Thursday, October 10, 2013

Artistic couples

In an interesting bit of synchronicity, I wrapped up Barbara Comyns' Our Spoons Came from Woolworths just after reading Denise Duhamel's Blowout.  Both deal with relationships, indeed marriages, going south.  There are also interesting parallels as well as contrasts between Blowout and Sharon Olds' Stag's Leap, but I think those will have to wait for another day.  (In a nutshell, the biggest difference between Duhamel and Olds is that Olds is going over the breakdown of a very long marriage and Duhamel is middle aged when the breakup occurs, though she and her husband had been together for about 16 years.)

There will be minor spoilers going forward, but I don't think the Comyns book is really spoiled by knowing some of these details.  It certainly comes across as quite autobiographical, though if Comyns really did have an illegal abortion back in her youth, she was quite brave to write about it even fictionally and risk investigation.  Also, readers may be relieved to know that in real life her second child survived (and did not succumb to scarlet fever).  Basically, the novel is about two completely unprepared and feckless artistic types who get married and then basically live in squalor.  This wouldn't matter so much until they have a child, and social services essentially did not exist at the time, so they come to rely on private charity (though not as often as they should, turning down a free milk allowance out of misplaced pride).  The (surviving) son is often shunted around to relatives who begrudgingly take him in for a while until the mother has an emotional break down and tries to reclaim him.  She describes herself as being so poor she couldn't afford a stamp and had to make it look as if it had fallen off in order to post a letter!  She was also going to walk 100 miles (with an infant) rather than borrow 15 shillings (again, what crazy priorities!).  And yet, she gets pregnant three times, which seems completely irresponsible.  She says that it is clear only wealthy families can have children, but then doesn't make an effort to stop putting herself in this position.  She really comes across as one of these powerless and fairly ignorant women in Africa one keeps reading about that can't say no to their husbands and then end up pregnant and with AIDS.  It's a bit of a shock to read it happening to a young Briton (obviously not the AIDS).

However, she points to other examples of her relatives who are careful not to have children they can't afford (even in an era when birth control was scarce or unreliable or perhaps even illegal (in Ireland presumably)).  Her sister seems to have a better head on her shoulders as well (and indeed, Comyns herself turned out to be a bit of a hustler and a survivor at least until the Depression hit when she did find herself forced to take a job as a cook, as does the narrator.)  Thus, this is more of an individual failing and an extreme fecklessness on her part than a general statement about the role of women in Britain at that time.

I guess one can understand how someone with an irregular childhood wouldn't be that capable or competent, but she just doesn't seem to learn from her mistakes nor does she seek out mentors that could help her improve her lot.  Life just happens to her and she sits back and lets it roll over her. Still, her husband is even worse -- a totally failed artist who won't make any effort to support his growing family. He basically does force her into the first abortion and then ultimately abandons the family, which comes as no surprise to the narrator.  She actually welcomes it.  Still, I can't relate to such people and honestly found myself fairly annoyed with the book. I can't quite process the fairy tale ending.  It seems so improbable, and yet it did happen to Comyns!

Anyway, turning to Duhamel, things are little better for artists (in this case poets) in the U.S. 75 or so years later.  While the safety net is better established in the UK (no thanks to the Tories who are dismantling it), it is definitely pretty thin for Americans who want to be full-time artists and just can't really make a go of it.  There were never that many examples of artistic couples in the 1950-70s, though Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner do come to mind.  In virtually all other cases I can think of up until the 1980s, female artistic drive always got shunted off and the woman had to make a living and let the man get on with his art.  In some rare cases, female writers actually were the bread-winners, but this generally only worked for fiction writers and essayists, not for poets.

There's something to be said for two people from the same background getting together -- an understanding of the importance of art (or whatever) and a willingness to sacrifice to live in a big city, generally New York, while hustling and waiting for breaks.  However, it also means a lot of additional strain when nobody gets paid for their art -- and sometimes even more problems when only one artist is successful (and can't pull the other one along).  That last situation probably ends more relationships than just being broke together.

Money was often on Denise Duhamel's mind and she has an entire book about money (Ka-Ching).  She also wrote a fair bit about her husband, Nick.  You find out in Two and Two (one of her later collections) that he is also a bit of a writer/artist.  While she still seems a bit taken with him, one can (with hindsight) see some warning signs in one of these poems about his privileged upbringing and the fact that he seems a bit narcissistic.  There is also a bit about Duhamel still scrambling a bit, even after landing a teaching gig at a university in Florida (about the best one can do nowadays as a poet) with worries about insurance and so forth.  Two and Two also contains "Egg Rolls" -- probably my favorite poem by Duhamel -- where she describes how important it was to her to be an artist/writer in NYC and she took all these jobs and some days had to choose between train fare and food (not so different from Comyns actually).  "Egg Rolls" describes a day when she chose the food.  I've certainly never been that strapped, though there was a short period where I had to go two weeks on $20 (but I had a meal plan at university).  I always migrated to a stabler life than being an artist, though I may well regret someday how I invested my time if not my money. 

Well, Nick was a bit of a deadbeat, who became a big deadbeat, and things just got worse from there.  In fact, after their divorce he emptied their bank account and kept going into overdraft mode ("Tina and the Bruised Hearts").  He also tried to get alimony from her (getting alimony from a poet really does seem as profitable as squeezing blood from a stone...).  All this is laid out in the first section of Blowout where she is trying to process this loss, though she already seems to feel she will be better off without him and his freeloading ways.  (From the way he is portrayed, Nick seems like the failed artist in the Comyns who just can't seem to grow up and take responsibility, let alone figure out a way to make a living.)  Duhamel's biggest regret out of all this: that she can't tear up all the love poems she wrote him over the years, since they are all published in her earlier collections.  That is definitely an occupational hazard of being a poet, particularly one who is a confessional poet (that is what Duhamel is at heart, even when she dressed up her poems with pomo tricks).  She ends Blowout with a poem (homage or rip-off of Frank O'Hara depending on one's forbearance) about a new love interest: "Having a Diet Coke with You." One can only hope things work out a bit better this time around, but she hasn't really learned her lesson and is trying to shack up with another artistic type, though a novelist this time.

Though "Having a Diet Coke" is too long and flabby to really work as a poem, it does have some good lines.  I liked this stanza:
I also know I said I wanted us to be discovered
spinning on our stools in a Woolworth's that no longer exists
drinking our Diet Cokes out of frosted glass tumblers loaded with ice
but I think what I really meant is that I want us
to discover each other
(Again, an interesting linkage to the Comyns book where the title is a reference to her disappointment in having to get all their silverware at Woolworth's instead of a better store, not knowing that in the future anything nice they own will go into hock at the pawnshop.  I suppose if we didn't have blind optimism about the future, almost no one would do anything new...)

In recent years, there have been some artistic couples that have made it work, though it seems to work slightly better for writers than visual artists.  Constance Urdang-Donald Finkel and Jane Kenyon-Donald Hall do appear to have been successful artistic marriages, though it is hard to tell what would have happened had nobody involved had their lives cut short by illness. If one is just playing the odds, then I would expect that the a pairing of a visual artist and a writer would work better than either two painters or two poets.  My old poetry professor, Ken Mikolowski and his late wife Ann, seemed to make it work.  Still, who likes worrying about the odds when one is young and in love with that fascinating artist who seems to understand just what you are going through...

Bonne chance, young lovers.

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