorbells ringing!
Needs haranguing!

Her Muse called
In her crowded ear
She heard but had
Her dirty house to clear.

Guilt drove him on.
Guilt held her down.
(She hadn’t a wife
To lean upon.)

Can women do?
Can women make?
When the womb rests
Animus awake?

Those gaps! It’s decades
Of lying low;
Earth-quaked, deep-frozen
Mind askew.

Is it too late
At sixty-eight?
O fragile flesh
Reanimate!

Eschew, true woman,
Any late profligacy
Squandered on the loving
of people .......... irrelevancy,

Useful in the dark
Inarticulacy,
But drop it like a poison
If you want poetry.

See lucky man
Get off his knee,
And hear now his roar
Of authority!

This test-case woman
Could also be
Just in time for
A small cacophony.


7     In My Shattered Garden

In my shattered garden
I lie and cry.
Why?
I could scrub floors
And get a sense
Of something done
A neat
Achievement
But
I get up
And stumble on
And get slapped back.
I count my blessings
Many, many.
It is no use.
Back and forth
I pace
Carrying a deep despair
Like a fretful child.
There there, despair,
There there.


8     Treacherous Surfaces

I said: ‘All surfaces are treacherous
All depths are well.
Hold my hand while I tell.’

But he was lecherous
And broke the spell.

I see: all art is unnatural.

 

 

Recorded at the DReam Room 3-4 April 2013.
Engineer Kit Venables. Piano technician Allen Wright.
Produced, edited and assembled by Daryl Runswick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smart Songs: a note by Daryl

I discovered Elizabeth Smart (before I discovered George Barker,
and I still prefer her) in 1995 when I was researching texts for
accidental counterpoints, a piece for which I eventually supplied
words of my own. Smart’s poems struck me deeply at that time,
and I’m very pleased to be able to return to them for this song
cycle, written for Alison, in 2009.

Elizabeth Smart’s poems suit Alison very well: most of them were
written when Smart was in her sixties and seventies and
treat subjects appropriate both to her and to Alison at that age.
Two topics which I have more or less omitted, despite their regular
occurrence, are gardening and motherhood: the first would be
appropriate to Alison but I found nothing I wanted to set; the
second doesn’t apply. These apart, the difficulties of being old,
a woman, a writer, and an old woman writer, are Smart’s grist,
as they are Alison’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The texts of the fifth song, ‘Interlude’, are taken from Poems
1938-48,
the first section of The Collected Poems of Elizabeth
Smart (this is the only song in the cycle where we find poems
from her early period). In this song no complete poem is used:
I have excerpted lines and stanzas from several to confect a
new lyric. ‘Interlude’ cannot be said to reflect Elizabeth Smart’s
intentions in any way, only mine. For the other songs I have
treated the texts with more respect, but have not restrained
myself from cutting (be it a syllable or a stanza) where I felt
the need. On occasion I’ve added a word for better
intelligibility: and just once I’ve even changed a word.