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.

 

A Game of Chess, presenting T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” for National Poetry Month

Each April, as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month, the Parlando Project has been presenting in serial form T. S. Eliot’s High Modernist masterpiece “The Waste Land.”  This year, we’re up to the third section of the poem “The Fire Sermon,”  but before we present new material, I want to give our newer listeners/readers a chance to catch up.

It’s possible to read the entire “Waste Land”  aloud as a dramatic monolog in less than 40 minutes total time. Fiona Shaw has done this, and her performances of it cannot be praised or recommended enough. But for me personally (and this goes back to my first readings of the poem) I’ve always been struck by “The Waste Land’s”  intense musicality. The collage process of various voices is musical, and “The Waste Land’s”  constant changes in tone and insertion of quotes from other poetry eerily predict hip hop mix tapes in a 78 rpm world. Themes emerge and fall back and are then repeated later on, just as they do in long-form musical composition. Eliot even quotes song lyrics multiple times in the poem.

The Waste Land cover

He got $2,000 for service to letters, but our aim is to demonstrate the music in it

 

So, I’ve long dreamed of performing “The Waste Land”  with music—and now, as part of this project I’m realizing that dream on the installment plan. While I think the music can help bring some solace and additional shadings to Eliot’s unstinting look at human failure and limitations, the resulting performance is lengthy. It’s not the kind of thing I can take on creating and performing lightly—and to listen to it, even casually, is not light entertainment either. The Parlando Project normally focuses on shorter poetry, the lyric impulse. Almost all of our pieces are under 5 minutes, and we have hundreds of them available here. So, don’t feel obligated to listen to these longer “Waste Land”  pieces. They are not for everybody, and I believe they are consistent with Eliot’s design to write only for those willing to look at dark impulses and feelings, to weigh and consider them within your mind and heart.

Here’s “I. The Burial of the Dead,”  the first section that famously opens with “April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land…” which is likely a reason that April is U. S. National Poetry month (and may already be referring to another poem, Walt Whitman’s Lincoln elegy, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”)

 

 

 

And here’s last year’s contributions, the section “II. A Game of Chess”  rolled up into one piece for the first time here. I start out this one by making an ex-post-facto connection of Eliot’s lavish and dissipated opening of “A Game of Chess”  with the late-night, dragged out, “Ain’t it just like the night” style of Blonde on Blonde era Bob Dylan, and it ends with an appearance of a guest reader Heidi Randen for the monolog about Lil and Albert and their just-discharged-from-the war marriage.

 

 

This month we’ll continue our serial presentation of “The Waste Land”  with one of its longest sections, “III. The Fire Sermon.”  If you’d like to read along with the text of the poem while listening, the full poem is here. With these musical presentations I maintain that you can listen to them and not feel that you need to understand what the poem means in the essay-question sense, and instead only require the poem’s words to strike you with scattered connotations and impacts. There are a great many resources for those who would like to delve into deeper meanings of “The Waste Land,”  all the things that Eliot intended to put there—and also the things he only inherently and accidentally included. For those that enjoy that, there’s much there at that level, but I remind you of the concept I laid down a couple of posts back regarding Emily Dickinson’s much shorter poem: a poem isn’t so much about ideas, it’s about the experience of ideas.

Good Night Ladies

While performing and posting about T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  bit by bit this month, have I mentioned enough how artistically revolutionary it was? For today’s section let me talk first about form and then about subject, and I’ll share a little-known episode in Eliot’s life that may have contributed.

I call today’s part of “The Waste Land” “Goodnight Ladies.”  Formally, even today, nearly a century later, a section of a major poem written like this would be provocative. First off, it’s not “poetic” in its language. While there’s a minimal irregular structure from the interjected closing-time refrain of the bartender’s call, there’s no striking images, meter, rhyme, melodic flow, and certainly no “poetic diction” in it. It’s part in the musical structure of this very musical poem is to present a section with no music in its words. While politically and culturally apart from the Dadaists working at the same time outside of England, Eliot’s structure for “The Waste Land”  is to throw in jarring and unannounced cuts in voice and setting. Even sophisticated, educated readers cannot agree how many voices and scenes are present in the “A Game of Chess,”  which this passage concludes. I made it three pieces, three scenes, others think differently. Eliot has already used plenty of high culture references in the “A Game of Chess”  section of “The Waste Land”  before today’s scene: Shakespeare, Ovid, and obscure Jacobean playwright Middleton—but he’s also thrown-in a pop song parody. Now he concludes “A Game of Chess”  with a bit of working-class pub dialog absent of any literary allusions (until the very end).

The speaker, an unreliable narrator, as well as her subject are working-class women. There is no sentimentality. This isn’t a “salt of the earth” bit of condescending or ennobling praise. The speaker is unkind and perhaps duplicitous (the implication is that she will, or has, put a move on the subject’s husband), and her subject, Lil, is a woman described uncharitably as looking “antique” at age 31, after multiple difficult pregnancies and an induced abortion.

The monolog, if not poetry, feels authentic. The depiction of class and sexual politics, is sharp and unstinting. A poet like Carl Sandburg, the radical and newspaperman, could have heard such dialog—but where the hell did T. S. Eliot, upper middle class raised, prep-schooled, Sorbonne and Harvard (legacy) educated, international banking officer, and furthermore, a man with a reputation as stand-offish and diffident toward women—even those of his class and cultural background—get informed enough to write this passage?

I couldn’t let that question go without some research, and I think I found an answer. It’s one of those “this would make a great movie” moments in literary biography. I knew Eliot had taken a crack at teaching school at a boys-only school in Highgate. That’s the start of the story, he taught French, Latin, math, history, drawing, beside duties coaching baseball (!) and swimming. One of his students: a 9-year-old John Betjeman.

Schoolteachers will know what kind of workload that entails. The bank officer job that followed was a relief to Eliot.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Through some connections, he was introduced to the Workers Educational Association. They were organizing college-level night school classes in Southall. Eliot applied to teach Modern English Literature there, and he continued to do this from 1916 through 1919. Since WWI was on, with many men overseas, the classes were ¾ women.

The weekly classes were a lecture followed by an hour of discussion. Regular papers and reading were required of the students.

What was the experience like for Eliot and his working-class students? Surprisingly rewarding for Eliot, and (as far as we know) for the students. In letters home to America, Eliot praised the minds of his best students, singling out several women. In an account he provided for the Association’s 50th Anniversary in 1959, he could still recall one in particular:

“There was one poor young woman who was one of my best students, but was an elementary schoolmistress with a very large class of little children in the daytime and (she)…died, I am sorry to say, of overwork.”

Was Eliot being polite in both his contemporary letters and his remembrance letter to the Association? Perhaps he did gloss over, or was unaware of, the difficulties one could imagine between himself and his students—but he did this for three years, as a second job that was presumably not his main source of income, and each year, he asked to do one more. Each year, he developed a new syllabus covering additional authors for his literature night-students, some of whom stayed with him for his entire run.

Students-inscription-to-T S Eliot 1919

Inscription on a gift copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse signed by his students on the day of Eliot’s last lecture. The longer article about this is a must read for those interested in this little-known period of Eliot’s life.

 

Was that worn-out school-teacher, or some other night-school student, a model for Lil in today’s portion of “The Waste Land?”  It seems possible. After reading this, my thoughts went to those students, hungry to learn and experience more about literature in the London night speculating of Zeppelin raids. How I wish we had accounts from the students as well! In “The Waste Land,”  Eliot wasn’t going to give us anything he learned about their joys, or any compensations they found for the travails of their lives, anymore than he gives anyone that. We’re left, in today’s piece, with this mean girl’s account of Lil, unsparing in scorn, revealing Lil’s burdens as more of the weight of the timeless waste land on post-WWI Europe. Eliot doesn’t even give her story, told so meagerly, any ennobling literary references, nor any poetry, does he? Just a story in a bar.

Wait. Her name’s Lil. Lillith? Possible, but I think not. How did this poem begin? “April…breeding lilacs  out of the dead land.” And the last line, the one I use for the title of this performance? It’s no longer the recounter of Lil’s life speaking (she who says it “goonight” not “good night”). The voice has shifted again, without warning in this unpredictable poem. It’s the voice of Ophelia exiting to her death by water in Hamlet.

Ophelia by John Millais

Ophelia by John Millais. Almost nothing to do with Eliot and “The Waste Land,” but it’s been too long since I’ve been able to put a Pre-Raphaelite painting in a post.

 

The reader in this performance is Heidi Randen, who does a great job with the words and keeps me from having to inflict my voice in too many pieces here. To hear it use the player below.