Keep me from the old distress;
Let me, for our happiness,
Be the one to love the less.
– Dorothy Parker, “Somebody’s song”
It takes a certain kind of humor, singularity and incurable ennui to be able to enjoy this poetry collection written by a woman whose words had the ability to build and destroy, whose voice – louder at first and brittle by the end of the sentence but always effective – was hidden inside a delicate body which could break at any moment. A woman who revolutionized the beginning of the 20th century with her quick mind, her sardonic remarks, her peculiar heart, a heavy a heart it is / That hangs about my neck—a clumsy stone / Cut with a birth, a death, a bridal-day. I may be playing with your perception. If you only knew the rest of that poem.
A Well-Worn Story
In April, in April,
My one love came along,
And I ran the slope of my high hill
To follow a thread of song.
His eyes were hard as porphyry
With looking on cruel lands;
His voice went slipping over me
Like terrible silver hands.
Together we trod the secret lane
And walked the muttering town.
I wore my heart like a wet, red stain
On the breast of a velvet gown.
In April, in April,
My love went whistling by,
And I stumbled here to my high hill
Along the way of a lie.
Now what should I do in this place
But sit and count the chimes,
And splash cold water on my face
And spoil a page with rhymes?
I was aware of Dorothy Parker’s existence but this year, for some reason, I finally decided to become acquainted with her work. She is now part of my list of favorite authors. Enough rope, published in 1926, was her first poetry collection. Her verse speaks of love and its curses, unbearable absence, Death unable to fulfill its goal, the secondary role of a woman during those years and the fact that, despite all misadventures, another day awaits; another circle of joy and disappointment –
you might as well live.
I’ve read this volume and Sunset Gun aloud, relishing every word, the different meanings and fluent musicality. That’s unusual for me.
The Small Hours
No more my little song comes back;
And now of nights I lay
My head on down, to watch the black
And wait the unfailing gray.
Oh, sad are winter nights, and slow;
And sad’s a song that’s dumb;
And sad it is to lie and know
Another dawn will come.
As I kept reading Parker poems, I saw her memories behind most lines. Her tragic life, replete with many useless men and brief sparks of love, or something similar mixed with diversion.
Never disillusion has been discussed so cleverly. One look at her “Ballade of a great weariness” and its sharp, recurring line (scratch a lover, and find a foe) would suffice. However, despite her caustic tongue, her penchant for drama and self-destruction or her apparent inability to learn from her mistakes, I also discovered a strong woman who hardly followed conventional rules, disliked the domestic life forced upon women and at times surpassed men in their own game. Moreover, I found a resilient person who was able to re-adapt, as well as she could though she couldn’t do much, to life after great loss – the kind of loss that transcends the sometimes mundane realm of relationships. There are colorful poems, yes, but there is great intimacy and depth behind some playful rhymes to know that there is always enough rope.
Now it’s over, and now it’s done;
Why does everything look the same?
Just as bright, the unheeding sun,—
Can’t it see that the parting came?
People hurry and work and swear,
Laugh and grumble and die and wed,
Ponder what they will eat and wear,—
Don’t they know that our love is dead?
Just as busy, the crowded street;
Cars and wagons go rolling on,
Children chuckle, and lovers meet,—
Don’t they know that our love is gone?
No one pauses to pay a tear;
None walks slow, for the love that’s through,—
I might mention, my recent dear,
I’ve reverted to normal, too.
Parker’s poetry is remarkably candid. She spoke freely of her failures and fears and her verse is the sum of all emotions. Poignant, witty, cynical, unapologetic – her Symptom Recital is self-explanatory. Never happy, nonetheless. She is part of a group of people that look at life through pessimistic eyes. Her epigrammatic style even helped coin a useful expression. Every time the phone rings, the doorbell sounds, and now, that an email notification arrives, they prepare for the worst. The unknown is out there, waiting to cause damage since that is all they ever knew. And the slightest change makes them wonder, as Parker usually did, “what fresh hell is this?” Poor fearless voices overcome by relentless fears they try to fool with a funny remark. They fool their surroundings. And everything is fine.
* Photo credit: Book cover via Goodreads
** Note: I keep changing the rating from four to five stars, depending on my mood. Objectively speaking, it is a 4-star book.