Lyric Essay as Perversion (Channeling Djuna Barnes)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Djuna Barnes goes out for a walk with Louie, James Joyce’s alter-ego, Eliot’s lap dog—“woolf woolf,” Pound’s mewler let loose from the pound. I don’t know how else to say it except that there is an all-ness in her, and an in-awe-of, too, that I can never get to the bottom of: Shakespeare’s sister aloft on a promontory’s edge. When I return to you, Djuna, what do I hear? Some unholy incantation of a ritual mons. Reverie without lift-off. Obdurate trance that builds like rooms unfit for catacombs. Holy holy holy DJ, lord of havens and clit. Raven and spud are rife with your gory. Hosanna in the nighest.

Each new discovery—whether we’re talking literature or science—requires amnesia: but in Djuna Barnes’s case we never got the memory-engine started: enter lyric essay and the directive to return, because, like most readers, I knew her 1936 novel, Nightwood, and it maybe even was the busk singe larceny at the bottom of my first book’s Night-Bloom-well. But how about her interlude-ic drawings in which her pen creates an Aubrey Beardsley meets Maxfield Parrish in Daumier? And The Antiphon. Ryder. The Ladies Almanack. The Interviews? Maybe here’s the crux: in order to accept the radical nature of Djuna Barnes’s best known work, Nightwood, we had to forget Djuna Barnes’s journalism: it’s the one in two-in-one oil that lyric essay wants us to renew.

Barnes wrote serpentine sentences in the heyday of box engineering. In an era of studies on attention, how she attended was with blandishment. Her word. There’s really no word for these things she made from the Teens through the Twenties for newspapers like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, for New York World, and later for Vanity Fair, out of conversations, aka interviews, with (labor activist) Mother Jones, (evangelist) Billy Sunday *(he moved in “wonderfully ordained spasms” [1917]), heavyweight boxer Jess Willard, or writer James Joyce. With Joyce she experienced not influence but confluence: her sketch of him in 1922, and just before he gives her the original annotated manuscript of Ulysses, focuses on silence, and a scarf he happened to be wearing patterned with dogs and does made by his grandmother for the first hunt of the season. Inside her sketches bustle crowds that are homey, communal throngs into which she threads a daybreak of torment or desire or need unique to the being who is experiencing it and different from her own. Her interviews are a barroom brawl of voice; the taunt of her having the guts to live and write in the midst.

 “It was the most concentrated moment of my life.” “All life’s problems had now been reduced to one simple act—to swallow or to choke . . . for all things are alike when they reach the stomach by rubber tube.” “Was my body so inept as to be incapable of further struggle?” The piece she writes following her submission to force-feeding, a kind of clinically induced rape, in order to understand her French and British sister suffragettes’ realpolitik is neither stunt nor immersion nor experiential journalism but “experimental journalism,” identificatory journalism. It is an anguish utterly impossible to describe, she says, but then conveys: “The hall they took me down was long and faintly lighted. I could hear the doctor walking ahead of me, stepping as all doctors step, with that little confiding gait that horses must have returning from funerals. It is not a sad or mournful step; perhaps it suggests suppressed satisfaction.”

In the twenty-first century, the lyric essay at its worst is a utility or an app; at its best, it’s a cross-hatch of a genre in which things cross over; implicitly chiasmic, it’s a space in which incompatible discourses are allowed to intermingle; wherein poetry and prose create productive frictions, enabling a new, unnatural form, illegible and readable for the first time. Can contemporary writing bear this, or contemporary reading? I want a lyric essay shaped like “a tall girl with the body of a boy” (to quote Nightwood); I would like nothing so much as a lyric essay that was “one of those deviations by which man thinks to reconstruct himself”; lyric essay as a “dream that had not been well-dreamt the first time and required repeating.” “I have a narrative, but you will be put to it to find it,” Doctor Matthew O’Connor says in Nightwood; there is no direct way to désir, to plaisir. “Isn’t everyone in the world peculiarly swung?” Barnes’s narrator asks. “What is this love we have for the invert?” she asks. As well, inverted form? Inverted syntax? And how about the pervert? Can lyric essay broach perversion? Is it too obvious to describe Djuna Barnes’s work as indicative of the “grotesque body”? Just as she calls on Montaigne directly for the allowance of a “lunatic humour” in more than one sense of those words: hailing from the moon, and the night; having to do with the affective body and comedic: “a body radically open to the world both temporally and spatially, simultaneously eating, shitting, fucking, dancing, laughing, groaning, giving birth, falling ill, and dying,” over against the modern body, that well-bounded property of “possessive individualism.” (See Ed Cohen for this wonderful definition and distinction in his book A Body Worth Defending [2009], on the politics of immunity.) Is it this that makes Ulysses, in her words, “that great Rabelaisian flower”?

It’s startling to meet Djuna at the switchpoint that is the throat-back of an out-of- body experience, the result of a willingness to enter into life in order to write it. People don’t say such things. People don’t write such things anymore. On more than one occasion, Barnes’s work was brought into print on the condition that she allow parts of what she wrote to be censored. I’m not sure anyone has yet written a lyric essay worth censoring.

On Djuna Barnes’s inimitable wit, Robert McAlmon wrote, “If only Djuna Barnes or Mina Loy turned up, the evening might be saved.”

Quoting Coco Chanel, “you cannot keep up a night life and amount to anything in the day,” Barnes titled her sketch of her, “Nothing Amuses Coco Chanel after Midnight.”

But Barnes herself, in Nightwood at least, was a writer of the night, a night writer, and a night rider of the insomniac night, of the turning in the night, of the long day’s journey into, of betrayals during a deep-in-one’s-cups night. She wrote a temporality that was impossible to sustain: Nightwood is the sort of book you can only write once. We associate lyric with the light and with the day, with presence abounding, but lyric writing to Barnes is night work like dream work, when bones and letters knit without your intervention but your w-r-e-s-t.

Can our own colorless language be so sanguine or engorged? Over and against the bright light of our computer screens, we’d need to imagine the scrim of silent cinema, the age of celluloid rather than beta-droid. To emulate Barnes and her ilk, we need to be able to think in black and white, in light and shadow. Think Man Ray and Maya Deren. Alfred Stieglitz. More recently, Nebraska. Channel Chanel. Channel Cixous. Court Scriabin. Date Demuth.

Listen! Do things look in the ten and twelve of noon as they do in the dark? Is the hand, the face, the foot, the same face and hand and foot seen by the sun? For now the hand lies in a shadow; its beauties and its deformities are in a smoke—there is a sickle of doubt across the cheek bone thrown by the hat’s brim, so there is half a face to be peered back into speculation. A leaf of darkness has fallen under the chin and lies deep upon the arches of the eyes; the eyes themselves have changed their colour. The very mother’s head you swore by in the dock is a heavier head, crowned with ponderable hair. (Nightwood, 85)

Or again, from Nightwood: “The night does something to a person’s identity even when asleep” (81); “All of us die over again in somebody’s sleep” (149); “the nights of one period are not the nights of another. Neither are the nights of one city the nights of another. Let us take Paris, for instance” (82).

Daily we have no choice but to walk to the beat of our circadian rhythms, and without the benefit of Paris, or do we? We say we walk beneath the night sky; in lyric essay, we need to be willing to roll out the night and let it last longer than it might. Can the work of Djuna Barnes tutor us in an entirely new lexicon for lyric essaying, or is the point of our meditating on modernism to find traces of what we already know or suspect?

Here’s a partial list of aesthetic emphases:

  • rhythm: can rhythm avert disaster or stampede?
  • states: are they altered or maintained?
  • grade or grain: now I think Roland Barthes must have had Barnes’s Night’s wood in mind when he sought out a language for the grain of the voice.

What does our writing wake to? Does it matter what we’re roused by? Is the take-away ultimately an aesthetic of the sub-mergent? Of sub-mergencies? Can someone please consult the OED?

T. S. Eliot, in his famous introduction to Nightwood, explained that “a prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.” Looking back to Djuna Barnes, maybe I just want, with her, to be able to call T. S. Eliot “Tom,” or to be okay with the female pervert being the runt of the modernist litter.

There are times when I don’t like modernism: when stylistic fervor overrides chance operations—then I want John Cage; or give me, again, some Steinean mirth. But here, I’ve ridden lyric essay toward a moment of recognition, a lunar eclipse of the soul  that has required me to return to what I was never able fully to understand (or let sink in): how Djuna Barnes unsettles me.

And, now, my admission: I don’t really like reading her. I don’t like it at all. It unsettles me. It keeps me up at night. It ruins my day. 


Barry, Alyce, ed. Djuna Barnes: Interviews, foreword and commentary by Douglas Messerli. Washington, DC: Sun and Moon Press, 1985.

Barnes, Djuna. “How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed.” World Magazine, 6 September 1914. Full text available online: <>.

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. New York: New Directions, 1937.

“Embracing the Quirkiness of Djuna Barnes.” All Things Considered. <>.

Hustvedt, Siri. “Nightwood: A Hymn to the Dispossessed.” 7 August 2008. <>.

James, David, and Urmila Seshagiri. “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution.” PMLA 129, no. 1 (2014): 87–100.

Messerli, Douglas, ed. Poe’s Mother: Selected Drawings of Djuna Barnes. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1995.

 “Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913–1919.” Exhibition, Brooklyn Museum, 20 January–19 August 2012. <>.