alerts is an on-going section of this publication set aside for informal commentary and information on new or neglected works by relevant women poets, in brief letter, journal,or notation form. We intentionally think of these comments as not complete in the scholarly sense, with the hope of removing prohibitions linked with thinking/writing critically. Your response is invited.


(L'Amant, Marguerite Duras, Minuit, Paris 1984, 142p., Prix Goncourt, 1984.)

The history of my life doesn't exist. It doesn't exist. There is never a center. No way, no line. There are vast spaces where one makes believe there was someone, it's not true, there was no one. [p.14] *

So what do we touch, again and again, in the smooth dwelling of this brilliance? It is a book made like music, "measure by measure, beat by beat. "1 Through the mute mouth of a subject come words cradled around a ferry, white girl in Hanoi, the Chinaman's softness, also money, brothers, a resonance like the lightning drop of a dress, a falling fear. Do you remember in Hiroshima: "You destroy me. You're so good for me."? A desert begins. Illicit walls when one is so near crime, language collides, trembles at the edge of being revoked. It makes a sentence, in high heels invading the water, shrinking from history, the kind pressed into women's arms, strapped to repeat old reigns: "she wanted to." Collapsing the habitual boundaries of literary genre, L'Amant exists as ergasterion, 2 privileged space of a textual body withdrawn from the sharp mirrors of nostalgia. Shockingly, Duras enters it as if a stranger in her own building, keys and door, preposterous liberties. Unable to learn the duties of owner/author, she moves "her head full of holes"3 giving the work a slight impression of anorexia, momentary hesitation allowing the world to recede while the writing rushes on, stunning.

Her only obsession lies with the shouting body of the text, traversed here and there by luminous spasms we read as limit of speech. It would have to be an infraction, desire as regime, not a narrative frame but open campaign against absence, a girl under duress, her mother's life, a woman's silence.

She sings. Sometimes she plays, she laughs. She gets up to dance while singing. And everyone thinks and her mother too that one can be happy in this disfigured house which all of a sudden becomes a pool, a field by a river, a ford, a beach. [p.77 ]

What seduces the reader beyond reason is the erotic power of language, between writing and speaking, a libidinal zone where meaning is released, fluttering, a shiver before the rain. Aurelia Steiner, Lol V. Stein, Anne-Marie Stretter, Duras's heroines, green eyes, smell of caramel, white shoulders, golden shoes enter my body, lips, I kiss the verb after their passage, deformed by so much beauty. I never get over this ineffable, delirious face of "jouissance."

I am worn out with desire [p.91 ]

To understand Duras's production of desire is to realize woman's positioning in the language system and the distance traveled from object to subject. That the desiring agent at work in L'Amant reflects this shift without ever losing its memory of "muteness and exclusion,''4 i.e., its "otherness" or without embracing the specters of patriarchal authority must be seen as the inauguration of a discourse which is both struggle and freedom.

It's over. I no longer remember. That's why I write of her now so easy, so long, so stretched, she has become running writing. [p.38]

The book we behold is the running surface of this new textual practice: "writing that doesn't show, which runs on the crest of words, writing which doesn't insist, which has barely the time to exist, which never cuts the reader, never takes his place. No proposed version. No explanation."5

* All quotations from L'Amant trans. by C. Tysh.

The English translation of L'Amant will be published by Pantheon, summer 1985.

(1) Marguerite Duras, interview published by Le Nouvel Observateur, 9/28/84, Paris (trans. C. Tysh)

(2) Julia Kristeva, "Motherhood according to Bellini" in Desire in Language, Columbia Univ. Press, 1980.

(3) Marguerite Duras, The Places of Marguerite Duras, interview by Michele Porte, published in Enclitic, Fall 83, translated by Edith Cohen.

(4) Johanna Drucker, Women & Language, published in Poetics Journal no.4, May 1984.

(5) Marguerite Duras, interview published by Le Nouvel Observateur.


Her poetry is of immediate access to the sacred, and the masks of the sacred. She goes directly to the subject here, she wastes no time. "Now that religion has broken with what lay embedded in faith, the shivered emotion attaches again in crystals to objects." (Glenway Wescott) The body of the poem becomes filled with things, with boxes, with screens, with feathers, with balls, with cups, the details of the personal highly charged and engaged, every correspondence the means to reverse what she called "the translation from fact to reality," by which she surely meant the substitution of a daimonic and altogether more interesting double and triple existence for what the contemporary has allowed, this 'single-fold,' this fake. The intense personal of her realism lay with the potency of the phrase, the Wood, the understood relation between Nature and Mystery, the power of ritual and evocation as both studied and unknown: the ground of the Sacred as Fearful. With Mary Butts the situation or description of event can be so altered by simple but intended movement that the very resonance of air so set in motion becomes the sympathetic bridge: all of her work makes present this faith and is inseparable from it.

Her neglect has been puzzling, and I'm sorely tempted to say something about her falling out of Fashion because Fashion has disallowed Soul, because Soul itself is such an unfashionable notion. Of all the writers published in the 1925 Contact Collection of Contemporary Writers, the volume that includes Pound, Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, H.D., Stein and Williams, the name of Mary Butts stands out as singly unattended. And yet there is this: a reprint due this fall from Virago Press of The Crystal Cabinet, a quite wonderful and magical book of autobiography of her childhood in Dorset, finished shortly before her death; a reprint of Imaginary Letters, published in 1979 by Talon Books; and the great dedication of the poet Kenneth Irby, who is preparing a major collection of her poetry as well as a bibliography of her published work. A sure sense that the turn has begun.

-- Eileen Callahan O Malley

Here lies the Woodpecker, who was Zeus

Thoughts of the Bird-Catcher,
Who caught the Woodpecker,
Once Zeus.

Birds in stone, birds in clay, birds on coins,
The unsubstantial feathers made substantial
In Caria and Istria and Umbria,
In memory of the Woodpecker who was Zeus.
Because God had been a bird.

God like a bird,
'The same moon in Cameroon'
In dancing-places and sleeping places and bars,
Dressed-up like a man,
A too-bright creature perched a moment on
your wrist.

Birds are born again,
The unsubstantial feathers made more airy
In flesh.

Recognise a bird in a man
That it is feathers, air
Not flesh.

Catch it if you can,
Tie a thread to the transparent claw
And in the sensibility of honour

Sigismundo de Malatesta da Rimini
Was a master in this.
Because his name was magnificence:
Because of his pride,
Because of Madame Isotta,
Because he has nothing whatever to do with this.

Advice of the bird-catcher:
The trouble brought by bird-lovers
On the lovers of birds
(Leda and Ganymede
Spring to the mind).
A bird-priestess wore the feathers of a king-fisher
In Elis of all places,
Next door to the palace of the Imperial patriarch
No earthly sense in it but art.

Advice to Leda:
Ruffle your feathers out of the wood,
You cannot stay in with the bird-king.
Make your nest where you can
Lay phoenix eggs,
Turn the substantial shell to unsubstantial
Fire birds.
Meet the king who is neither a bird nor a man
In the easiest place,
Mother of the Dioscuri,
Apprentice--bird-catcher the bird picked up
To dance with and shoot craps and
whistle out the night.

There is a feather-leash
From wrist to wrist,
A running-knot to tie
Those who have kissed
(Not poetry this
Pastiche on a past air.)
Il ne vient pas ce soir
(Make a tune of this)
Absent--le bien venu
Absent--le menu plaisir
De ce soir

Light tears of the Bird-catcher,
Who caught the Woodpecker, Picus Martius
Once Zeus.

You were an airy unsubstantial love,
But you were peace,
Peace for the Bird-catcher and his little friends
Famous in story.

Where the rocks are made of glass
And the sea of blue stone,
Where the trees are dry and grey
For bird-flash and dance,

Where the fir-cone,
Ivy, briony
Trouble memory, the mother of the Muses,
The nine names of the imagination,
With a bird's feathers brushed in the moment
of flight.

He said:
Steady Ganymede!
Careful Leda!
That bird was a god,
Was a man.

Zeus-Swan, Zeus-Eagle, Woodpecker-Zeus:
Old memories of the bird-catcher
Of the lovers of a bird,
And of Picus Martius

--Mary Butts


(originally appeared in Hound & Horn, vol. 3, no. 2, October 1929 )

from: The Crystal Cabinet:

CHAPTER ONE: Puddles and Princes

The first thing that I remember is a puddle of yellow mud. Outside the front door, on the drive, after rain; when the new gravel had been put down and the gardeners had gone over it with a round thing that groaned. (My father said they were fools, because they would not think when to put on and take off the weights that were inside the thing: the thing called the garden-roller that would not move for one, however hard one tried. That memory comes later.) The mud in the shallow puddle was lovely, like something you could eat. It happened when the ivy on the porch and on the walls was smooth and glossy and shiny and dripped. You ought to be able to eat it--like cream or the yellow out of the paint-box; you ought to spoon it up. Perhaps something that wasn't food and looked as if it ought to be food would taste all right this time. Nurse was a few steps ahead. Perhaps if it wasn't sweet, it was like the yellow of egg. I had my best green coat on and a bonnet to match with fur round its edge that came off a beaver in the picture-book. Dark green. With the gravel it would look like egg and spinach. Pretending (not quite to myself) that it was a real tumble, I splashed full length, and for the quick second, close to the ground where I should not be allowed to stay, my nose in the smooth wet, I put out my tongue. No good, and not so soft. Gritty. So that was mudtaste, the lovely yellow mud that gravel makes. The king--I developed early a child's sense of categories--the king of the muds.




Mary Butts, great-granddaughter of Thomas Butts, William Blake's patron and friend, emerged during the modernist period as both poet and author of several volumes of short stories, historical novels and a novelistic trilogy. Born on December 13, 1890, in Dorsetshire, she died in mid-career in Cornwall in 1937. Her childhood home, Salterns in Dorsetshire, housed a fine Blake collection now at the Tate. This collection, as well as her father's library, formed the beginning reading that helped to generate her life as an artist. In Paris and London, where she went as a young woman, she met H.D., Bryher, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Jean Cocteau and Virgil Thompson, and was encouraged in her work by Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound. She contributed poems, essays, stories and reviews to many of the important literary journals of that time, among them Pagany, The Little Review, The Dial, Seed, and Transatlantic Review. Her first novel, Ashe of Rings, was published by Robert McAlmon's Contact Editions. Except for two novels reissued within the last decade, her works have been long unavailable.

In Mary Butts's books, the real and surreal life of Paris and London in the twenties conjoins with the mythic realm of gods and Nature, immersing characters and readers in a Mystery where an intense magic, the vibrant rapport between things earthly and things heavenly and the possibilities arising from these bonds, holds sway. Detectives of correspondences, players in ancient dramas, her characters adventure in the domains of Greek and Celtic myth and legend. From her early acquaintance with Norse mythology, the Bible, the high romance of the Grail, Spenser, Milton and, above all, Shelley and the Romantics, as well as from a lifelong closeness to the woods, sea, moors and creatures of her native Dorset and Cornwall, Mary Butts gained an apprehension of a sacred presence.

A woman is often the major, though not the dominant figure in the increasingly communal story her characters' lives unfold; as female protagonist, she sets in motion the divine powers, rather than controlling the action. She is unconventional, defined neither by prescribed female roles or career/cause. She is a life-bearer, an artist of love such as Shelley describes Keats, shaping more permanent, expansive relationships and a more inclusive community than the world will admit. While not saintly in the usual sense, this "life-bearer" resists the ill-will, envy and rivalry threatening to become a new morality and generates an atmosphere of sympathy where a crossing-over can occur, the Eternal reach into time where things happen differently than in the ordinary chain of events. "Rings Hill," Butts writes, "is a place of evocation. Where the word is made flesh. That's too poetical. I mean a place where the shapes we make with our imagination find a body."

--Barbara Wagstaff

Barbara Wagstaff is a Mary Butts scholar, currently in England to do research on the fictional works of Mary Butts. She teaches in Comparative Literature and English at U.C. Davis, where a section of her book-in-progress was presented at a conference on The Writings and the World of Mary Butts, last spring.


  Speed the Plough
  Several Occasions
  Last Stories (1938)

  Armed with Madness
  Ashe of Rings
  Death of Felicity Taverner

  The Macedonian
  Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra

  Warning to Hikers
  Traps for Unbelievers
  Imaginary Letters

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