Reflective Essay 1 on "Last Gesture" Poems

"Last Gesture" by Michelle Von Euw

(View "Last Gesture")

When she died in 1927, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven left behind piles of letters, the beginnings of an autobiography, scraps of paper from her days as a Dadaist model, and several poems – a modest number of them published, but most of them unrealized in print. Some four decades later, they ended up in the University of Maryland Libraries Archive and Manuscripts collection, where they wait for a rediscovery of the Baroness (as her friends called her) and her flair for language. Little is known about the poem, "Last Gesture," and one can only speculate when it was written.1 A love of words and sounds is apparent from the several versions "Last Gesture," which the Baroness dedicated to "Ernest – E.H." "Sometime I tell you 'why'!" is the Baroness' cryptic note on one version of the poem.

"But of course age never counted with me in the sense. I haven't age even now...only misfortune...let me have ...and I am young as ever!" –Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Autobiography," 1924

In Folder 64, Box 2, Series III of the Baroness collection are four pages relating to the poem "Last Gesture," comprising of as many as six versions on back and front of the pages. The latest copy appears to be the typewritten version, which contains relatively few markings (in red pen), and is the cleanest version of the poem. There is a number "1" written in pencil in the upper right corner (numbers were added at a later date by someone other than the Baroness). The poem is typed on thin, typewriter paper, with the watermark: "er for Type-Writer * The Best Pa" evident on the back of the page. The paper is a yellowish, almost light brown color (the poems were stored in Djuna Barnes' chaotic apartment from 1927 until 1970, and display signs of aging that occurs with papers that are not carefully stored). The typewriter ink is black, fainter in some places than others. The typist appears to be someone other than the Baroness, possibly close friend Barnes, benefactor Peggy Guggenheim, or an unidentified person. 2 It's likely that it was not the Baroness who typed the poem, as her penned changes explain corrections that were present on earlier drafts – explaining the meaning of "coppry," for example.

Page 2 of "Last Gesture" is a two-sided version of the poem, written in a clean, neat hand in black ink pen, perhaps the version used by typist. The poem is printed on thin, lined paper, also yellowed with age, and contains no visible watermark. The page is stained in a few places and is darker at edges and corners; it is same paper used for the last two sheets in the folder, as well. On this holograph, the dedication to "E.H." first appears, and was violently crossed out in charcoal pencil.3 It appears that the Baroness responded to this omission with a note in blue pen, insisting that it remain in tact, which is probably why the penciled "to myself" does not appear on the typewritten version. There are dashes, hyphens, and a few markings made in blue and purple ink, but this version (2) is very neat and appears to be almost "finished."

There is reason to believe that the remaining versions in the folder were misidentified during the archiving process. The holograph numbered 3 appears to be the Baroness' original notes for this poem: on one side are many columns written in pencil in a messier hand, with several crossouts and corrections. The line "Moss toadstool" is played around with, combined with different endings before settling on "quilt," a phrase that reappears in all other versions of the paper. On the back of page 3 (3b) is an untitled version written in black ink, in smaller handwriting than used on the front of page 3 (3a). Several of the words from the poem are repeated in the columns on the left side of the page; on the right side, listed below the underlined word "Treat," are actually several of the same phrases from "Last Gesture," including the opening refrain of "Lakelevels/Rigid/Stiffblue/Oreglint," which are all contained in the second stanza of the typed version of "Last Gesture," implying that this may be an additional version of the poem and not a separate poem, as labeled.

The page numbered 4 is written in neat script in black ink, and contains "coppry," a word that the Baroness explained on the typewritten version (which contributes to the theory that someone other than the Baroness typed the poem, someone who didn't recognize the adjectival version of copper, and instead typed 'copty,' which was then corrected by EvFL in red pen). "Coppry" does not appear on the versions on 3a or 3b. The "Toadstoolquilts" line also appears on this version, reflecting changes made on 3a. Page 4 contains many crossouts in two sections of the poem: toward the bottom of the first stanza, where the Baroness appears to have attempted several versions of the word "clamor;" and at the top of the second column, using several words ("Hostil/Lit/Fairy/Blind") that also appear only on pages 2b and 1. Therefore, the order in which the pages should be arranged, from newest to oldest, should be: 1, 2a/b, 4, 3a/b.

The attached transcriptions attempt to replicate the pages from the Baroness's collection. In all cases, fonts were selected to match the originals: Courier New was used to duplicate the typewritten pages, and Bernhard Fashion BT was chosen for its similarity to the Baroness' handwriting. Majuscules were used to duplicate her own preference for printing in capital letters, and blue, red, and purple ink was used to denote where those pen colors were present on the Baroness' pages. In a few places, where electronic duplication was not possible, handwritten inserts were made onto the pages to preserve the integrity of the transcription. In a few cases, an editorial decision was made to keep certain text uncovered: the dedication to "E.H." on page 2, for example, was so obscured on the original pages that it was impossible to read in photocopies. As the quotation hints at an unexplained mystery – and the dedication ultimately makes it to the typed version of "Last Gesture" – it seemed essential to preserve this note in future replications.

A final edition of the poem has been constructed, based primarily on the final typed version (1) of "Last Gesture". A few things lead me to believe that this is the version the Baroness would ultimately want to see published: first, it is the accumulation of combinations of words that she apparently experimented with on the earlier versions, copying neatly onto page 2 her preferred arrangement. Second, this is the typed version, and there is an implied communication (most likely with Barnes) about the product and its importance. A few changes are made in the Baroness' red pen, which have been incorporated by this editor as "corrections," in order to capture the author's latest intent. Anticipating that this version is to be published in print, the red ink markings have been excluded. (If the poem were to be mounted on a website, the electronic copy retains the red markings, which would be appropriate – it's exciting to imagine that after seventy-five years of oblivion, a reader would be able to view the Baroness' work as she did, colorful red ink dashes and exclamation points highlighting the staid black text.)

Notes

  1. Editors Paul I. Hjartarson and D.O. Spettigue believe that most of the poems in this collection were written between 1910-1913, when the Baroness first arrived in Kentucky (27-28). But the Dadaist nature of the poems, in addition to the fact that the Baroness published most of her poems between 1918-1924, and the fact that archivists have placed many of them in the early 1920s makes it nearly impossible to establish an exact date for a number of the Baroness' poems. Back to text
  2. Irene Gammel writes that both Barnes and Guggenheim typed her work as a favor to the Baroness (385). In the 1980s, Hank O'Neal reports that he typed up several of the Baroness' poems while working with Barnes, but it's unlikely that this version was among them, as the handwriting is undoubtedly the Baroness.' Back to text
  3. The exact identity of E.H./Ernest mentioned the dedication is unknown. Two likely candidates are writer Ernest Hemingway, who spirited the Baroness' poetry into print behind his editor's back at the transatlantic review in 1924, and the Baroness' young lover from approximately 1903, playwright Ernst Hardt, whom the Baroness wrote at least three other poems about. Back to text

Works Cited

von Freytag-Loringhaven, Elsa. Autobiography. Folder 4, Box 1, Series I. Archives and Manuscripts, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park.

—. "Last Gesture." Folder 64, Box 2, Series III (Last Gesture, Treat). Archives and Manuscripts, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park.

Gammel, Irene. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity, A Cultural Biography.Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

Hjartarson, Paul I. and D.O. Spettigue, eds. Baroness Elsa. Ontario: Oberon Press, 1992.

O'Neal, Hank, ed. Djuna Barnes and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. New York: O'Neal, 1992.

—. Life is Painful, Nasty and Short...In My Case It Has Only Been Painful and Nasty. Djuna Barnes. An Informal Memoir. New York: Paragon House, 1990.

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