Reflective Essay 2 on "Last Gesture" poems

"Recreating the Baroness' 'Last Gesture': Hemingway, Hopelessness, and Hats of Birthday Cake" by Michelle Von Euw

(View "Last Gesture")

"For 54 years, [the Baroness was] ridiculed, praised, loved, brutalized, being passionate, ridiculous, splendid and impossible." – Djuna Barnes, 19321

There is a knock on the door. It is late, maybe 3, maybe 4 am, as I stumble to my doorstep.2 I'm in the East Village, or above the Café du Dome in Paris, or at fin de siècle Berlin, somewhere that is not suburban Maryland, and there is dog excrement on my doorstep. Or perhaps just an androgynous woman of an indeterminate age,3 her shaved hair painted vermilion, teacups hanging from her breasts, screaming bloody murder while waving a suspiciously shaped plaster of paris object. "Mesh! Seeps! Limp! Veins!" she cries, "Hectic! Haunted! Toadstoolquilts! Kissclangor!"4 I sigh, hope that she'll calm down, and allow the enigmatic, incomparable, obscurely legendary Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, and her poem, "Last Gesture," into my life.

It's easy to transfer the image of the Baroness – as she was known by her admirers, her readers, and most importantly, herself – from the descriptions of her contemporaries to a living, ranting, twenty-first century contemporary of Courtney Love. In 1992, Hank O'Neal speculated that the Baroness' ghost still haunts those who try to publish her works, and refers to a curse that befalls all attempts to bring her poems into print ("Djuna and the Baroness"). Armed with a semester's worth of Bowers, McGann, Greetham, and Birkerts, we stumble into the Baroness collection and hope that our texts can keep us from becoming the Baroness' next victims.

The first obstacle the specter of the Baroness tossed in our path was the difficulty of determining when and where in her vagabond life the poems were crafted. For the poems in English, it's safe to assume that they were created sometime after 1910, as she reports in her autobiography that she had a limited use of the English language when her husband deserted her shortly after their arrival in America (66). While several poems in the Baroness' collection are undated, many contain markings encouraging her literary executor, Djuna Barnes, to prepare them for publication, begging her do to anything to get them sold. The notes were likely written around 1923-1926, but who is to say if the poems were? One holograph of "Last Gesture" contains what appears to be a dialogue between the Baroness and Barnes, implying that it was typed when the two were in the same city, which had to have been Paris in the spring of 1926. However, I uncovered nothing that would allow me to pin an actual date on this poem with any sort of confidence.

A second difficulty occurred when I attempted to compare the Baroness' published work to the handwritten and sometimes-typed manuscript pages contained within the University of Maryland's Baroness Elsa collection. A look at the folder entitled, "Café du Dome" (Folder 28, Box 1, Series III, dated ca. 1926-1927) contains three handwritten versions of the poem, written in black ink with punctuation added in green. One version is almost identical to the printed copy in the October 1927 transition, with just a few minor changes occurring between holograph and print. Based on what we know of the Baroness, she probably did not care that a few dashes were changed or spaces omitted, as long as her works were published.5 An attempt to compare published works with the manuscript versions was thwarted by the fact that some of the same titles are attached to completely different poems. For instance, "Chill," which was published in The Liberator in October 1922, contains no similar words to the poem in the folder marked "Chill" (Folder 34, Box 1, Series III) or the one inexplicably marked, "Chill II" (Folder 35, Box 1, Series III), contents are titled only "Chill." Likewise, "Buddha" of the January 1920 Little Review bears no resemblance to "Buddha" in Series III, Box 1, Folder 27, dated 1926-1927.

Despite these anomalies, the example provided by "Café du Dome" suggests that the publications that accepted and printed the Baroness' poetry were happy to do so almost exactly (in January 1923, Broom even arranged the title letters of "Circle" in a shape to represent the poem itself). It's perhaps appropriate to relate the way the Baroness wrote with the idea that Jerome McGann raises regarding the importance of treating the textual medium "as part of the aesthetic field of the writing." He expressly pointed to Emily Dickinson's constructions of text, using such additional details as position of words and designs on the page as "expressive vehicles of art" (63). Several of the Baroness' poems fit into the category, where her choices of pen, paper, text direction, and marginalia contribute directly to the meaning of the poem itself.

"Last Gesture" may be one of the most straightforward poems in the Baroness' papers, particularly if one accepts the typed version as the definitive manuscript of the poem. There is, however, one aspect of the poem that an editor publishing the piece would struggle with – the poem's teasingly mysterious dedication, "Memory to Ernest – E.H." The automatic assumption is that this refers to Ernest Hemingway, whose prose and reputation were already established before his first book was published in 1926.6 Intrigued by a potential connection, I set about to answer the question — how to explain this mysterious dedication to potential readers of "Last Gesture"?

The biographies of the Baroness don't make a strong association between Ernest Hemingway and the German dadaist: they shared similar acquaintances in Jane Heap, and Hemingway published the Baroness' poems "Novembertag," "NovemberDay," and "Enchantment," (pgs 138-140) in the August 1924 version of the transatlantic review, sliding the Baroness past his disapproving editor, Ford Madox Ford, who was out of the country for the month (Gammel 363).7 While Gammel posits that Hemingway must have admired the Baroness, and even theorizes that his most memorable character, Lady Brett Ashley of The Sun Also Rises, was based on EvFL (363), there is no record of proof that the two even met.8 A search through the poems in the Maryland collection uncovered two additional poems that mention an Erni. Series III, Box 1, Folder 66, dated 1923-1924, contains a short poem titled "Erni," written in German. "This is romance!" The Baroness wrote on the left margin in English, most likely directed to Barnes, or another unknown reader not fluent in von Freytag-Loringhoven's native language. "Rather strange – charming. I could translate it. Not at present." So the mystery continues.

A second folder - Series III, Box 4, Folder 19, contains a poem entitled "To Erni," written by the Baroness in both English and German. The poem is almost naïve, quite a contrast to what we've come to expect from the Baroness:

Erni – my old darling honeylove – I just kiss
You everywhere – up and down – athwart –
And – there! Kid! You deserve it!
Ernst Hardt – list
You save an artist from desparspells
Lost to fate
Of
Heart desolate
Else.

There is no doubt to whom this poem is written: Ernst Hardt, who, as stated in the Baroness' own autobiography, was one of her earliest artist-lovers, a playwright who she contacted again in the last decade of her life for financial assistance. A third poem, not in the collection, describes the Baroness' "stormy affair with Ernst Hardt" and was written in 1923-1924, according to the University of Manitoba, who translated and posted the poem on their website ("A Long Satirical").

As Richard Altick wrote, "a myth persists despite exposure is that it is often so much more picturesque than the prosaic truth; a good anecdote, however doubtful its credentials, appeals to the romanticist in us" (25). While it's definitely much more romantic and picturesque to imagine that the Baroness did dedicate "Last Gesture" to a man who would become one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, there is ample evidence to suggest that the "Ernest" she was referring to was a mere mortal, a former lover, and not a future literary giant.

While on the topic of great American writers, it's useful to look at the way Martha Nell Smith has found errors in the way we view an artist, and apply them to our perception of the Baroness. Emily Dickinson's reputation is largely based on a letter Dickinson wrote to the "Master," which some scholars now believe were "probably self-conscious exercises in prose by one writer playing with, listening to, and learning from other" (Howe, quoted in Nell Smith 19). If this is true, then the commonly held idea of Dickinson as "lovelorn spinster writer" (42) is completely incorrect. The wash on Dickinson was, in part, intentional – "editors, critics, and biographers have rearranged Dickinson's literary and biographical records to emphasize her timidities and to erase her aggressiveness" (49). I believe that what we know the Baroness today in intensely colored by two facts: first, the fact that her surviving writings are incomplete bits of words scrawled on the back of hotel napkins and other poems, shuffled off to a friend's chaotic apartment, where they remained for five decades, leads to the assumption that the work in front of us is an incomplete representation of what the Baroness was capable of producing. Secondly, it is probable that her own explosive personality ultimately worked against her reputation, possibly accounting for the fact that her name is largely absent from the roster of influential artists of the Dada era.

While considering how the Baroness' image effects how we read her poems, I was reminded of what Altick had to say about the capacity for uncovering the truth: "In evaluating any piece of historical informationŠa good working knowledge of human nature is one of the most effective pieces of equipment a scholar can possess" (34). The Baroness drove away scads of friends and benefactors, including Man Ray, William Carlos Williams, Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap, and Berenice Abbott with her outrageous behavior. Even Djuna Barnes, the woman the Baroness entrusted with her legacy, in the end viewed her only as a character, and not a poet of any significance ("Djuna and the Baroness"). The Baroness was such a controversial, flamboyant woman – "the only one living anywhere who dresses Dada, loves Dada, lives Dada" (Heap, quoted in Gammel 276) – and so self-destructive and so dreadful, particularly to those who were once friends, that it's easy to imagine how her own reputation was stretched beyond the limits until she was built into a caricature, someone to poke fun at, an artist to make all other artists feel sane, superior, when standing beside her.

Among such noise, the poet is lost.

But there is hope for recovery, for scholars to forage among the wreckage and find the artist below the noise. Certainly in a time where Courtney Love makes headlines for her over-the-top behavior and attire, a figure like the Baroness is bound to entice new readers to dig deeper. Mounting a collection of her poetry on the worldwide web would be a step toward this process, and a site that employed technology like the MITH Versioning machine would be useful. George Landow and Paul Delany talk of a hypertext future, an access to text that is no longer limited by the confines of the linear, but is open to expanding and circular words and images. The Baroness' poems, mounted in a Versioning machine, with drafts and final versions, links to images of her handwritten manuscripts and German translations, would be the ideal candidates to highlight this complex medium: the hypermedia world that Landow and Delany describe seems tailor-made for the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. It is often said that the Baroness was ahead of her time – the very first "performance artist" – and one can only imagine what her "Last Gesture" would be if she discovered her poems, mounted in cyberspace.

Thanks to Erin Baggett, author of the short story "The Baroness," who kindly shared her knowledge of EvFL.

Notes

  1. Djuna Barnes attempted to write the Baroness' biography several times; in Hank O'Neal's transcription of her work, this beginning is used a total of seven times ("Djuna and the Baroness"). Back to text
  2. Djuna Barnes told her literary executor, Hank O'Neal, that the Baroness left this treat on the doorstep of Margaret Anderson, editor of the Little Review ("Life is Painful" 147). Back to text
  3. William Carlos Williams referred to her as a "woman in her fifties" when she was in her early 40s (Lane); this was approximately around the same time that she passed herself off as 29 on her marriage license (Gammel, 5). Back to text
  4. From "Last Gesture." Back to text
  5. There is one story, recounted by Gammel, that may be used to contradict this: The Baroness submitted a long poem in 1921 to the Little Review that she refused to have shortened or published in serial form – instead, she wanted the entire issue of the magazine devoted to just her poem (259). This may have as more to do with the Baroness' own self-destructive impulses as her relationship with the magazine and its editor, Margaret Anderson, waned, than her concerns regarding authorial intent, however. Back to text
  6. Contained in the "Guide to the Papers," next to the title, "Last Gesture," is the scrawled note: Hemingway! It is most likely attributed to Professor William Sherman. Back to text
  7. "I generally turned round in time to take them out of the contents table" is how Ford describes Hemingway's earlier attempts to insert the Baroness' poems into the magazine (Ford, quoted in Gammel, 363). Back to text
  8. The Baroness and Hemingway may have become acquainted at the Café du Dome – Hemingway's favorite café, which he described as "the place for honest working artists." It's likely the Baroness frequented the café, too, as she titled one of her poems after it. Back to text

Works Consulted

von Freytag Loringhoven, 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.

——. "Buddha." Little Review. January 1920.

——. "Buddha." Folder 27, Box 1, Series III (Buddha, ca 1926-1927). Archives and Manuscripts, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park.

——. "Café du Dome." The Liberator. October 1922; Folder 28, Box 1, Series III.

——. "Chill." The Liberator. October 1922. Archives and Manuscripts, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park.

——. "Chill." Folder 34, Box 1, Series III (Chill). Archives and Manuscripts, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park.

——. "Chill." Folder 35, Box 1, Series III (Chill II). Archives and Manuscripts, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park.

——. "Circle." Broom January 1923.

——. "Earni." Folder 19, Box 4, Series III (To Earny [An Erni]). Archives and Manuscripts, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park.

——. "Erni." Folder 66, Box 1, Series III (Erni; Trotz; Spat; Wildpark; Abend; Schiff; Fahrt, ca. 1923-1924). Archives and Manuscripts, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park.

——. "A Long Satirical Poem About Her Stormy Affair With Ernst Hardt, ca. 1896-1898," edited and translated from German by Gaby Divay and Jan Horner, posted on the University of Manitoba Libraries & Archives website, November 2000.

Altick, Richard D. "The Spirit of Scholarship," The Art of Literary Research, New York: Norton, 1981.

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.

Landow, George P. and Paul Delany. "Hypertext, Hypermedia, and Literary Studies: the State of the Art," Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Lane, Christopher. A Short Biography of the Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven, Including Some of Her Writings, http://home1.gte.net/zzyzlane/write/essay/baroness.html accessed December 8, 2003.

McGann, Jerome. "The Rationale of Hypertext," Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.

Nell Smith, Martha. "To Fill a Gap: Erasures, Disguises, Definitions," Rowing in Eden: ReReading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

O'Neal, Hank, ed. Djuna Barnes and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven - cited as "Djuna and the Baroness." 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 . Paragon House: New York, 1990.

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