Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Kate Zambreno
Dear Editor,

I take offense at the characterization of Djuna Barnes in Brian Phillips's dismissive review of her posthumous collection of poetry ["Eight Takes," December 2006]. It does not appear that Phillips has read or processed much of Barnes's major works beyond the collection reviewed. Instead, he relies on elitist posturing, sexist anecdotes, and troublesome psychologizing. In the opening, flip passage, Phillips portrays Barnes as a glorious socialite flitting around the other, more "serious" writers of Modernism, a party girl whose ankles Stein archly praised and who (gasp!) got taken out to lunch by ol' Tom himself and called Joyce "Jim." In reality, Barnes was one of the major figures on the Paris literary scene of the twenties. Janet Flanner, proudly parodied in Barnes's first work, Ladies Almanack (which is widely read as her spoof of expat lesbian life—not Nightwood, as Phillips suggests), argued that Barnes was the most significant woman writer in Paris during that time. Beckett and other peers, who recognized a literary debt to her, sent her money during her later Greenwich Village days, her self-imposed "Trappist" period, as she called it. Phillips writes, "She was taken seriously, only not quite seriously." Actually, many people took, and continue to take, Barnes quite seriously. Her masterpiece, Nightwood, is widely considered one of the most influential works of Modernist fiction.

Phillips is surprised that Barnes's collection of poems seems more inspired by the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets than by her contemporaries and concludes that she "must have discovered" John Donne and the rest through the tutelage of T.S. Eliot. (I mean, wow, how could a woman writer of that time, not taken seriously enough, have read anything if not introduced by some sort of Svengali?) Actually, Barnes always employed a wide variety of literary styles—her Ladies Almanack experimented with Elizabethan prose, her first novel Ryder parodied everything from the Bible to Chaucer to medieval mystics to mock-epic tales to the epistolary novel to the heroic couplet. Nightwood also incorporates a wide spectrum of literary styles and sources, the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, Leviticus, Surrealism, grotesque realism. The richly allusive, pun-filled text has often been compared to Joyce's Ulysses. That's why Djuna called Joyce "Jim"—because they were peers and intimates. James Joyce took her and her work quite seriously, but, alas, Brian Phillips could not.

Chicago, Illinois

Originally Published: February 2, 2007

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This prose originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

February 2007

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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