29 July 2013

Tuesday poem: 'Swimming lessons with Virginia Woolf '

Swimming lessons with Virginia Woolf

Virginia and I
float downstream
Our overcoats billow
surround us
I worry my feet
will get caught
in the Medusa weeds
that wait in the shadows

‘We all have boulders in our pockets’
she says
‘Most we place there
ourselves, some we are given
Medea gifts, poison’

I watch the banks
as we pass
I roll onto my back
she laughs at my Ophelia
Now my hair is wet
‘Look,’ she says
and there are golden fish
swimming beneath us

Virginia with her friend Lytton Strachey

I've been away for the weekend. It was wonderful. Mere hours after leaving behind ordinary life and all those little obligations, I was scribbling away in my notebook. I felt like my writing brain had switched on. (I've been pretty busy lately, doing stuff like this: http://www.seraphpress.co.nz/1/post/2013/07/the-rope-walk-has-set-sail.html).

As well as writing (and sometimes inspiring the writing) I was also finishing off a gigantic biography of Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee, which I had been reading for months. It's a fabulous biography, but it was helpful to have read a shorter and more strictly chronological biography just before. Because Lee's biography, rather than being strictly chronological, is arranged thematically. I feel that method of arrangement would likely have had Woolf's approval, being an experimental sort of writer, with an interest in pushing boundaries.

Part of the problem of reading the end of the biography more quickly, over a leisurely weekend, is that it had the effect of speeding up the later part of her life, which was a bit startling. And I felt like the book ended abruptly, with her death. While in does seem kind of sensible for a biography to end with the subject's death, I had felt certain hers would be different. She has not only lived on through her work, but actually grown in literary stature. I was expecting a detailed look at how Leonard Woolf (her husband) dealt with her literary legacy, how scholars, critics and of course readers have changed in their responses to her work. How she has influenced others who have come after. There was a bit of that, but in a rush. Perhaps I've just read too many biographies of Katherine Mansfield, where people are always arguing about that sort of thing - about whether her widower (John Middleton Murry) exploited her memory and her work. But I was surprised that there doesn't seem to have been any (that I've read at least) criticism of Leonard Woolf for publishing so much of her work posthumously, when she explicitly said on the back of the note she'd left for Leonard to find after she'd drowned herself in the River Ous, 'Will you destroy my papers'.

But I digress, as I often do. Reading about her, and about her death, sent me back to this poem. This is the final, finished version (which was published in My Iron Spine), but I wrote an earlier version, which I read again a wee while ago. It was much darker. Much more depressing. But it wasn't what I wanted. It wasn't right for Virginia (as I most impolitely think of her). Because although she had difficult times in her life, including at the end, when – in the middle of the Second World War, when she and her friends justifiably believed invasion might be imminent, and they were on the 'Black List' – she was so scared that she was going mad again that death seemed the better option. But most of her life wasn't like that. Most of her life she was ALIVE, and witty and busy and bitchy and a good friend and a challenger of the status quo and many many other things. So I didn't want my poem about her to be all doom and gloom. I wanted life and colour and hope, along with the rocks in our pockets.

Anyway, that's enough from me. If you head on over to the Tuesday Poem hub blog, you'll find lots more poems: http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.co.nz/.


Karen H said...

I wonder if there are any books on the subject of curating the legacy of a loved one. Interesting post :)

Paula Green said...

Love this poem. And love the writing of Virginia Woolf.