These poems are from The Artist as Alice: From a Photographer's Life forthcoming from Bright Hill Press
On Writing The Artist as Alice: From a Photographer's Life
By Darcy Cummings
Years ago, in a writing class, we were given an assignment: write about a fictional character twenty years or so after the events in the novel, play, or poem. I immediately thought of Alice, the heroine of my favorite childhood book. Yes, that practical and rather prim little girl whose adventures were so weird and deeply satisfying to the eight year old girl I was. That night, I thought of a title and the first lines: Years Later, Alice Dreams Of Rabbits/ and of floatingor of falling toward/ bright planets. Or in the dazed July heat,/ that the infant at her breast/ is whiskered and furred. Interesting, I thought, but when I finished the poem the next day I realized that Alice, restless, tending an infant, and pregnant for the third time, was in the early years of an unhappy marriage.
How could this have happened, I wondered. She seemed so promising, talented and independent. (Even then I didn't think of this Alice as a product of my own imagination, but as if she were in a sequel I was tracing, gradually learning about her later life.) The next poems I wrote were an attempt to explain what had happened after the surreal events of Wonderland and the Looking Glass, and what had led to the tense marriage I'd stumbled upon. After finishing the sequence, I thought I was done with Alice. I'd answered my questions, the how and the why. Behind those questions was another: what might have happened to an imaginative little girl in Victorian England who had dreamed/ hallucinated/ invented the adventures. When she spoke of that world to her family how would they and others around her react?
Although that first series of poems seemed complete, over the years I returned again and again to Alice. What was she like at 35, 50? As an old lady? Confused about chronology and facts, I finally wrote a prose outline of her life, giving her five children, one who died at birth, and one who died at ten. She was widowed at fifty, and due to necessity, became a professional photographer (photography was once her hobby, her sole artistic outlet.) It was then I realized that my real topic was the life of an artist, a woman whose desire to create was always subject to the demands of raising children, running a household, pleasing a difficult husband. She was, in some way, I realized, not just the prim yet violently imaginative woman who had as a child found a Wonderland, but also my mother, a frustrated artist. And, she was in part me.
One of the most enjoyable parts of writing the poems was reading about 19th-century photography, and spiritualism and psychic science in the early 20th century. I found myself reading about photographing the dead, and other things that touched Alice's life. And I also resolved a problem that had bothered me for yearsmy frustrated attempts to synthesize the disparate strands of my poetry: the narrative, surreal, imagistic and formal. But in the Alice book, I found I could use all of those approaches, as the poems are told in a number of voices and through various documentsher cousin's journal entries, instructions for photographers, and finally in Alice's own many voices. And the poems themselves are monologues, surreal meditations, narrative sonnets. Now that the poems are going to be published as a book, I'm having a hard time letting go of her world. How would Alice have reacted to seeing her first movie, I wonder. What about the grandson who was killed in the first world war? Shouldn't we know more about her husband? Her lover? I'm trying very hard to find another topic that will inhabit me so completely.
Alice At Thirteen
Since that bright afternoon, she seldom dreams,
even when, safely curled in her father's chair,
she dozes before the fire. But sometimes,
during lessons, or when the teapot steams
and the chime of a clock focuses light
and the avenue of trees outside the window,
mice and labeled jars leap from her books.
She tries to keep them at bay, but a screaming
infant wriggles in her grasp, its lawn sleeves
split as chubby arms grow taut and hooved.
Sometimes she's falling, and the infant
has slipped into the rising water,
its button eyes and grin wavering beneath
the surface. The strained seams of her bodice
begin to gap: again and again she pushes
the plate of biscuits from her desk.
Shells clatter on an empty beach,
persistent soft mounds and fur cling
to her body. They whimper: milk and cake,
but she will not feed them. At night she falls
into sleep as smooth and dark as the velvet
for her new dress, or like her mirror
at twilight: glossy, cool, and filled with shadows.
On Her Wedding Day
Soon, the photographer will arrive, trailing
assistants and clattering equipment.
He'll find me posed near the mirror:
perfect, still as the bisque dolls
on the marble mantle. Mother chose everything
I wear: the veil, the ecru bombazine
that's latched from throat to hem
with sixty five pearl buttons, the borrowed
locket tied with ribbons to my corselet.
But I agreed, I longed to tiptoe
over the hushed threshold of
his rooms. I sewed twelve buttons
on each glove; his have none. . .on the hall table
his gloves and scarf are like grey doves
pinned precisely to his hat. And what if
he seems silent and unyielding? Soon
his stiff ways will soften. He says
that I am young, that shyness will learn
its domestic tongue. Yesterday I gathered
mint and Lemon Balm, rum and the soft
kernel of peach pits to make a small potion.
I ground them in a white bowl, chanting:
Taste me and you'll know longing,
drink me and you'll grow smaller.
The sweet mess melts beneath my tongue.
My hand is pressed to the cool hand
in the mirror. It will not yield.
On The Porch
In mid-afternoon hush and heat
she hears the murmur of children
building empires in the sand.
The babies doze on the porch
lulled by the swing's motion
and its creaking chains. Up crossed
cords the young vines clutch:
pale moon flowers just beginning
to open dizzying sweetness,
blue and rose morning glories
and the maroon-podded Mexican vines.
Soon the entire porch will be hemmed
by knotted shade, by this ceaseless twining.
Vines and the soft hiss of sleeping children
anchor her to this place, idly swinging back,
forth. She is happy this afternoon,
radiant in this furious growth and motion.
On Appledore Island
Within weeks, she's discarded her petticoats
and that worried look, climbing from fields
of bayberry and musty grapes to the crags
possessed by raucous gulls. On days when fog
transforms boats and lobster pots
to the pure white of one bell
clanging over the water,
she rocks on the porch, watching for hours.
On clear afternoons, she rehearses
the wild flowers' names: the young Naturalist
tells her that Figwort is also Golden Hedge;
it can be any name that she invents
Rabbit Ear, Root Hutch. Down the cliffs
beetles and Monarch Butterflies burst
from their celluloid shells.
They whir and bell: autumn. In the dusty shed,
the Naturalist leads her to narrow shelves
where pinned butterflies perch in dim light,
in rows and rows of labeled glass boxes.
He lets her touch the lids.
In His Absence, Alice Finds
A Metaphor: The Lithopedion
Your name is numb like a syllable thrown ten thousand times against the sun.
Your face is worn like a salt statue left in the rain or thumbed by a penitent.
My song is a stone baby pain never expressed.
This song must end.
The sun always deflects words.
A factory in Milan produces twenty five statues of Santa Lucia per week.
They are for sale on the streets of Boston.
(The stone baby was free
Only after the flesh rotted.
mute, calcine testimony,
it nestled equal against the mother's bones.
those flutterings were not imagination.)
The Artist as Alice: From a Photographer's Life is forthcoming from Bright Hill Press
The Artist as Alice: From a Photographer's Life
by Darcy Cummings,
2004 Bright Hills Press Poetry Book Award, June 2006,
72 pp. $14 + NYS Sales Tax & shipping $3.00
The Artist as Alice: From a Photographer's Life
Darcy's work online