The poet’s muse might be a struggle to maintain mental health, but the effort, at least for her readers, is certainly worth it. That image of ‘my loneliness is a bomb / raising a siren call’ is achingly strong while the final three lines represent a heartfelt plea, free of melodrama, and burning with anxiety. The exploration of this angst is continued in ‘Psappha’. Here we are told that Psappha ‘liked the word ‘les’ in French for obvious reasons’, and that papyrus (which the poem links to Psappha’s name) is ‘a material that comes from the cells of a water plant like the spine of a woman’. This is an incredible image, jolting the poem to a startled standstill before resuming with an interrogative story about an abusive father / daughter relationship involving pedophilia and a medical profession too quick to ‘blame the victim’. This is difficult subject matter but Everall responds to it with bold sensitivity.
And Everall also confronts, head-on, the confinements that restricted so many women in the twentieth century. The poem, ‘The Crone Sisters’, begins with:
To be big then was normal. Beware a woman who takes herself seriously past her procreative prime. Gertrude wrote with her eyes bigger than her belly she had a face like a Roman Emperor a mask of Stein that Picasso tried to paint out after ninety sittings.
The clever and comic punning in these lines are so defiantly juxtaposed with the interrogation of the sexism that Gertrude Stein experienced throughout her life. And the breadth of allusion in that third stanza is astounding: how does such plain language work to echo round and round inside your head?
In the allusions to Stein’s ‘face / like a Roman Emperor’, masks and Picasso portraits, there is an engagement with notions of gender fluidity and erasure of the female. Both Eades and Everall know that this is fractious terrain, and both bear witness to these painful needs for self-identification with great subtlety and empathy. They display none of the crude binary thinking of transphobic thinkers on this subject, who see trans-men as just more manifestations of patriarchy’s hegemony. Everall’s poem, ‘Mount Gertrude’, ends with the following:
Stein is the man takes Picasso’s hand in marriage he is barefoot and pregnant to her. Stein is the brother Hemingway’s lover T.S. Eliot, Henry James and Joyce are invisible to her. Stein is the drag king as Chaplin and Keaton she loved to feel the weight of their clothes fall from her body.
There is a defiantly comic play in these lines that advocate for a wonderfully feminist take on gender fluidity. In those last four lines, there is both a subtle eroticism and assertion of equality in the gender wars. Everall has a stunning way of spinning serious politics on the point of lines that are comically and erotically charged.
Later we are told that Virginia Woolf wanted to ‘break / chastity … with her head / placed like a vice / between Mrs. Ramsay’s / knees’; that Virginia and Vita Sackville-West ‘are a juggernaut of want’ and that Vita ‘has her finger in the circuit’; while later again we read:
The spine of the book is my cunt you touch it to take me out.
This is brilliantly comic imagism. Love, however, is not all good sex and contentment. One of Djuna Barnes’ lovers is Thelma, described as having eyes like ‘two black child coffins/not waiting for the resurrection’. And Thelma would later abandon Djuna to the ‘escalation/of alcohol, Sapphic bordellos/and sanatoriums’. Both her family and a medical profession, too ready to conflate homosexuality with insanity, would persecute Barnes. Everall’s book concludes with a powerfully evocative plea:
Djuna, Are You Still Alive? In New York where your family had you put in a sanatorium for drunkenness Are you still alive? Trapped in Patchin Place for forty two years playing ‘Madame Vitriol’ cockroaches crawling up the wall twice you’ve attempted suicide Can you hear E. E. Cummings call? Are you still alive? Addicted to opium Blind in one eye Your false teeth don’t fit Your nerves are pinched You’ve fallen five times Your ribs are broken You’re comatose in an old person’s home Are you still alive?
The tragic trajectory of Barnes’s life is terribly reminiscent of the life of the Australian poet and translator, Aileen Palmer, and reminds me of Sylvia Martin’s brilliant biography, Ink In Her Veins: the Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer (UWAP, 2016). It is shocking that powerful writers like Gabrielle Everall and Sylvia Martin are forced to interrogate such manifestations of historical homophobia to this day.
I hope that, in the years to come, Rallying by Quinn Eades and Les Belles Lettres by Gabrielle Everall are still celebrated as major contributions to the field of Queer poetics. Both books delight, unsettle, arouse and challenge. They allow, even someone as old and conventional as me, to dream of a future where equality and diversity might just be not only possible, but also celebrated.