From Our Breasts, Frances Cornford’s “The Old Nurse”

I’ve been planning on presenting this eerie ghost story by English poet Frances Cornford for awhile now, but I wanted to take care with the musical setting while working on our recently completed countdown of the most popular pieces here from this past winter.

Heidi Randen was interested in doing this as a guest reader, and it’s her voice you’ll get to hear today. She’s also the guest blogger for this piece, so before I say our customary few words about the music let me turn it over to Heidi.

 

From Our Breasts, Frances Cornford’s The Old Nurse

By Heidi Randen, guest writer for Parlando (and Frank’s wife)

Like the subject of this poem, I am an old nurse. When my husband shared these sad, sweet, ghostly, gothic verses, they resonated with my experience of nursing in the biological and professional sense. I breastfed our kid and have worked as a Registered Nurse in hospital and clinical settings with very old and very young people.

Frances Cornford wrote this poem in the 1920s when professional nursing was still a new concept.  Florence Nightingale pioneering nursing in the field during the Crimean War would have been about as far back in the collective memory as the Korean War is to us now.  Nightingale started the world’s first professional nursing school in London in 1860. This occupation would have been as relatively novel as computer programming or palliative care are today.  In an English village in the 1920s, an old nurse would most likely mean an old wet nurse or an old nursemaid.

Wet nursing is a humble and humbling profession:

Against my breast I felt a small and blunt-nosed head.

To breastfeed is to be reduced to a mammal, a one-person dairy operation.  To share your milk with an infant in need who is not your own is an extravagant act of human kindness, yet it carries great stigma. In my family’s American immigration story, relatives on my mother’s side repeat the line: Our family was so poor that your great-great grandmother had to work as a wet nurse in the Netherlands.

Breastfeeding is like still being a little pregnant.  Your body is not wholly your own, still providing shelter and sustenance for another.  This is also the case in professional nursing.  When I worked in the hospital, I would often forego sleep, meals and bathroom breaks if it was a particularly busy shift.  This self-sacrifice is why nursing is still considered a calling and is listed as the most trusted profession in the United States and the United Kingdom.

From Our Breasts 1080

The circle of life: the woman who breastfed me and who suffers from Alzheimer’s, being helped long by the person I breastfed, my kid who talks about going into nursing when they grow up.

 

In my experience talking with fellow nurses, neonatology, pediatrics, oncology and hospice are considered extra special callings.  It takes greater emotional mettle to get close to babies and children in pain, to help people with serious or life-limiting illness and their families.  Put any of those specialties together: neonatal hospice or pediatric oncology and you are exponentially special, perhaps super-human.

But nurses are very human.  We see things that are unbearably sad.  And there is nothing sadder than a dead baby.  It seems like the worst violation of the order of things.  But it is not.  To me, the worst thing in the world is when people are left alone in sadness and fear.  Like the woman in the poem, the nurses of the world—in all senses of the word—hear crying over the sound of storms, seek out those in distress and provide comfort.  The satisfaction of this experience is expressed tangibly by the poet:

And a sob-quivering body slowly growing calm
And toes like round cold buds that warmed inside my palm.

Like the subject of this poem, I too see dead people and they don’t frighten me. The longer you watch human beings move through all their stages, you see that the end of life has much in common with the beginning of life.  This became most apparent to me in the space of one day when I visited a friend in the hospital with a newborn and a friend dying in hospice.  The mystery of where that baby came from was the same as the mystery of where my friend was going.  To nurse is to help for a little while on another’s journey, then—like the old nurse at the end of the poem—to be alone again with this mystery after they leave.

The Old Nurse as published in Cornford's Autumn Midnight 1923

The page from Cornford’s “Autumn Midnight” collection where the poem was published in 1923. Woodcut by Gwen Raverat

Heidi didn’t mention this when she wrote this earlier this year, but of course now we are asking nurses and others to put their bodies on the line with our current Covid-19 crisis.

Here’s those few words on the music. My original starting idea was to use singing bowls as part of the arrangement, but I have only one available, and while I could manipulate the single pitch after recording, I wanted them to play intervals and triads and decided to go another route. I used some gongs and bell for the piece’s intro, but much of what sounds like the singing bowls is an electric guitar being sustained to feedback levels and then being fed through a modulated reverb. I also made use of one of my favorites, the Mellotron cello sound, because that instrument’s uncanny aural valley always sounds spookier than the real thing to me.

The player gadget to hear Heidi’s performance of Frances Cornford’s “The Old Nurse”  is below. If Cornford intrigues you, I’ve presented two of her poems with original music earlier this month.

 

Missing

Frances Cornford is a 20th century poet that is close to unknown in the United States, despite achieving some degree of success in Britain. She’s sometimes classed there as a “Georgian poet,”* a grouping that like the Imagists produced several contemporary anthologies in that century’s teens and twenties.

It’s not a term used much in America, even in literary circles, as the 20th century Modernist revolution and American hegemony in general brought so many American voices to the first rank of English language writing. The closest to an American “Georgian Poet” might be Robert Frost, whose first book length collection was published while he was living in England and building a close connection with British writer Edward Thomas who was labeled a Georgian poet.

Georgian poets are often set in opposition to the Imagists and the Modernist movement in general, even though they shared the same times, events, and places with each other, and even though occasional friendships and other affinities might cross between the groups. As Modernism “won” the war after WWI and the crises of the Thirties and Forties, Georgian poets were often seen as too tied to old poetic formalism and nostalgia—and even more damningly, to not fully appreciate the absurdities and dangerous forces of the modern world.

Labels are after all just sticky paper, but in reading poets like Frost and Thomas, I don’t see a pure division. Thomas and Frost’s outlook is just as Modernist as any, just as bleak and unsure of any easy consolation.** What they don’t share with many Modernists is a conviction that seemingly random assemblages of images with obscure rational connections are a useful and powerful tactic in expressing a reality.

Frances Cornford has a singularly interesting back story, one that (so far) I only know the outlines of. On her father’s side she’s the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, one of the founders of modern science. On her mother’s side, she’s descended from William Wordsworth, a great reformer of verse in English at the turn of the 19th century. She seems to be whip smart, but her poetry may have a deceptive surface. Just to glance at it on the page or rattle it off the tongue, some of it looks and sounds like light verse, the kind of thing that might speak of little foibles and humorous misapprehensions. But then there comes a line that seems out of place, almost a mistake. When I first presented her earlier this month, the “sticks out” line in that poem was “O fat white woman who nobody loves.” Even if we may read that line differently than she intended, I think this smart writer intended for us to be surprised and arrested by it.

Wordsworth-Darwin-Dylan-Jobs

Frock coats to black turtlenecks. Frances Cornford: roughly like being a descendent of Dylan and Steve Jobs today.

 

Today’s Cornford piece, “Missing,”  is even shorter. Two lines in (but ¼ of the way in this very compressed poem!) we might think we are about to get a piece of humorous verse musing about “just where did I put that.”

Wham! “Dead soldiers or unposted letters…”

If this was a Dada or Surrealist collage we might be forewarned by stylistic expectations, not just that a war casualty is about to drop into our short poem, but that it would be joined with something as mundane and as overlooked as an unsent letter. Like Cornford’s “Fat white woman” line it risks seeming like bad poetry or an example of egregious insensitivity.

But of course, this was a woman who lived through both World Wars. She named one of her sons after Rupert Brooke, the doomed Georgian poet whom she knew, and who would die in WWI. And that son then was killed fighting on the side of the republic in the Spanish Civil War.

Taken inside, as small, strange poems can be, Cornford’s “Missing”  may make you see differently, think differently. Also, these poems have made me think again about the value of risking “bad poetry.”

To hear my performance of “Missing,”  use the player below. I liked the simplicity of the music today, just strumming guitar and voice, as I worked on a more complicated piece that you might soon hear. Maybe you’ll like it too.

 

 

 

*In 1910 the British king Edward died and King George V was crowned. He lived until 1936, so his reign was a handy shorthand for a group of British poets whose careers emerged just before WWI.

**The group of American women poets, sometimes given the label “Songbird Poets” (Teasdale, Millay, Wylie, and to some degree Taggard and Bogan) who are favorites here have some of the same position and problems with “High Modernism”.

To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train

Continuing on with lyric poetry, that short form of compressed immediacy, here’s a poem that seems to be better known in Britain that it is here: Frances Cornford’s “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”  first published in 1910.

I think it illustrates one of the things about good lyric poetry of the Imagist* type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true. Almost immediately this poem was recognized as “wrong” by many (most?) readers. It could, and was, easily seen as unfeeling, or an expression of cruelty to the extent it has implied feeling. How the hell does the poet on the train know anything about that fat white lady in gloves? Early responses seemed to dislike the compression they read as glibness; more current readers see haughty fat-shaming.

Good lyric  poetry of the Imagist type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true.

I haven’t found anywhere where Cornford wrote about her intent with this poem. Given that she lived a long life and this poem became her best-known one, she must have said or written something, but lacking that I’m left to react to the text itself.

The objectionable is the poem’s third line. If the poem did not include it, I doubt any significant number of readers would dislike the poem. Let’s look again at that line: “O fat white woman whom nobody loves.”

If that was a social media post today, one can see the storm breaking rapidly. It sounds like it’s “kicking down” doesn’t it? Our graceless current President could easily tweet this line at someone who disapproved or challenged him, and regardless of one’s political stance, his demeaning meaning would be clear. But even in this short poem that stands alone with no testimony from its author, context may change how we read it.

What’s changed since 1910? “Fat” stands in a strange place in our culture currently. There are elements that regard it as somewhere between a sinful sign and a regrettable disease, but also strong elements that wish to make fat-shaming disreputable. Our general agreement, best as I can read it, is to allow “fat,” like curse words, as something we allow or forgive when we feel the subject it’s applied to has wronged us sufficiently, but not something we should throw around willy-nilly, particularly at strangers. But how damning and diminishing was “fat” in 1910?

Much less I think. First off, let’s look at the U.S. President in that year. A crude reading of the culture for sure, but William Howard Taft was, well, fat, and yet today few politicians are.**  Female beauty standards too were curvier (though this was soon to change). Fat was, to the level of unexceptional cliché, associated then with wealth, and therefore wealth’s courtier, power. This once unquestioned association with wealth and power is partly responsible for how the fat person was treated comically, even later in the century. The lean, skinny person was the scrappy underdog, the fat person the one who ran things. Stan Laurel was put upon by the more officious Hardy. The Marxist critique of Margaret Dumont was to tear down the well-fed power structure of white women in gloves.

Moving on in Cornford’s problematic line: “white” is if anything more striking in its frank appearance in this short poem. Here I’m even more unsure of Cornford’s context and intent. “White” as a term for those not considered a person of color existed in 1910 certainly, and that’s how most of us will read Cornford’s line today. But a consciousness, without the context of other non-white people in the frame, of a white person calling out someone as “white” strikes me as so unusual in 1910*** that I wonder if we’re misreading her intent. Does she mean that she’s dressed in white? If she means, to us as we may experience the poem now, “a member of the favored and privileged racial caste,” we should take that into consideration regarding the effect of the poem more than most readers seem to. If she means “dressed in white,” which I think is more likely in the poem’s context, then she’s extending the “gloves” image as observing someone she imagines is not in touch with the earth. It’s probably taking too large a deterministic leap to think that she’s meaning to reference suffragettes with a singular woman in white. It’s a slightly lesser leap to consider dressed in white as a wedding gown undertone.****

And yes, let’s not miss the third word in this compound epithet: “woman.” Given that the author is a woman, and we presume the train-riding speaker of the poem looking out the window is a woman, we may have something like a peer to peer relationship between the observed subject and the observer.

In the few Frances Cornford poems I’ve read so far, there’s considerable female empathy exhibited. Why are we sure that the woman in the train is disgusted with or condemning the other woman? Does she feel superior or knowing in some way in the lyric moment (regardless if she’s right or wrong) that the white woman is missing something (love, an experience of nature)? Yes, I can see that. Is it a haughty superiority? I think that leans too much on the dismissive way we read “fat” and even “white.” As I read this poem over, I visualize looking out a train window, and the sense that comes to me is that one sees the woman outside through one’s own reflection in the glass we are looking through. I think, in the lyric moment, Cornford is imagining (and letting us know that it’s only that, imagining) a difference and a risk for herself, and for that other woman.

Frances Cornford - two sides

Dialectic: Frances Cornford at work. Frances Cornford without gloves.

 

There’s another mystery in the poem that I can’t decode completely: the gloves that refrain along with the absent loves. One reader jocularly suggested that the woman is hurrying on her way to a cricket match, and she’s wearing gloves because she’s a wicket keeper. Some, I think seriously, see gardening gloves. Others, formal-wear gloves. This is part of what I like about this poem: it’s plain-spoken, allusive, and elusive. That’s a hard combination to pull off. Along with its excellent musicality, that may be why it’s so well remembered in Britain—even by folks who are sure they dislike it.

Like Marlowe’s shepherd, this is a poem that calls out for an “answer record,” and humorist G. K. Chesterton’s retort “The Fat Lady Answers”  is the most famous of several. I stand more with Cornford’s lyric than Chesterton’s busted triolet, but his point is worth remembering as we consider “other people’s stories.” And so I performed the two together today. At the time I recorded this performance I decided to read the female poet’s poem in a male voice and suggest a woman’s voice in the male Chesterton’s response. I was still buying into Chesterton’s objection more than I am now after living with the poem a bit longer.

Anyway, Cornford’s triolet is so damn catchy that I wanted to keep it to the hook today—mostly drums and bass for the music—but I added a little of my naïve electric piano working off an odd inverted-voicing CMaj13 chord. One of my shortest audio pieces gets this long post. Go figure.

You can hear my performance with the player gadget below, or on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. The full text of Cornford’s poem is here if you’d like to read along.

 

 

 

*AFAIK, no one considers Cornford an Imagist, and this poem was written and published before other pioneering Imagist train poems like Pound’s In a Station of the Metro  or Sandburg’s Limited.”  But in its straightforward immediate language, specific color imagery, compression, and avoidance of sentimental emotional language, it follows the intent of those later free-verse Imagist poems.

**King Edward the VII doesn’t look svelte either, nor Queen Victoria in her later years. Of course, “Who made you king of the Britons?” and all that, but this still speaks to how excess weight was viewed in 1910 as representative of wealth and power.

***I don’t know much about Cornford’s political and social beliefs. She had one son who was a dedicated Marxist of the Karl branch, but what she thought herself about racial questions, I don’t know.

****If it was explicitly a wedding gown, it’d be a different poem, but you can re-read or relisten to the poem and imagine that at your own option. Another possibility would be that the woman is white because she’s a ghost. Again, overdetermining the poem. I’d still like to know what Cornford’s intent was, but even if it was a bit of light verse that got away from her, one of the joys of lyric poetry is that undercurrents can be waiting for the next time you read, hear, speak, or perform it.