Ordinary capaciousness

Looking forward to 1960

Lisa Steinman. Photo by Sabina Samiee for the Oregon Arts Commission.

As the symposium has suggested, there are a number of 1960s: a year in which work from the 1950s appeared in print (the physicality of print technologies involving a time lag); a year in which the social and political landscape silenced some, even as what was published has an energy still present in 2011; the year of the New American Poetry, 1945–1960 (the subtitle, worth underlining), by now surprisingly both capacious and ordinary, closed and defying aesthetic closure.  A longer view can cast even more light on the multiple facets of 1960.

In 1939 Philip Rahv proposed a distinction between “Paleface and Redskin”; his word choice makes us wince; his sense of who counted as a “redskin” — those, including Whitman, said to “control the main highway of literature” — sounds odd to our ears, as does his categorization of Eliot and Dickinson as more “paleface,” tending “toward a refined estrangement from reality.” [1] Rahv’s essay is primarily about novelists, but his sketch of an opposition between poetic schools seems simply to ignore innovative writers of the previous decade. A little over ten years after Rahv’s piece appeared, Paul Goodman’s essay on “Advance-Guard Writing, 1900–1950” — like Rahv’s piece published in The Kenyon Review, and focused mostly on fiction — noted that during the Depression and between the World Wars I and II, most people thought an advance-guard had simply vanished from the scene in the United States; innovative poetry did continue to be written, but no felt community persisted. [2] Goodman suggests as well that there was in 1950 a sense of a larger cultural mainstream against which innovative work could and should position itself. Between Rahv’s 1939 and Goodman’s 1950, there’s agreement that a poetic mainstream exists, but not about what counts as such or about what is going on outside of that mainstream.

Turning to testimony from other poetry readers in the ’50s, one can see that local reading or writing groups devoted to poetry were often still fighting rear-guard skirmishes against modernist practices. Wings:  A Quarterly of Verse — a small, staplebound but relatively well-produced regional magazine from Mill Valley, California edited by Stanton Coblentz (who had studied with Witter Bynner at Stanford) — has a continuing feature: facing pages, one entitled “This IS Poetry”; the other “This is NOT Poetry.”  In 1956, a sonnet by Christina Rossetti and an epigrammatic quatrain by Lady Margaret Sackville counted as poetry. A free verse piece by Kenneth Ford and Williams’ eight-line “Sonnet in Search of an Author” (reprinted from The Nation) were dismissed as “not poetry.” [3] In short, there was a segmentation of reading communities and reading practices: what looked publishable to The Nation, looked dismayingly innovative from Mill Valley. Meanwhile, Richard Wilbur — whose 1957 Pulitzer Prize suggests at least one form of mainstream recognition — was writing “Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act” in 1950, which hardly placed him in a cultural or political mainstream.  By 1956, Ashbery’s Some Trees was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Series by W. H. Auden. It seems that in ’50s America, various poets and their various readers defined what was innovative and what mainstream in so many ways that it is difficult to find a common core. 

True, many clearly felt there was a mainstream. Felix Stefanile, editor of Sparrow, looked back with some nostalgia at the ’50s saying there “was a real and powerful establishment to fight. Because it deprived us, it gave us a vision of the Enemy,” while Creeley writes of Black Mountain: “we felt, all of us, a great distance from the more conventional magazines of that time. Either they were dominated by the New Critics, with whom we could have no relation, or else were so general in character that no active center of coherence was possible.” [4] This sense of an establishment and use of the first-person plural may have been more a function of the political culture of consensus in the fifties than a single-minded resistance to a united aesthetic front.  Even Creeley’s comment notes that most poetry journals — I would add poetry readers — were not defining a single aesthetic. If anything, it was the smaller magazines that defined more unified communities, but there were multiple smaller communities. Certainly Lowell’s “tranquilized fifties” (as he said in 1959 and as would still have felt true in 1960) were poetically as well as politically and socially less homogenized than we might think. Maybe the myth of the fifties is what makes the multiple incarnations of 1960 surprising.

[1] Philip Rahv, “Paleface and Redskin,” Kenyon Review 1, no. 3 (1939), 251–256.
[2] Paul Goodman, “Advance-Guard Writing, 1900–1950,” Kenyon Review 8, no. 3 (1951), 357–380.
[3] Wings: A Quarterly of Verse, ed. Stanton A. Coblentz (1956), 20–21.
[4] Felix Stefanile, “The Little Magazine Today,” The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, ed. Elliott Anderson and Mary Kinzie (Yonkers: Pushcart Press, 1978), 649; Robert Creeley, “On the Black Mountain Review,” The Little Magazine in America, 253.

Readymade Baroness

The gendered language of Dadaist dress

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Forgotten Like This Parapluie Am I by You, 1923–24, gouache on foil, 5 1/8 x 4 3/4 inches. Courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York.

In 1922, Jean Heap characterized Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in the pages of The Little Review as “the first American dada … the only one living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada.”[1] This heraldic description, in which dressing, loving, and living Dada interlace, calls attention to the risks the Baroness took as an artist and highlights her radical sartorial imagination. Both manifested in her quotidian performances, which muddled the lines separating art and fashion; clothes and skin; bodies, images, and commodities.

This essay limns the prescient feminism in the Baroness’s performances, and argues that poetry is crucial to their critique of the female body’s commodification in modern art and culture, as it provided a space to detach from and defend against sexist reinscriptions and misperceptions of her work.

When writers and scholars describe the Baroness’s performances, it might seem as though they are giving us a full picture of the artist: verbal analogies to visual depictions in which her body is undeniably central and hypervisible. However, when delineating her sculpted and ornamented appearance, their prose takes on the qualities of still-life poetry. The words, as well as the images to which they refer, accumulate on the page, and the Baroness “herself” becomes difficult to see. Drawing from Robert Reiss’ memoir, “My Baroness” (1986), Amelia Jones (whose feminist readings of the Baroness I build upon here) portrays her as “mov[ing] throughout the city with shaved and painted scalp, headdress made of birdcages and wastepaper baskets, celluloid curtain rings as bracelets, assorted tea balls attached to her bust, spoons to her hat, a taillight to her bustle.”[2] In the afterword to Irene Gammel’s biography, Gisela Barnonin Freytag V. Loringhoven writes that her relative

expressed the protest against traditions and civilization by staging her body as a work of art in New York with long ice-cream-soda spoons dangling from her ears, shining feathers on her hat, white teaballs served as pearls in her necklace. The material she used was often stolen from department stores or picked out from the gutter: buttons, beads, curtain rings, tin toys, and other decorative materials. She also wore empty tin tomato cans in lieu of a bra.[3]

In these displays of her body, decorated with refuse and objects ripped from their proper uses and places, the Baroness enacted her unique contribution to the Dadaist critique of consumer culture.

The readymade emblematized this critique. In one simple sense, it marks the proliferation of mass-produced objects in everyday life. From a feminist perspective, the readymade can serve as a metaphor for prefabricated ideas about gender put into ideological circulation so they appear to be without context or origin. This metaphor makes even more sense when we consider that in the early years of the twentieth century, commodity culture took on a “feminine” guise. In the words of Jones, “women [became] the primary consumers in an expanding market economy and female bodies the purveyors of commercial value in advertisements.”[4]

It is easy to forget Dada's link to the history of clothing: Man Ray’s father was a tailor and Hannah Höch designed dress patterns for the magazines Die Dame and Die Praktische Berlinerin. Terms like “readymade” and “ready-to-wear” function as shorthand for the fact that modern clothing was more likely to be produced on the assembly line and the factory floor than in the home, the couture studio, or the tailor’s shop. The Baroness’s assemblages denaturalized clothing; they reminded onlookers of its status as an arrangement of mass-produced objects and highlighted the prefabricated dimensions of bodily experience at the beginning of the twentieth century.

By adorning her body with commodities, the Baroness mimed the readymade dimensions of gender and femininity; she enacted the mythical suturing of the female body and femininity to commodification in order to destabilize it. Luce Irigaray’s concept of mimesis, formulated in her 1977 essay “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” coincided with the emergence of feminist performance art in the 1970s, which many contend the Baroness presciently foresaw.[5] Irigaray argues that because patriarchal thinking is so pervasive, women must self-consciously represent the ideas they are expected to automatically embody. The purpose of mimesis is to repeat, but with a critical difference. Registering the impact of the difference mimesis puts into circulation requires a receptive audience and discourse, otherwise the categories meant for defamiliarization can easily be reinforced and reinscribed. After relaying the scene in which the Baroness entered the studio of George Biddle and offered her body for modeling work — nude except for the tin tomato cans and green string she was using for a bra — Irene Gammel writes: “The Baroness’s body is saturated with signifiers that cry out to be read as gender acts.”[6] It is difficult to imagine that in the decades before Western feminism made a widespread impact, there were many people who could discern and actively read the feminist subversions in these displays.

The Baroness presented her body as object, sculpture, and stage, but ultimately the Dada concept of the female body was both too fixed and too fungible to truly reward its subversions: the Dadaist female body conveniently but obliquely announced the male artist’s distance from and therefore mastery over mass production and commodification. Therefore, it was all too easy to let the Baroness’s performances — and the Baroness herself — catapult back onto the assembly line of gender production, the fast track to obsolescence. Indeed, the Baroness would end up destitute and penniless, the result of becoming, according to Jones, “increasingly unbounded and ultimately ‘disappeared.’”[7]

The risks the Baroness took displaying her body become quite clear in a black-and-white photograph that appears in a letter Man Ray sent to Tristan Tzara in 1921.[8] She appears completely nude, her pubic hair shaved, her labia prominently displayed. Her right arm shoots up from her shoulder and bends at the elbow so her hand hides behind her head. The Baroness’s left arm is posed in the opposite direction; her elbow bends into a sharp angle at the waist. With her left leg thrust to the side and bent at the knee, the Baroness’s body has contorted into a set of triangles that echo the shape of her vagina. To the left of the photograph, Man Ray has written “de l’a”; to the right he has written “merique!” The Baroness appears like a fleshy letter of the alphabet that interrupts and exceeds the word “America.” The image of her body works as a visual passageway for this message between two men. Plastered above the photograph like a tickertape are the letters “MERDELAMERDELAMER- DELAMER,” which concatenates and mocks the words “mère” (mother), “America,” and “merde” (shit), and therefore may suggest the disposability of the postcard or the Baroness herself. It is in the context of this postcard that Jones writes, “[r]ather than representing Dada concepts […] the baroness lived them.”[9]

The Baroness is not naked but “wearing” her nudity as a kind of pornographic armor, but it is easy to miss this fiction and instead see this photograph as a trace of her actual body. In the words of Rosalind Krauss, the photograph is “rooted to the spot at which an event occurred” and therefore could represent, to the eyes of many, the woman herself as she really was or is.[10] Krauss argues that this “rooted” aspect of the photograph is “the very opposite of a circuit of exchange,” but I would contend that photographs representing women often build upon notions of photographic actuality to circulate truths about their gender and femininity. On this photograph, Jones writes: “The baroness’ body (her performed self) signifies Americanness / Dada / the stripping bare of the bride of capitalism: through the body-self she took the ultimate risk of riding the almost invisible line between subject and object, woman as artist and woman as object (body as commodity).”[11]

Conflating the object of art with the woman herself is a mistake that is harder to make with the Baroness’s poetry. There, the body is not contorted into a letter of the alphabet, but appears on subtextual and imaginary levels, present but not wholly visible in the net of words. The poetry allowed the Baroness to represent more than to live Dada. The poems are densely physical performances, “shouts,” propelled by bodily forces that block the assumption that the body from which they emerge is accessible, unprotected by the paternal signifier, and therefore up for grabs. As Gammel elegantly puts it: “The jagged lines, erotic jolts, and violent intensity of her poetry are ultimately crucial to understanding the unusual personality she constructed for the public.”[12] While I concur with Gammel that the Baroness’s poetry shares many of the qualities of her performances — loud and outlandish, deliberately jarring, messy, and raw — it also can be understood as a linguistic buffer that helps to mark the critical difference and distance I think she wanted to highlight in her performances. Roland Barthes famously called attention to the “written garments” that compose a crucial aspect of fashion, and here I argue that the Baroness’s poetry functions as a kind of textured Dadaist dress that resists the conflation of a woman and her image.[13]

To understand the force of the Baroness’s resistance, it is important to remind ourselves that women’s bodies became sites through which Dadaist artists explored the links and distinctions between human flesh and various forms of machinery. Jones contends that “in the case of New York Dada, the (largely male) artists’ antagonism toward bourgeois culture was articulated primarily in terms of mechanical tropes that encoded the anxieties of this threatened masculinity in relation to American industrial capitalism.”[14] Think of Man Ray’s paired photographs from 1918, which epitomize the Dadaist obsession with simultaneously establishing and undoing sexual difference: Homme (Man) depicts a hand-held egg beater and its spindly shadow, and Femme (Woman) depicts a set of photographer’s mirrored lamps above a wood drying rack. Think of Man Ray’s 1920 Pormanteau (Coatstand), a black-and-white photograph of a naked woman standing behind a mannequin. Viewers of Portmanteau can see the real woman’s breasts, torso, hips, and legs. Although one leg seems to be gone, it is actually covered by a black stocking. Her face and arms are occluded by the mannequin’s doll face, complete with cartoonish wide eyes and puckered lips; the long wooden arms are outstretched for the purpose of holding up coats. From a wooden base, a metal pole vertically splits the woman in half to further the fragmentation of the image.

Since the “Great Masculine Renunciation” in the eighteenth century, when men began wearing sober rather than ostentatious clothes, women not only wore but became symbolically linked to the eye-catching spectacles of sartorial display.[15] With the mass production of clothing and the rise of both consumer culture and the middle class, women came to represent the shallowness of all three. Male Dadaist artists did not exempt their work from this conflation. Art that depicts feminine figures as or in proximity to consumer objects points to the deskilling at the heart of Dadaism. Apolinère Enameled (1916–1917) is one of Marcel Duchamp’s “corrected readymades”: a metal display sign for an enamel paint company. A young girl wearing a dress, a hair ribbon, and black patent shoes earnestly paints a bedpost; she is the figure for the artist, and the advertisement’s play on assumptions about a girl’s simplistic, unskilled approach to painting allows Duchamp to make a joke about the obsolescence of painting as an art form and his own detached understanding of its demise. In Apolinère Enameled, the advertisement is the primary readymade, but readymade forms of femininity implicitly bolster its recognizability as well the Dadaist critique of it.  

Within the Dadaist imagination, what Simone de Beauvoir described as the “mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity” lends itself to the poles of dense materiality and disembodied abstractions.[16] These poles of femininity are deployed with brilliant if cruel wit in the portraits mécaniques of Francis Picabia. Fille née sans mere (Girl Born Without a Mother, 1916–18) is one such portrait, an illustration of a steam engine most likely culled from a technical journal. Picabia painted the wheel and shaft black and emerald green. The background has been rendered to resemble the gold of Greek orthodox icons. Jones explains that this image “both replace[s] women’s role in procreation with a model of God-like creation and ensure[s] that the ‘girl’ will be around for the whims of the remaining world of men.”[17]

The Baroness herself had a different perspective on rendering the female body through the language of machinery. Her poems, which are relentless in their attention to the materiality of language, impede assumptions about access to that which is beyond the worlds they create, including the female body. In “Holy Skirts” (1920), she quite sarcastically compares nuns’ sexual organs to

empty cars — running over religious track — local — express —
according to velocity of holiness through pious steam — up to heaven![18]

Gammel makes “Holy Skirts” an example of the Baroness’s “strikingly American form of dada, in which the sexual and religious images violently implode each other tearing down the patriarchal sign system itself.”[19] In her poem “The Modest Woman” (1921), the Baroness sarcastically lacerates prude and overly dressed forms of bourgeois femininity and posits herself as the engineer of her own mechanical form:

        Your skirts are too long — out of ‘modesty’, not
decoration — when you lift them you do not do it elegantly —
         Why should I — proud engineer — be ashamed of my
machinery — part of it?[20]

For the Baroness, “machinery” serves as a metaphor of sexual emancipation, but the fact that she poses a question (even if it is defiant and rhetorical) hints at the instability of that figuration and signals her awareness that not everyone shares her view.

In her “Ready-to-wear/ American Soul Poetry” (lines from one of her poems), the Baroness was able to mock the prevalence of consumer culture without physically and immediately embodying it. Her series “Subjoyrides” (1919–20) is crammed with images and slogans from advertisements. In these verbal performances, the Baroness mimes and reassembles the language of commodities. The swift pace of these texts enacts both the movement of the subway and the speed with which spectacle culture locks into perception and consciousness. “Subjoy Ride V” is a call to create experiences that are not deadening, but dirty and thrilling:

Wake up your passengers —
Large and small — to ride
On pins — dirty erasers and
These three graces operate slot
for 5 cents.
Don’t envy Aunt Jemima’s
Selfraising crackerjack
Laxative knitted chemise
With that chocolaty
Taste — use pickles in pattern
Follow green lyons. [21]

Notice that the accumulation of objects in the third and fourth lines (pins, dirty erasers, and knifes) are images that figure for the subway’s metallic machinery, but the poem moves through them quite quickly, and therefore does not allow the metaphors to stick. This is an example of poetic thinking that de-essentializes things and their qualities, an important aspect of this poem’s implicit feminist critique and connects to the Baroness’s propensity to resist commonsense assumptions about what kind of thing the body is. There is a body in this “Subjoyride,” but it is speculative, imaginary, yet to appear, awaiting the possibility of an experience that exceeds American readymades. After the word “Knifes” cuts into the poem with its striking singularity, the three graces appear; their nude and harmoniously arranged bodies are a classic feature of Western art. In “Subjoy Ride V,” however, the three graces are not posed for aesthetic contemplation or delectation; they “operate slot” instead. The “machines” missing from this phrase reinforces the internal rhyming between “operate” and “slot,” and allows “slot” to hang on the edge of the line with new scatological suggestions, its aural proximity to the words “slit” and “slut.” The parallelism the Baroness creates between “three graces” and “5 cents” highlights capitalism’s capacity to blaspheme the canon or perhaps reveals the sexual exchanges at work in classical painting and sculpture long before the invention of slot machines.

In the last half of the poem, images from consumer culture pile on top of each other and blur. This blurring leads into a manifesto that could be possible only in the imaginary and does not require the body’s immediate presence. Following “5 cents,” the speaker of the poem tells readers not to envy “Aunt Jemima’s / Selfraising crackerjack.” By the time the Baroness wrote this poem in 1919, “Aunt Jemima” and “Crackerjack” had become ubiquitous as products and brands. Boxes of Crackerjacks began to offer a small plastic prize in 1912, which made them highly sought after, and in 1914, the image of Aunt Jemima was popular enough that the Pearl Milling Company was named after her. “Selfraising” is the word for commercially produced flour, but since the Baroness warns her readers against envying Aunt Jemima, the poet seems to be punning on some early twentieth-century concept of “self-esteem,” or the idea of raising oneself to legitimacy through self-commodification. The Aunt Jemima image comes out of the minstrelsy tradition, and Nancy Green, a former African American slave, was the woman who posed in the guise of that racist persona, a fact that attests to the highly circumscribed image-repertoire through which black femininity could appear in the early twentieth century. It is hard to know whether Aunt Jemima’s appearance in “Subwayjoy Ride V” signals the Baroness’s racism, her critique of racial capitalism, or some strangely misguided synthesis of both. The image of a “Laxative knitted chemise / With that chocolaty / Taste” reveals the extent to which the Baroness’s scatological imagination turns the body inside out and, in so doing, exposes consumer culture’s packaging of waste and refuse.

When the poem concludes with the inspiring call to “use pickles in pattern / Follow green lyons,” the Baroness turns away from the body and offers a meta-commentary on poetic composition. The word “pattern” signals the poem’s interest in arrangement, and indeed the Baroness here becomes the arranger of the poetic composition, not a contorted body vulnerable to the conduits of masculine exchange. The alliteration in the phrase “pickles in a pattern” announces her fearlessness about consciously utilizing poetic techniques to almost absurd degrees. The final line “follow green lyons” links back to the pickles through the color green, and may refer to an alchemical process that tinges metal with gold, Nancy Green’s last name, or an urban/animal hybrid that wears a coat of green. Whatever the green lyons are, I think it is clear the Baroness compels readers to follow them in the hopes of imagining a visual economy that differs from depthless images whirring past subway riders.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not arguing that the Baroness’s poetry is superior to her performances or that her performances were misguided capitulations to woman-as-spectacle. Rather, I want to draw attention to the risks the Baroness undertook in her performances without a substantial audience to recognize and affirm the feminism moving through them with swift and beautiful trouble. The poetry gives us a chance to better see how the Baroness mimed the logic of the commodity in order to subvert its implicit link to the visible female body and its assumed affinity with disposability. To borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1903–1911), the Baroness was performing for herself and strangers. Her poetry addresses these strangers, this audience yet to come, while also shielding her from the risks of raw exposure and dressing her against becoming a bride stripped bare by capitalism and Dadaist artists alike.



1.  Quoted in Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York, ed. Francis M. Naumann (New York: Abrams, 1996), 184.

2.  Amelia Jones, “Eros, That’s Life, or the Baroness’ Penis,” in Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York, ed. Naumann, 244.

3.  Gisela Barnonin Freytag V. Loringhoven, afterword to Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity: A Cultural Biography, by Irene Gammel (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 393.

4.  Jones, “Eros,” 240.

5.  Luce Irigaray, “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” in This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Carolyn Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 68–85.

6. Gammel, Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity, 202.

7.  Jones, “Eros,” 245.

8.  Gammel, “Mirror Looks: The Visual and Performative Diaries of L. M. Montgomery, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Elvira Bach,” in Interfaces: Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 303.

9.  Jones, “Eros,” 244.

10.  Rosalind Krauss, “The Object Caught by the Heel,” in Making Mischief, ed. Naumann, 250.

11.  Jones, “Eros,” 245.

12.  Gammel, Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity, 9.

13.  See Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 3.

14.  Jones, “Eros,” 241.

15.  Kaja Silverman, “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse,” in Theorizing Feminism: Parallel Trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences, ed. Anne C. Herrmann and Abigail J. Stewart (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), 78.

16.  Simone de Beauvoir, introduction to The Second Sex, in Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present, ed. Miriam Schneir (New York: Random Books, 1994), 3.

17.  Jones, “Eros,” 241.

18.  Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, “Holy Skirts,” in Poems for the Millennium, vol. 1, ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 327.

19.  Gammel, Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity, 9.

20.  Freytag-Loringhoven, “The Modest Woman,” in Dada, ed. Rudolf Kuenzli (London: Phaidon, 2006), 208.

21.  Freytag-Loringhoven, “Subjoy Ride V,” in Dada, ed. Kuenzli, 208.

The German Baroness

Else Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven's German poetry

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Wheels Are Growing on Rose Bushes, 1921–22, ink on paper, 5 3/4 x 8 3/4 inches. Courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York.

In her “Autobiography,” written in the 1920s in Europe, Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927) reminisces in an associative and expressive style about the first thirty-five years of her life.[1] Her account provides an exact mirror image of the events described in the 1905 novel Fanny Essler by Felix Paul Greve (1879–1948), but with additional details and observations that benefit from hindsight. Greve’s novel ends with the heroine’s death at the precise moment when she would have been rudely awakened by some terrible revelation about her lover. The real-life event was Greve’s arrest for fraud in Bonn in May 1903. The novel’s transparent intertextual references to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary are confirmed in the Baroness’s autobiography: Greve admired the French author to a point that he wanted to be like him. The Baroness’s narrative goes well beyond the novel’s time frame, and reflects the entire decade she lived with Greve from 1903 to 1911. Unfortunately, she provides little information for the years following, and her voluminous correspondence also offers only a few rare glimpses.

Much of the Baroness’s German poetry in her archives at the University of Maryland Collection complements the details in her autobiography and Greve’s novel. Many of her poems contain dedications to the influential persons described in both texts. But while the 1905 roman-à-clef persiflages the bohemian circle surrounding the poet Stefan George in Berlin and Munich in the 1890s under fake names, Else’s autobiography echoes her experiences in clear text. Her involvement with artist Melchior Lechter in 1896, her stormy affair with writer Ernst Hardt in 1898, her platonic travel through Italy with photographer Richard Schmitz, her May 1900 enrolment in the artists’ colony Dachau near Munich and meeting her first husband August Endell there, their contacts with Karl Wolfskehl, their moving to Berlin in 1901, her “womb-squeeze excursion” to a North Sea sanatorium on the island Föhr where she was treated for hysterical tantrums occasioned by Endell’s impotence, her epistolary romance with dashing dandy Greve which became an openly flaunted affair at Christmas 1902, and the affair’s devastating effect on the doubly betrayed Endell during the trio’s communal boat trip to Palermo: all are described in the Baroness’s narrative without distortions or cosmetic touches.

In the Baroness’s largely unpublished German poems, many are remembered in rather cryptic dedications, like “Tse” (Endell), “Erni” (Hardt), “Marcus” (Behmer), “Jorkan” (R. Schmitz) or “FPG” (Greve). Accordingly, they were filed in folders marked “Unidentified German” until Dr. Beth Alvarez, curator of Literary Manuscripts, instigated a major reorganization in 2001. At that point, they and related snippets of correspondence could be attached to persons from the Baroness’s past, ranging from Behmer to “Dr. Phil” (Wolfskehl). As in her autobiography, Greve takes the lion’s share in the Baroness’s poems. In a note on her poem “Wolkzug,” she evokes Palermo, Greve’s 1903 arrest, and his 1911 abandonment in Kentucky within a year after being reunited. All references to Sparta, Kentucky, or Ohio in her poetry are more or less explicitly linked to this traumatic event, and memories of it appear almost obsessively in her writings.

In her autobiography, the Baroness describes how she composed her first poem “Kornblumen” (Cornflowers) at the tender age of twelve (30). It was so good that her teacher and her own mother accused her of plagiarizing Goethe. The next mention of poetry is related to Greve, who, after some blissful Palermo weeks, had left her involuntarily for the first time: his lavish lifestyle was financed by his student friend Herman Kilian, who lured Greve back to Bonn and had him arrested and sentenced for fraud. During Greve’s year in prison, the Baroness turned to poetry to alleviate her longing for him (92). Seven beautifully crafted poems published by “Fanny Essler” in the journal Die Freistatt in 1904–05 were the result of these lonesome labors.

When the Baroness picked up Greve upon his release in June 1904, he quickly whisked her away first to Wollerau in Switzerland, then in mid-1905 to Paris-Plage, France. This is significant, since these foreign locations are invariably close to, but at a safe distance from, larger cities like Zürich, Paris, or later Cincinnati, where the “wilderness” of Sparta, Kentucky, provided the rural isolation Greve continued to impose on her in 1910–11. In other words, he liked to keep her under lock and key. Even in Berlin, where they lived from 1906 to 1909, he made sure that their social contacts were reduced to a minimum.

In late July 1909, Greve left the Baroness for a second time, this time rather more deliberately. He had just double-sold his latest literary translation, and was facing repeat criminal charges. Greve preferred a hasty retreat to America, leaving a suicide note to make a clean break. More than six weeks passed before the Baroness wrote a hysterical note to Insel publisher Anton Kippenberg. His immediate reply reveals that she held him responsible for her husband’s demise, since he had been overworked, underpaid, and unfairly criticized by the publisher.[2] Though the Baroness initially may have believed that Greve had perished, she eventually must have received word that he was alive and well in New York. Perhaps on his advice, she then made the rounds of Greve’s publishers to extract enough sympathy money to rejoin him in Pittsburgh in June 1910. There she was soon arrested for cross-dressing and smoking in public. According to the New York Times, both she and the “deceased” Greve threatened to complain at the German embassy.

Else Greve is listed as a writer in various German literary dictionaries, yet she seems not to have published anything under her own names Ploetz (maiden name), Endell (as divorcée), or Greve. This last name was however used for two of her lover’s Flaubert translations well before they were married. Her only known contribution is therefore camouflaged under the couple’s joint pseudonym “Fanny Essler” used for the 1904–1905 poetry cycle. Greve had only three other poems published in Germany, as documented in D. O. Spettigue’s seminal 1973 book FPG: The European Years, which documents his capital findings that the Canadian author Frederick Philip Grove was in fact the Baroness’s Felix Paul Greve. Greve’s known penchant for pseudonyms — Karl Wolfskehl wittily called him a “pseudologist” — makes it likely that the scandalous pair, singly or combined, marketed further creative products still awaiting discovery. Greve may have published poems called “Lieder eines Irren” (Songs of a Madman, echoing his model Flaubert’s “Mémoires d’un fou”), Grove offered pornography to Canadian publishers under assumed names,[3] and in 1918, the Baroness wished her first poems for The Little Review to appear under the pseudonym Tara Osrik.[4]

Both Grove’s and Spettigue’s papers are held at the University of Manitoba, and until Spettigue could link the Baroness’s autobiography to Greve in the late 1980s, the best proof of FPG’s identity was Greve’s poem “Erster Sturm” (Schaubühne, 1907), which matches the text of Grove’s “Die Dünen fliegen auf …” (The Dying Year, in his own translation). As we shall see, the Baroness had intimate knowledge of her husband’s pet poem with its Nietzschean Fall/Storm/Genius overtones. She artfully incorporated parts of it in poems about their 1910–11 Kentucky experience, which she explicitly dedicated “To FPG.”

From Grove’s autobiographical A Search for America (1927), in which he describes the three years he roamed the United States before coming to Canada in 1912, his year with the Baroness, and indeed the Baroness herself, are conspicuously missing. Both do, however, dominate his first Canadian novel, Settlers of the Marsh (1925). The entire book is a therapeutic exercise in coming to terms with the author’s third and final abandonment of her in 1911, barely a year after the couple had resumed their strained relations on a Kentucky farm. As in the novel, the Baroness reveals that Greve had reverted to his old virgin ideal in her absence, and that he practiced sexual abstinence while absorbed in his Rousseau-like struggle with the soil (“Autobiography,” 92). Their union having always been very physical, this change spelled trouble. She gives a spirited account of her blond and blue-eyed rivals of the “Gretchen” type cast in Goethe’s Faust (“Autobiography” 75). That Grove adhered to that type after he relocated to Canada is amply proved by his choice of a second wife, and by the women he idealized in his autobiographies and the allegorical epic “Konrad, the Builder.” As in the 1925 novel, Greve may very well have longed to kill the Baroness in Sparta, but instead he just meekly left her (“Autobiography,” 72). In her “Wolkzug” note, the Baroness bitterly states that Greve left her destitute in Kentucky, where she hardly spoke English and was considered insane.

This dismal post-Greve condition drove the Baroness to Cincinnati, where her priorities were perforce not of the creative kind. In order to survive, she was posing at the local Art Academy, where most of the faculty were of German-American origin.[5] Frank Duveneck (1848–1919) taught there from 1900 to 1919, and had trained in Munich with Leibl and Diez. He even established a summer school there for “Duveneck boys” like Robert Henri (1865–1929), who was later influential in Philadelphia and New York.[6] The Baroness may have modeled in the nude for both artists in all three American locations. She also appears to have worked as some kind of chorus girl in Cincinnati’s German entertainment district. Her comic poems “Herr peu-à-peu” and “Vernunft” suggest surroundings similar both to her early days in Berlin, when she was on display in DeVry’s famous “living sculptures,”[7] and to her New York posing career after 1914–15.

The Baroness and Leo were married in New York in November 1913, but they could have met in “Cinci, the City of Pork” in 1911–12, where, as an intriguing note by Freytag-Loringhoven’s biographer Djuna Barnes suggests, the Baron may have been “selling beef.” This would account for travels to Mississippi, or to Akron, Ohio, where, according to a letter by Hart Crane, local photographer Harvey Minns claimed to have known the Baroness long before she moved to New York. The Baroness’s poems about domestic life with her third husband may thus reflect a setting in the Midwest rather than in New York’s Ritz hotel.

After Baron Leo went to fight in World War I, the Baroness soon became a notorious model, and again seems to have taken part in theatrical productions. Two Library of Congress photos show her in exotic garb and pose. In one she leans on the Jamaican poet Claude McKay, also in oriental costume. A 1915 article in the New York Times mentions that she posed as “Semiramide, the turbulent queen of the East [in a] painting recently shown here.” A related stage production with an oriental theme (perhaps Rossini’s Semiramis?) could have brought the two together as early as 1915. Their well-documented collaboration on the left-wing journal The Liberator in 1922, when the Baroness published two poems under McKay’s editorship, may therefore have had roots in a longstanding rather than a recent affiliation.

The Baroness’s creative writing career took off in 1918 with The Little Review. Some thirty poems, several of them in German, appeared there over the next seven years. Publications in other journals like The Liberator, Broom, Transition, and Transatlantic are scant, but attest to the Baroness’s association with Peggy Guggenheim, her cousin Harold Loeb, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and other literary notables.

As she had previously done when abandoned by Greve, the Baroness likely resorted to writing her many Kentucky poems about him in Cincinnati, while she was still close in time and space to the scene of his crimes. What matters is that she drew on their old “Fanny Essler” poems to create more powerful, negative “portraits” of Greve. Here is where the Baroness’s clever skills in combining the old and the new come into play. In May 1990, following a lead about Greve’s astounding 1904 “Fanny Essler” plans in Claude Martin’s masterly edition of Gide’s 1904 encounter with Greve, “Conversation with a German,” I found the seven impressive “Fanny Essler” poems. Greve selfishly laid claim to what was in fact a collaboration with the Baroness along the lines of form (his) and content (hers). At least, he gave the Baroness indirect credit by adopting a female pseudonym.[8] This is more than he did with the two novels about her, where his name sits squarely as the author’s on the title page. The Baroness sums up Greve’s exploitation in this way: “It was my life and persons out of my life. He did the executive part of the business, giving the thing the conventional shape and dress” (“Autobiography,” 34).

The new “Fanny Essler” poetry treasure was eagerly incorporated into my then-budding Greve/Grove poetry edition, increasing its German poetry component from six to fourteen poems. Then, in April 1991, during my first visit to the University of Maryland with Gisi von Freytag-Loringhoven, I could identify two directly related poems by the Baroness: “Schalk” draws on “Fanny Essler’s” sonnets, which paint an unflattering “portrait” of Greve in 1904. “Du” (You) is clearly based on “Fanny Essler’s” last two poems inspired by her 1902 “womb-squeeze” excursion. They describe the moody landscape on the North Sea shores, where the lonely “Fanny” laments her lover’s absence (“Husum, Herbst 1902” and “Snow Poem”).[9] “Du” exists in many variants with titles like “Natur,” “Naturbild,” “Natürlich,” or “Freude.” They illustrate nicely how the Baroness usually starts out with a conventionally formed poem, which she reduces in several rounds until she arrives at barebone lists of nouns and adjectives. These she then translates and presents as Dada products. As a side-by-side display shows, “Du” (You) is an early version of the Baroness’s “snow” poems, and corresponds closely to its 1905 equivalent.

Freytag-Loringhoven’s poem “Schalk” is intricately linked to the Baroness’s abandonment in Kentucky. It bears the unique reference “An FPG, Sparta, Kentucky, am Eagle Creek” (To FPG, Sparta, Kentucky, on the Eagle Creek). It exists in even more variants than “Du,” with versions entitled “Herbst,” “Gläsern,” “Verrat,” “October,” “Don Quixote,” or “Ruf.” More variants may have escaped my awareness, especially, if English versions were separated from their German counterparts. For example, the poem “In the Midst” on the University of Maryland’s Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Digital Library site is related to the “Schalk”/”Herbst” cluster, since it concludes with the words “in Sparta, Kentucky.” It also confirms once more that the Baroness, in ever progressively reductive manner, arrives at word lists, which she then offers as modern English expressionist (longer versions) or Dadaist poems (shorter ones). The end results are barely recognizable when compared with the original texts.

The composition history of “Schalk” is far more complex than for “Du.” “Schalk” not only draws on the three central “Fanny Essler” sonnets, but also on Greve’s favorite “Fall”/Herbst poem of 1907. In Grove’s archives it exists both as the manuscript poem “Die Dünen …,” but also as “The Dying Year” in Grove’s own translation.

On the University of Manitoba’s website, the Baroness’s version “Herbst”/Fall has been chosen to illustrate her artful adaptation techniques. In the static and timeless centerpiece of the “Fanny Essler” triptych, three Petrarchan sonnets about his eyes, hands, and mouth presented a mere half-bust of Greve. The Baroness now adds to Greve’s Eye (steely-blue, stanza 2), Mouth (poppy-leaf-shrill, stanza 3), and Hand (chalk-white, murderous, stanza 5) his Thighs (alabaster-dead, stanza 4), his chiseled, Cain-like Face (stanza 6), his Forehead (stanza 7), and his metallic golden Hair (stanza 8), thus transforming with imagery of cold metals, stones, and marbles the “portrait” into a full-length statue. At the pivotal juncture stands his “rigid Heart” (“sein Sonnenherz ist starr,” stanza 8), placing Greve/Fall’s moral inadequacy and essential coldness at eye level with the more superficial physical characteristics. The second half of the poem continues to focus on the destructive effects of his actions, and culminate in “Es ist der Trüger Herbst — der Tod — der Sturm” (It is Crook Fall — Death — Storm, stanza 11).

On the “Schalk” version, the Baroness specifies in a marginal note that the “Herbst is a portrait of FPG,” then goes on with these hyperbolic abstractions: he is “Annihilation” and “Rage” (Vernichtung and Wut, stanza 12), the “Pain of Icy Cold,” an “Executioner” (der Kälte eisig Weh, Henker, stanza 13), and again “Death/Decay” in the seductive guise of a colorful, tropical bird (Tod, stanza 14). With this devastating full-length “portrait” the Baroness triumphs over Grove’s feeble attempts in Settlers to come to grips with his cowardly flight from Sparta, Kentucky. She weaves several layers of biographical details and old poems into entirely new creations. Thus she, who readily admits to an amateurish quality in her early poetry (“Autobiography,” 30), shows that she has achieved full formal mastery in her own right. Moreover, her poems, endowed with amazing powers of expression and supported by pleasing visual configurations, multicolored ink, and a lavish use of hyphens, surpass by far Grove’s entire conventional poetic output.

Greve’s and the Baroness’s 1904–05 “Fanny Essler” poems clearly have an intensity much more akin to her expressive poetry than to his. Her judgment of FPG’s talents hits the mark when she declares that the main characteristics of his 1902 Wanderungen are “utter artificiality,” and then links them to Stefan George’s circle, which Greve tried to emulate at the time: “His poems were as well cut gems of language juggling without blood-call — but the call of an ambitious, industrious spirit […]. The most impressive part about this kind of poetry is paper, print and numbered privacy. It stood for the top-notch of culture” (“Autobiography,” 165 ff.). She also denies Greve the “genius” status he craved, rightly cutting him down to size. He was largely an imitator, and, unbeknownst to her, he would remain one for the rest of his life. As Grove, he never budged from the ossified poetics he had embraced around 1900, and persisted in applying Stefan George’s precious rules, albeit in slightly less pretentious tones. He likewise kept imitating the sober prose style of Flaubert’s symbolic realism he had used as Greve in his first two novels about the Baroness. Already then the Baroness had judged the Fanny Essler novel “abrupt […], dry and artificial, having no carrying power or convincing quality of its own,” and, though she credits FPG with “business genius,” she questions his creative talent: “that was the first time, I think, when the seed of doubt about his genius — at least as artist — was sewn in me” (“Autobiography,” 35). Her later judgment is firmer: “He made, in spite of his intelligence, the mistake of thinking himself an artist. How that is possible I don’t know! He was just the opposite […]. [It] shows an amazing lack of observation, self-analysis and intellect” (34).

The Baroness remembered the 1904/5 “Fanny Essler” complex in poetry and prose for decades. In the 1922–23 issue of Broom, the Baroness’s poem “Circle” appeared alongside a Mexican fresco-like illustration on page 128, while the frontispiece on page 2, completely out of character with this modernist journal published in New York, Rome, and Berlin by Peggy Guggenheim’s cousin Harold Loeb, shows an 1840 lithograph of the romantic dancer Fanny Elssler by G. Leybold. The juxtaposition of the old and the new has a comic effect. This impact is even stronger when, in a 1922 issue of The Little Review, Freytag-Loringhoven’s “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp” sculpture, a combination of feathers and metal parts, follows immediately upon Joseph Stella’s traditional sketch with the same title.

In April 1923, when most her friends had either returned or emigrated to Europe, the Baroness came to postwar Berlin at the worst possible inflationary time. Soon, she was reduced to selling newspapers on the Kurfürstendamm, and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Her hilarious narrative poems about former lover Ernst Hardt and former husband Endell stem from this troubled period. Though excellent satires, they are far from a mere squaring of old accounts. When the addressees’ biographies are probed, the poems take on a decidedly sinister shade as blatant blackmail tools. For Hardt, who had been married to the Greek diplomat’s daughter Pollyxena von Hoesslin since 1899, the Baroness’s poem may have occasioned a sudden separation in 1923. For Endell, who married Anna Meyn in 1909 and held a reputable position at the Breslau Art Academy, the toll of her “fun poem” (Spottgedicht) had perhaps even more dire consequences: the very timing of his rapid decline in 1923–24 and a premature death in April 1925 permits this speculation.[10] In a strange letter draft to “Tse” (Endell),[11] the Baroness refers to this very poem, and evokes happier times around 1900, as if she had completely forgotten about her adultery with Greve in late 1902.

Many of the Baroness’s German poems in the University of Maryland Freytag-Loringhoven Collection stem from the Cincinnati and New York days; many more were written in Berlin and Paris in the 1920s. The most Dada-like word columns were likely composed in her European years. At all times, however, she drew on autobiographically inspired and traditionally crafted materials. With her artful adaptations, she met the highest avant-garde standards of the times. Her open-mindedness, her adaptability, and her flexibility make even an aging Baroness truly “modern.” This is more than can be said for most German poets of her generation, who tended to adhere, like FPG/Grove, closely to turn-of-the-century aesthetic lines.



Works Cited

Anderson, Margaret. My Thirty Years’ War. London: Knopf, 1930.

Barnes, Djuna. Note. Freytag-Loringhoven Papers, Literary Manuscripts, University of Maryland, College Park.

Cohen, George M. A History of American Art. New York: Dell, 1971.

Crane, Hart. Letters of Hart Crane, 1906–1932. New York: Hermitage, 1952.

Divay, Gaby. “Fanny Essler’s Poems: Felix Paul Greve’s or Else von Freytag-Loringhoven’s?” Arachne: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language and Literature 1, no. 2 (1994): 165–197. 2005.

---. “Abrechnung und Aufarbeitung im Gedicht: Else von Freytag-Loringhoven über drei Männer (E. Hardt, A. Endell, F. P. Greve).” Trans-Lit 7, no. 1 (1998): [24]-37.

Essler, Fanny. “Gedichte. Ein Porträt: drei Sonette. Gedichte.” Die Freistatt (1904–1905).

---. “Ein Porträt: drei Sonette.” Die Freistatt (October 1904). Facsimile at University of Manitoba.

Freytag-Loringhoven, Else Baroness von. Literary Manuscripts, University of Maryland, College Park.

---. “Circle.” Broom 4, no. 2 (January 1923): 128. Also related: G. Leybold, Fanny Elsler [sic; variant of Elssler]. Lithograph, 1840. Broom 4, no. 1 (December 1922): 2.

---. “Du” and “Husum, Herbst 1902.”

---. “Es hat mal einen Ernst gegeben.”

---. “Herbst (Schalk).”

---. “Herr Peu-à-Peu.”

---. “In the Midst.”

---. “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp.” Sculpture. Photo in TLR 9, no. 2 (1922): 2. See also F. Naumann’s April 2002 Freytag-Loringhoven Exhibit Catalog, Back Cover. 2002–2003.  

---. “Puckellonders sonderbare Geschichte.”

---. “Vernunft.”

---. “Wolkzug.” Manuscript Note.

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

Gide, André. “Conversation avec un allemand.” Bulletin des amis d’André Gide, edited by Claude Martin, 32 (October 1976): 23–41. See also the bilingual e-edition at the University of Manitoba.

Greve, Felix Paul. “Erster Sturm.” 1907. [Side-by-side with F. P. Grove, “Die Dünen fliegen auf …” Ca. 1928.]

---. Fanny Essler: ein Berliner Roman. Stuttgart: A. Juncker, [1905].

---. Letter to Gide, October 17, 1904.

Grove, Frederick Philip. “Die Dünen fliegen auf …” Ca. 1928. [Side-by-side with F. P. Greve, “Erster Sturm,” 1907.]

---. “Konrad, the Builder.”

---. The Letters of Frederick Philip Grove. Edited by D. Pacey. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.---. Poems/Gedichte. By/von F. P. Grove, F. P. Greve, and/und “Fanny Essler.” Edited by Gaby Divay. Winnipeg: Wolf-Verlag, 1993.

---. A Search for America. Ottawa: Graphic Publishers, 1927.

---. The Settlers of the Marsh. Toronto: Ryerson, 1925. Adaptation of Project Gutenberg Text. 

Hjartarson, Paul. “Of Greve, Grove, and Other Strangers: The Autobiography of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.” In A Stranger to My Time, by Grove, 269–284. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1986.

---. “The Self, Its Discourse, and the Others: The Autobiographies of Frederick Philip Grove and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.” In Reflections: Autobiography and Canadian Literature, edited by K. P. Stich, 115–129. Ottowa: University of Ottowa Press, 1988.

Kippenberg, Anton. Letter to Else Greve, September 21, 1909. In The Letters of Frederick Philip Grove, 550–552. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

Naumann, Francis M. Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

---. New York Dada, 1915–23. New York: Abrams, 1994.

Reichel, Klaus. Vom Jugendstil zur Sachlichkeit: August Endell, 1871–1925. Dissertation. Bochum, 1974.

“Refugee Baroness poses as a model.” New York Times, December 5, 1915.

Reiss, Robert. “My Baroness: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.” In New York Dada, edited by Naumann, 81–101.

Schüssler, Susanne. Ernst Hardt: eine monographische Studie. Frankfurt and New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

“She wore men’s clothes.” New York Times, September 17, 1910.

Spettigue, D. O. FPG: The European Years. Ottawa: Oberon, 1973.

University of Manitoba. Archives and Special Collections (UMA). FPG (Greve/Grove) and FrL (Freytag-Loringhoven) Collections.



1.  All references to Freytag-Loringhoven’s “Autobiography” are to the 205-page typescript prepared by Djuna Barnes from various manuscript sources. All poems or correspondence addressed also stem from the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Papers, Literary Manuscripts, University of Maryland, College Park.

2.  Frederick Philip Grove, September 21, 1909, in The Letters of Frederick Philip Grove, 550–555.

3.  Grove, Letters, 386.

4.  Margaret Anderson, My Thirty Years’ War, 178.

5.  Djuna Barnes, Note, Freytag-Loringhoven Papers.

6.  George M. Cohen, A History of American Art, 136, 165.

7.  Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity: A Cultural Biography, 61.

8.  Much of what is said here about the “Fanny Essler” complex is explored in my Arachne article “Fanny Essler’s Poems: Felix Paul Greve’s or Else von Freytag-Loringhoven’s?”; much about the Baroness’s blackmail poems is covered in my “Abrechnung und Aufarbeitung im Gedicht: Else von Freytag-Loringhoven über drei Männer (E. Hardt, A. Endell, F. P. Greve).”

9.  There is yet another biographical layer here: Endell’s only known published poem “Schneetag,” published in Pan 2, no. 3 (1896): 215, is similar to, though more somber than, Else’s “snow poem”: see part 5 of “Fanny Essler’s Poems.”

10.  Klaus Reichel, “Vom Jugendstil zur Sachlichkeit: August Endell, 1871–1925,” 98.

11.  The significance of “Tse” and “Ti” in the 1900 context is explained in Else’s “Autobiography,” 38.

Sentimental spaces

On Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's 'Nest'

“And what a quantity of animal beings there are in the being of a man!” — Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space[1

In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre takes a moment to castigate Gaston Bachelard for an embarrassing failure: Bachelard has a soft spot for the home, sentimentally taking it out of the realm of social space and identifying it with the natural dwelling of animals, the nest. Space, Lefebvre famously argues, is produced. Far from being a neutral and preexisting medium or natural resource available for use, it is both a product and a means of production, fashioned dialectically through a confluence of historical, material, and cultural factors.[2] Yet the home  is all too often made out to be the exception, the space outside production, the space outside space, even. “The [human] dwelling,” Lefebvre charges,

passes everywhere for a special, still sacred, quasi-religious and in fact almost absolute space. […] The contents of the House have an almost ontological dignity in Bachelard: drawers, chests and cabinets are not far removed from their natural analogues, as perceived by the philosopher-poet, namely the basic figures of nest, shell, corner, roundness, and so on.[3]

Bachelard himself is unsentimentally aware that the affective nexus around nests that he describes rests on a certain tautological reason. But Lefebvre is not missing Bachelard’s point so much as reading against the grain, the better to remind us at what cost we naturalize the house when we make of it a “nest.” Lefebvre thus indicts not only a failure of rigor but also the feelings and longings that surely produce that failure, the feelings and longings that are Bachelard’s real objects of analysis: a delight in hiddenness, nostalgia for lost intimacy, the desire to mold space to the body, a longing for safety.[4]

Bachelard and Lefebvre reveal the power with which the figure of the animal — the figure of the bird in particular — triggers actions of metonymy and allegory in an otherwise literal analysis. The birds’ nest becomes an allegory for the home, and the birds and their habitat become a metonym for nature, such that the human home is itself granted the status of nature, absolute space. It is Bachelard’s reliance on metonymic and allegorical logic that leads Lefebvre to call him a “philosopher-poet.” The gesture that makes the home autonomous from capital and exempt from production is also a gesture of slippage, a sleight of hand, visible, yet pardoned for sentimental reasons. The poetic here looks very much like mystification, in other words.

Below: Mei-mei Berssenbruge at KGB Bar, New York, in December 2010. Photo copyright © Lawrence Schwartzwald.

When we read Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s 2003 book of poems Nest, we must therefore do so through the complex that the word “nest” conjures up: of domestic space, its reliance on the animal, and its sentimental-poetic failures. Nest is about space, and especially the privileged so-called domestic space, rendered in relation to the animal as well as in relation to the “experimental” poetics for which Berssenbrugge is known. Berssenbrugge’s poetry is often characterized by a scientific and philosophical vocabulary that points toward a commitment to knowledge and, consequently, an experimental tradition associated with sinewy, even ascetic forms. Yet the poems of Nest are neither sinewy nor ascetic, nor even lush in the emotionally satisfying sense we might imagine, but rather something more like “downy.” There is a self-conscious excessiveness to Nest that examines, and toys with inciting, the very longings that Bachelard investigates and Lefebvre fingers with suspicion. Nest is embarrassing, in the way that the “poet-philosopher” Bachelard’s analysis is embarrassing — in the way that the poetic functions triggered by the animal are themselves embarrassing, when we find ourselves using them to sentimental ends. By invoking the old allegory and presenting human dwelling as a nest, Berssenbrugge suggests that domestic spaces depend not only on a nostalgic analytic failure but also on an embarrassed recognition of that failure — that a certain sentimentalism is the necessary concomitant of (as the final three entries of the table of contents read) “SAFETY.”


1. Domestic space

Nest inquires into the human dwelling and the things that make a house a home: enclosed space, light and shadow, family, friends, pets. Domestic space, for Berssenbrugge, is imbricated with its uses, its occupants, and the fleeting energies that traverse it, so that it is at once fundamentally material and easily abstracted, even dematerialized. The opening poem of the book, “Permanent Home,” establishes the precariousness of domestic space’s materiality, as the domestic space that the poem describes constantly slips into translucent impermanence:

I seek a permanent home, but this structure has an appearance of indifferent compoundedness and isolation, heading toward hopelessness.

The boy pulls an animal on a leash.

The house with a red roof rests between two hills.

I can look through its windows to the sea.

His aggression opposes what in a domestic animal, cold open space, large enough
to work with isolation?

House is the projection, space around it intermediary, theater.

You don’t have to consume the space to exist, distance, point-to-point, in which a beloved ruin is middle ground, for example.[5]

The structure given as a possible permanent home fails: the “appearance of indifferent compoundedness and isolation” indicates both an aesthetic-structural inadequacy (indifferent compoundedness) and a spatial inadequacy (isolation) whose meanings are ultimately emotional, “heading toward hopelessness,” disclosing the degree to which affections define space. The house is situated in space, “between two hills.” That it is a “projection” encapsulates the contingent physicality of the domestic space; it is at once a projection in the sense of a physical protrusion from the ground and a projection in the sense that it is a set of immaterial forces superimposed on a landscape. The ordinariness of glass windows with an ocean view thus takes on an unsettling significance here; the house can be “look[ed] through,” as if it lacks substance, and yet an ocean view is also an immaterial attribute that adds “material” — that is, monetary — value to the house. The sea and the hills are not interrupted by the presence of the house; “[y]ou don’t have to consume the space to exist,” Berssenbrugge notes, and the home whose permanence is denied seems to be proof of this: it exists, but it does not consume the space that it takes up. The physical space of the home is always partly constituted by immaterial elements.

In this sense, Nest conceives domestic space as a form of social space, which, as Lefebvre describes it, “contains a great diversity of objects, both natural and social, including the networks and pathways which facilitate the exchange of material things and information.”[6] But material things and information do not exhaust the description of social space: Berssenbrugge would add to these the pathways of affection, obligation, and need, among humans as well as among animals and the surrounding environment. Externally, the house is situated with respect to hills and sea rather than political or social markers, while internally, it is situated with respect to a child and a pet — specifically the energetic, striving relationship between them, marked by the tension of the animal’s leash. The boy and the pet — surely a dog, but the poem insists on the more abstract term “animal” — seem to intrude into the meditation on space and landscape. At the same time they ballast the scene, centering it in the domestic space, the affective ties between domestic human and domestic animal literalized and visualized by the taut leash. The line of tension between child and dog parallels the lines of sight and the spatial grid that Berssenbrugge evokes in “distance, point-to-point.” Thus affective interactions, too, structure this space, and are indeed perhaps the most solidly physical thing about it.

To insist that the production of space includes an affective dimension would amount to a substantive enough point, but in the special case of domestic space, the stakes are raised, because domestic space always carries with it ideologies that resonate specifically with the notions of affection, obligation, and need. The concept of domesticity and the ideologies of gender, class, and family that it entails have been roundly critiqued, notably by feminist writers and critics, especially when conjured up by way of a comforting (and naturalizing) image of the nest. As Donna Haraway dryly notes, “animal societies have been extensively employed in rationalization and naturalization of the oppressive orders of domination in the human body politic”; thus to invoke the nest is necessarily to call up its history of shoring up an oppressive ideology of domesticity.[7] Yet as Cathy N. Davidson observes out in her introduction to a 1998 special issue of American Literature (pointedly, perhaps exasperatedly, titled “No More Separate Spheres!”), the idea of a “domestic sphere,” whether referring narrowly to the middle-class home or more broadly to a (white, middle-class) feminine cultural domain, has remained a comfortable conceptual model, one to which, as to the imagined nest itself, we constantly return. This is, Davidson points out, in spite of domesticity’s empirical inadequacy to historical evidence, and in spite of repeated, concerted critical efforts to decenter it.[8] The very convention of the domestic home-as-nest takes on a power quite apart from either empirical fitness or philosophical rigor: as Lefebvre puts it, “[t]his memory […] has an obsessive quality: it persists in art, poetry, drama and philosophy” despite everything.[9]

For Berssenbrugge, domestic space is not the separate sphere that we are so tempted to make of it. It is not exempt from the production of space, and if it is defined in part by the pathways of affection that we typically associate with domesticity — a child, a pet — that is only because such pathways always play a role in the production of space. Affective ties are not merely confined to the home, but are rather asserted as a vital component of the social, and as productive of space itself. Thus later in the poem we read of a boy playing with a pet mouse: “He relates wanting to catch the mouse with the room, ground,” the affective tie of desired proximity again structuring the space (12). Yet as Davidson indicates, we are inclined to think of the home as constituting a separate sphere at the slightest instigation, such that the mere conjunction of “affection” and “home” sets off a chain of unrigorous yet dearly treasured associations, associations with which Nest deliberately flirts. Even Lefebvre admits that Bachelard’s and Heidegger’s privileging of the home as an “intimate and absolute space” is “most emotional and indeed moving”; more radically, he even concedes that the home may be in some sense legitimately anachronistic, a little apart from history, an “invariant, surviving or stagnant elemen[t]” in the midst of the unmistakably historical, produced “urban fabric.”[10] But despite this brief interlude of naturalizing domestic space, Lefebvre also observes that the ideology that underwrites the pleasure of Bachelard’s “moving” description is a gendered one, with direct consequences for any serious attempt to analyze the production of space: “In the background […] stands Nature — maternal if not uterine.” Lefebvre’s equivocation — is the image of the nest specifically uterine or more broadly maternal? — marks the very problem that nature always raises: in an image so highly charged, it is difficult to disarticulate the material and symbolic registers, the distinction between uterus and mother. Indeed, as Timothy Morton argues, nature is always “a transcendental term in a material mask,” signaling a refusal to settle for either materiality or abstraction but fluidly transforming the one into the other and back.[11] Consequently, as soon as nature (or its metonym, the nest) is invoked, the femininity of domestic space is almost tautologically confirmed. Domestic space thus becomes the very definition of a separate sphere, a “natural” realm autonomous from the social, exempt from history, feminine, private, immutable.

Thus to recur to affection and need, in the case of the home, always means to recur to the always pre-denied natural metaphor — the home as a “nest” — as well. Nest therefore acknowledges the theoretical claims of, and offers a corrective to, both Lefebvre and Bachelard: that, on the one hand, domestic space is produced, not natural or autonomous from the domain of the social (it is not a “separate sphere”); and that, on the other hand, domestic space cannot be thought apart from networks of affection, and therefore cannot be thought apart from the ideology of separate spheres that so often organizes those networks. To analyze the affective elements of domestic space returns us to an ideology that we either cannot let go, as Davidson and Lefebvre suggest, or that we do not, for sentimental reasons, wish to let go, as Bachelard suggests. Charles Altieri has argued that in Empathy (1989), Berssenbrugge “focus[es] directly on the desire for intimacy — with herself, with other people, and with the reader as an extension of both those projections — while struggling against pressures to theatricalize or thematize or otherwise flatten intimacy into idea.”[12] But in Nest, Berssenbrugge does not so much resist those pressures of theatricalization, thematization, or flattening — what we might succinctly gloss as the pressures of sentimentalism — as open up to them, knowingly succumbing in order to reveal the aesthetic and social implications of the sentimentalization of domestic space.


2. Affective work and the debts of sentimentality

If space is produced in part by networks of affection, then the issue of affective labor necessarily comes into play. “[N]ature,” Lefebvre argues, recapitulating the separate spheres argument in spite of himself, “does not labour […] it creates”; thus “nature does not produce.”[13] But as soon as domestic space is assimilated to nature, it appears to lie outside the realm of production — what Marxist feminists have pointed out is a space in which all work, typically that done by women, falls under the rubric of reproduction. Women’s work in the home is, in Silvia Federici’s words, “defined as non-work,” therefore “appear[ing] as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.”[14] It is not clear whether the naturalization of the home precedes the appropriation of women’s work or the reverse: as we have seen with Bachelard, the two movements are hardly distinguishable. It is not an accident that such work is regarded as reproductive; as Lefebvre points out, nature is “maternal if not uterine.” If, working with Berssenbrugge against the supposition that the “nest” is a sphere apart, we attend to the role of ties of affection in the production of space, then we must see those ties as something other than a pure emanation of nature, however closely they bind us to nature’s metonyms — nests, animals, and the like. We must, in short, register the concept of affective work.[15]

In her 1983 study The Managed Heart, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild observes that the management of feeling requires work. While all adults must engage in emotion work with great frequency, women must do more and different kinds of emotion work than men due to their lower social status. As Hochschild observes, tradition dictates that “Middle-class American women […] feel emotion more than men do”; at the same time — contradictorily — they are also “thought to manage expression and feeling not only better but more often than men do,” for instance in crying to get their way. Women’s emotions are thus suspected of being at once excessively powerful and genuine, on the one hand, and potentially duplicitous, on the other hand, precisely because women are so frequently engaged in emotional work. Hochschild’s key insight is that these emotional patterns do not “simply exist passively in women,” but are rather “signs of a social work that women do” to cope with social circumstances largely beyond their control.[16] In this sense, emotion work located in the home is an instance of domestic work whose status as work is discounted, a powerful element of what Hochschild, in another work that pointedly targeted the ideology of separate spheres, called “the second shift.”[17]

Affective work always involves the application of the will to something classically construed as by definition spontaneous; it is therefore necessarily predicated on a certain affective inauthenticity, one that can be difficult to pin down. There is something inherently contradictory about willing oneself to feel a certain way: if it is willed, then one perhaps does not “really” feel it. Like a synthetic gemstone, the willed feeling is at once “real” and somehow worth less than the spontaneous feeling. Hochschild documents the complexity of this inauthenticity in cases of flight attendants who find themselves unable distinguish between their professional (managed) and private feelings — for the job demands not just smile but a sincere smile.[18] But of course the constraints of affective work are not limited to the sphere of paid work; the need not only to manifest but actually to feel warmth toward a family member, for instance, can be as urgent as the demands of any paid job. There is, moreover, an economic dimension to the gendering of emotion work even when it is unpaid. As Hochschild writes,

lacking other resources, women make a resource out of feeling and offer it to men as a gift in return for the more material resources they lack. (For example, in 1980 only 6 percent of women but 50 percent of men earned over $15,000 a year.) Thus their capacity to manage feeling and to do “relational” work is for them a more important resource.[19]

Affective work thus always crucially, if ambiguously, involves inauthentic feeling — feeling that is really there, perhaps, but elicited, required—sometimes very materially required.

In this sense, affective work replicates the form usually attributed to the sentimental mode, which Oscar Wilde famously characterized as “hav[ing] the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”[20] The emotion evoked by sentimentality is thought to be “cheap,” manipulated, ill-gotten through formulae, in a way that does not seem to apply to the catharsis of tragedy (which is in some sense “earned”). Sentimentality, too, is predicated on inauthentic feeling, and like affective work it also entails leveraging feelings against money one doesn’t have. Thus affective work — traditionally the province of women — also structurally describes the work of sentimentality. Both are a kind of manipulation, if you like, but a kind of manipulation that is effective, one that is work, and one that is in demand — even necessary, as Lauren Berlant argues.[21] Affective work crisscrosses “productive” (public) and “reproductive” (domestic) spheres to “produc[e] social networks, forms of community, biopower,” as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri put it — and, Nest would suggest, to produce space as well.[22] (Can it be an accident that the foundational study of affective labor is a sociology of flight attendants, whose job it is to traverse continents over and over again, always carrying the performance of domesticity with them?)[23] Thus space, domestic and otherwise, is produced by a thick interaction of material, social, and affective networks hinging in part on affective work (paid or unpaid), the altogether necessary work of inauthentic feeling. As the saying goes, home is where the (managed) heart is.

I recur to the conventional phrase “home is where the heart is” because it foregrounds the forces that continue to work to frame the domestic as a separate sphere. They are forces of the heart, despite the fact that “the heart” ascends toward “the hegemonic position” in global labor, as Hardt and Negri suggest — which is to say that the heart is everywhere, that no place is “home” in the sense of a nest under late capitalism.[24] As Antonella Corsani, among others, has argued, late capitalism is marked by a “feminization of labor” that radically destabilizes the public/private distinction by extending the features of female labor to the general work force — its precariousness and hyperexploitation as well as its affective and reproductive qualities.[25] Yet the total breakdown of any pretense at “separate spheres,” signaled by the broad hegemony of affective labor and other immaterial labor, does little to diminish the power of a phrase like “home is where the heart is.” It is pardoned for sentimental reasons: it is no less necessary than the flight attendant’s smile. Affective work shares the structure of sentimentality, yet while one seems to undermine the ideology of separate spheres by permeating labor, the other seems to shore up separate spheres by drawing on that fund of non-accountability, generating sensations unearned (in this case) by any correspondence with reality. As Berlant describes it, this double action, permitting survival yet complying with that which oppresses, is a feature of sentimentality more generally.

The sentimental mode, in Berlant’s account, hangs on convention: convention supplies a familiarity that is at once an alternative to and a correction for the familiarity of what is real. Conventions need not correspond with lived experience; indeed, they create out of disparate experiences a mass-marketable and often frankly ideological “intimate public” that offers psychic compensation for the inadequacies of individual realities.[26] Yet, as Berlant argues, “[t]he convention is not only a mere placeholder for what could be richer in an underdeveloped social imaginary, but it is also sometimes a profound placeholder that provides an affective confirmation” of a “shared […] imaginary,” a union of readers that exists “in advance of […] a material world in which that feeling can actually be lived.”[27] The temporal displacement of the sentimental subject should perhaps remind us of Bachelard’s reading of a poem by Jean Caubère, which, in speaking to the evanescence of domestic space, also illuminates Berssenbrugge’s “Permanent Home”:

The poet rightly thought that, at the mention of a nest, a bird’s song, and the charms that take us back to the old home, to the first home, a sort of musical chord would sound in the soul of the reader. But in order to make so gentle a comparison between house and nest, one must have lost the house that stood for happiness. So there is also an alas in this song of tenderness. If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.[28]

Lost intimacy is a constant and indeed constitutive feature of the nest; the “permanent home” is always somewhere else, unpresent even to itself, always somehow phantasmatic despite its materiality. For Bachelard, the nest is evocative because it is an object of nostalgia, always both idealized and past.

Though Berlant and Bachelard differ on the direction of temporal dislocation, they agree that the work of convention does not consist in fitly describing a present reality. Counterintuitively, convention’s very recognizability and ability to bind lies in its lack of correspondence to present reality. Though it is apt to the occasion, when Bachelard declares that the image of the nest necessarily transports “us” to thoughts of home he displays just the kind of sentimentality that Lefebvre decries. The troubling undertow of that sentimentality is its universalizing impulse, daring to speak not only for “the” reader but also for that reader’s “soul.”[29] Almost predictably — and here Lefebvre’s critique bears fruit — a discussion of the home plays out in the grossest of conventionalities. And though Berssenbrugge’s touch is lighter than Bachelard’s, in the end her own elaboration of the home relies on the same conventions — the identification of the domestic space with a nest in particular. Berssenbrugge rewrites in spatial terms the temporal absence that Bachelard describes, rendering the nest-like permanent home absent, not as a result of time past and memories gone, but rather of an the difficulty of negotiating space, of arriving at a conception of space that is adequate to a human home. Like Jean Caubère, Berssenbrugge “rightly” relies on animal dwellings to evoke a fleeting and longed-for human domesticity. “Rightly” because, as Berlant suggests, “to love conventionality is not only to love something that constrains someone or some condition of possibility: it is another way of talking about negotiating belonging to a world.”[30]

The logic of convention supplies the central tension as well as the central metaphor in Nest because convention is a domain of comfort that inevitably tips over into the hokey and the false. Because convention is constituted through its lack of correspondence to present reality, it never stops being hokey and intellectually suspect, and embarrassingly, it never stops being comforting and, in the end, intellectually powerful as well. As with Bachelard, for Berssenbrugge, figures of animals that have been literally or imaginatively domesticated pointedly reveal the tragicomedy of convention. The compromises of domesticity and domestication appear nowhere more awkwardly than in the second section of “Erring,” in a narrative episode in which an already domesticated family pet, Fluffy, is rendered again as kitsch:

The bell rings and a man delivers a dog made of flowers to me.

My brother rolls over on his back, arms and legs up, tongue out.

He ordered the flowers.

Our dog, whom the flowers resemble, bites his cuff.

I realize relating flowers to our dog is perfectly normal on his part, even
though life hasn’t turned out as he hoped.

Everyone in the room exclaims, so cute! but the resemblance is slight.

Except for instructions by phone, the technique of the florist was outside control.

It was part of reality, like Fluffy herself, though blurring with flowers gives some

It’s an unstable image in which style carves a difference in potential, through
which he hopes something will pass for him, but his exhaustion signals. (35)

The section opens with a breach of the home’s boundary: a stranger delivers a floral arrangement in the shape of a dog — modeled after a real dog, it turns out: the family pet, Fluffy. The commissioner of this crime against art is the narrator’s brother, who enacts a second mimesis by rolling over and pretending, himself, to be a dog. In this domestic arena, the terms of artistic or intellectual rigor must be torqued to accommodate the exigencies of love; questions of craft, interpretation, and intertext are out of bounds in this space. A debased mimesis is the only possible criterion for evaluating the flower-dog as an artistic production: how close is its likeness to Fluffy? Berssenbrugge therefore substitutes for art criticism a restrained acknowledgment of the novelty sculpture’s conditions of production: “Except for instructions by phone, the technique of the florist was outside control.” These aesthetics find their culmination in the familial judgment, really the only possible judgment for a flower arrangement shaped like the family dog: “so cute!” The conventional impulse is not to create but to mimic, indeed to conform oneself to something recognizable, and thereby ameliorate a life that “hasn’t turned out as [one] hoped.” The work of the familial nest, itself a convention, is to support that ultimately tragic negotiation, and to say “so cute!” when confronted by its metonym in the form of kitsch.

If the failures of the floral dog disturbingly echo misogynistic critiques of women’s art and domestic “women’s culture” — as merely mimetic, sentimental, critically unrigorous, pre-commodified — they are also unmistakably failures, not a recuperable “alternative” aesthetic but forms of retreat from the aesthetic, a domain where aesthetic criteria can find no purchase. “Erring” argues against the theoretical utility — or honesty — of simply revaluing the domestic as a category, even as it acknowledges domesticity’s power to shelter. The gendered notion of the “nest,” which proposes the home as a fundamentally feminine and somehow “natural” sphere separate from an outside, commercial world, produces the necessity of reacting to the kitsch dog with “so cute!” in lieu of a genuine aesthetic response: the necessity of affective work, in short, elicited from “[e]veryone in the room” precisely because they are in the domestic space. What are you going to do, hurt your brother’s feelings?

Affective work thus limns the domestic space; the delivery from the “outside” corporate (“productive”) source is the center of and the occasion for the convention-bound women’s work of declaring the kitsch dog cute, an aesthetic compromise demanded by affective exigencies. The sentimental artistic modes so often understood as “women’s culture” are at once aesthetically and emotionally “cheap,” and yet also, as Berlant argues, at times a matter of survival. As Berssenbrugge writes, the kitsch dog is “an unstable image in which style carves a difference in potential, through which [my brother] hopes something will pass for him.” The brother’s disappointment with life is briefly held at bay by the aesthetic falsity of the dog, into which “everyone in the room” must now enter, sincerely or otherwise. It is precisely “style,” the flower dog’s debased aesthetics of convention, that “carves a difference in potential” — that is, between reality and what “he hoped.” Convention generates a gap within which to hope for “something [to] pass,” rendering possible a more livable world. Sentimental art, with its aesthetic compromises, structurally mirrors affective work in the willed production of feelings, and thus, likewise, in its ability to serve as emotional compensation for otherwise untenable circumstances.

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in New Mexico. Photo by Emma Bee Bernstein.


3. Kitsch is a bitch

In Nest, that domestic space is produced in part by affective work has aesthetic consequences, as we have seen. Domestic space has an aesthetic analogue in sentimental art, and the two categories find confirmation in one another. And just as we saw an animal anchoring domestic space in “Permanent Home,” repeatedly, animals also serve as catalysts for affective work in Nest, repeating the title’s allegorical action. The home is a nest, fashioned, as the nineteenth-century naturalist and historian Jules Michelet writes, from contact with the body of the animal: “a bird’s tool is its own body, that is, its breast, with which it presses and tightens its materials until they have become absolutely pliant, well-blended, and adapted to the general plan.”[31] This is indeed work of the heart: as if in homage to a human gesture of affection, the home is constructed via the action of pressing materials to the breast. Interspecies affection is therefore conceptually implicated in the construction of domestic space.

Yet “[t]here is nothing more absurd,” Bachelard concedes, “than images that attribute human qualities to a nest.”[32] Why so? Perhaps, as Tobias Menely suggests, “there is something emblematically sentimental about loving animals.”[33] But the sense of absurdity to which Bachelard points is, I would propose, more than a historical curiosity, and more, too, than the gesture of authoritarian anthropocentrism that Menely later implies it is: for loving animals, too, can be anthropocentric, as Berssenbrugge reveals in a poem of excruciatingly self-aware sentimentalism, “Dressing Up Our Pets.” Dressing up pets is the oppressive, sentimental act of love that registers and yet cannot comprehend the animals’ alterity:


I sew a bright hood for my pet mouse.

I make holes for the eyes, the nose and ears.

I stand it on two legs and it stands on its own, a while.

My friend, the white mouse, is iridescent, not an image that began in my intuition
as ready-found material.

I sew a hood for the rabbit, eye and nose holes, sheathed ears.

Its movement, the difference between a thing and its color, burdens this activity of
dressing our pets.

The mouse is old, but its image is light.

Between its alleged color and its alleged visibility is a lining, like the double of a
mouse, latency, flesh.

The surface of the visibility of a family doubles over its whole extension with
invisible reserve.

In my flesh what’s visible, by refolding or padding, exhibits their being as the
complement of possibility.

Since possibility is this situation as thought, as a universal. (23)

In this moment, domesticated animals serve as a site of interpenetration of human and animal domains where ethically suspect sentimental conventions flourish. The act of costuming the animals seems at first to honor the animals’ bodies — “holes for the eyes, the nose and ears.” Yet to honor “[m]y friend, the white mouse” is to hood it in a material alien to it, to dress it up as one might dress up a doll, or, troublingly, a child. The act of dressing up pets is either a quasi-maternal or a quasi-childish anthropomorphization. The speaker stands the mouse “on two legs and it stands on its own, a while.” The speaker seems to approve the independence and competency of the mouse “standing on its own.” Yet the coding of standing on two legs, suggesting vigor and autonomy, is a human one, for mice stand on their own as a matter of course — on four legs.

The relation to animals thus invokes a troubling dialectic of empathy and anthropocentrism, an interplay of affective and epistemological impulses with unclear ethical consequences. If the sentimental mode stands in for an ethically suspect literature of feeling and the so-called experimental mode stands in (as I have argued elsewhere) for an ethically upright literature of thinking, Nest, by its invocation of the animal, wrests these two categories into conversation, formally as well as thematically.[34] As I suggested in the first section of this essay, the conflation of home and nest is at once conventional and, in its power to provoke metonymy and allegory, fundamentally poetic. It thus serves as a conceptual crossroads where kitschy genres and forms — the immersive, formulaic narratives and mechanical feeling-generators (“tear-jerkers”) that are typically characterized as sentimental — come into contact with the non-narrative poetic forms that we often — problematically — call “experimental.”

I am arguing, in other words, that Nest is sentimental poetry in the strong sense that it embeds sentimentalism, with all its problems and embarrassments, into its very structure. This accounts for the elusive yet unmistakably embarrassing quality of a number of syntactic moves that transform the lines of Nest into the downy architectural lines of an all-too-domestic nest-like space. These are all forms of going too far, going on too long, or in some way pushing it, insisting on an explanation, clarification, or narrative not subtended by any strong logical connection. These syntactic moves subvert the forward-moving logic of production, exceeding what is appropriate or necessary and contaminating the lines’ logical tightness with the reproductive and affective intrusions of parataxis, association, and mere juxtaposition. Such moves include a preponderance of sentences that conjoin two independent clauses with the paratactic link of “and”; reliance on narrative connectors that are merely temporal (“then”) rather than causal; and the use of adjective clauses, which conscript the assertive subject-verb pairing for the non-narrative, decorative (we might say domestic) aims of description and modification.

For example, in the first of the trio of poems titled “Safety” that close Nest, we read: “Increasingly in our world, forgiveness is asked, granted, withheld, face-to-face or below the surface, like slow combustion, and I need to elucidate the chain of oxidation” (67). The sentence can be granted a certain logical rigor, even as, word by word, the various past participles, and then adjective phrases, accumulate — even when we encounter, in the final adjective phrase, the logical flimsiness of a simile, “like slow combustion.” The sentence can bear no more by the time we arrive at that weak link, “and,” which adds insult to injury with a declaration of need that rests on the least logically rigorous component of the foregoing clause, the simile between forgiveness and combustion. The simile is itself incongruous and faintly inappropriate, for while a metaphor imposes a likeness (“forgiveness is a slow combustion”), a simile relies on a pre-existing likeness. Here, no indication of any real similarity between forgiveness and combustion supports the “like”; ironically, “like” therefore only attenuates the connection. But it is the paratactic tacking on of the second clause — “I need to elucidate the chain of oxidation” — that goes too far, by insisting further on the simile while continuing rather ostentatiously to withhold any logical grounding for it. The sentence ends by making a “chain of oxidation” into the site of “I need,” physicalizing and spatializing an emotional state through the kind of empty simile that is sentimentalism’s hallmark.

In this, then, the syntax of Nest delimits a poetic space whose boundaries are in question — poetry threatening to dissolve into sentimentality, poetic form already complicit in the making of sentimentality, not through its “transparency” (as in nineteenth-century sentimental poetry) but precisely insofar as “abstraction” resolves into convention. In doing so this syntax models as well as invokes the myriad pains of the domestic space, its tendency not merely to be read as the product of sentimentalism but in fact to be unavoidably constituted by it, insofar as the abstraction of the dwelling space is always pre-naturalized, pre-gendered, and cast out of the realm of production. To describe the home is to need to seek refuge in abstraction, an impulse we see over and over again in these poems: “the boy” and “an animal” in “Permanent Home” (the animal surely a dog, but called “an animal” nonetheless) (11); “the child” in “Dressing Up Our Pets” (27); the repeated turns to a phenomenological language of perception. We see it, too, in the insistence on abstract relations that seem designed to be substitutable into any story: “He relates wanting to catch the mouse with the room, ground” (12); “There’s a relation between them in which she’s involved” (17); “Each line connects” (27); “By connecting images, not meaning, she transforms her boredom into pure time” (36); and so on. Connection and relation are themselves abstracted and are, in their loss of specificity, rendered as floppy and “downy” as the poetry’s syntax. The sentimental convention is a story, as Berlant puts it, “about the bargain ‘a woman’ makes with femininity, which is to measure out a life in the capital of intimacy, opening herself to a risky series of sexual and emotional transactions that intensify her vulnerability on behalf of securing value, a world and ‘a life’ that are financially, spatially, and environmentally stable and predictable enough.”[35] The ever-contingent boundaries of the nest are shored up by convention, by the abstraction that is “not only a mere placeholder for what could be richer in an underdeveloped social imaginary, but...a profound placeholder”;[36] in other words, the naturalized affective labor that subtends the home, when rendered as sentimental convention, can serve as a near-adequate substitute for the “universal” quality to which Berssenbrugge repeatedly alludes.

It is no accident, I would therefore argue, that the tragicomedy of convention in “Erring” must center on the family pet — the animal — and on what the brother “relate[s]” to it. Sentimentalism is an aesthetic crime and an ethical one: a theft of unearned feeling necessarily committed over and over in order to make ends meet, a domain fictively placed outside the realm of production because the economy of feeling has already failed. The dog, a “domesticated” animal, already belongs inside the domestic space; when its simulacrum, the flower sculpture, intrudes as well, we are shown that the domestic space is already populated not only by a human and animal kin group but also by a commodity system that profits by re-rendering the domestic unit’s reality as convention: “blurring with flowers gives some universality.” Berssenbrugge chooses to name the generic quality of the floral dog by the great artistic desideratum, “universality,” slyly travestied here as mere evidence that the sculpture is after all only a flower arrangement ordered over the phone. Here and elsewhere, we see that “universality” has an unsettling tendency to resolve into the abstractions of commodity and of convention. Fluffy abstracted is Fluffy commodified, and Fluffy commodified is a comfort to the disappointed brother. The faintly aggressive assertion of the real dog in the poem, a live, individual dog capable of biting the brother’s cuff, serves as a reminder of what is being abstracted, and for whose benefit.

The awkward dog episode in “Erring” brings into relief the affective dimension of the spatial problem already posed by Bachelard’s meditation on the nest, the target of Lefebvre’s vigorous critique. “Erring” more broadly meditates on tensions within a family “so wrong in how they’re laid out, no ethos of being together” (33), a complaint that registers affective inadequacies in spatial terms, as if affections could be repaired by improving the way the family is “laid out.” As in “Permanent Home,” the domestic space is inevitably self-distant, even from the vantage point of the living room. The language of distance does double duty as an affective metaphor, mediated by the presence of a camera eye in the poem, which the speaker’s emotionally distant (so to speak) daughter wields. The camera repeatedly appears to record the home with the impersonality of abstraction, reinterpreting domestic space as sheer composition and distance — thus the moment at which the floral dog is delivered is less a snippet of reality than “an unstable image,” a kind of defective photograph that cannot persist through time. When the daughter returns on the scene, the abstraction of space produced by her camera repeats the abstraction of affection embodied in the kitschy flower-dog:

Space between her image and my perception allows her to store other images, by
subtracting what relates to me.

This alteration produces blurring, camera shake.

Door, windows are remembered, blurred. (35)

Blurring, the same faculty that lends the flower-dog “universality,” now characterizes the perception of space itself. The domestic space is in this sense always doubly abstracted, spatially and affectively, into convention.

A loss of specificity then becomes the ameliorating theft that compensates for the originary theft that underwrites sentimentalism: the removal of the home from historical space with its concomitant assimilation of female and affective labor to (appropriable) nature. As soon as we move into the space of the home considered as such, the abstraction of universality resolves into floppy syntax and “blurred” perception, and becomes indistinguishable from the abstraction of sentimental convention. What is work is not work; what would be paid for elsewhere is too priceless to be paid for; what is done with difficulty is natural; what is (domestic) space is not space; thought is feeling; art is kitsch. We pardon these gendered slippages for sentimental reasons, and they are the slippages that constitute sentimental reason, that necessitate sentimental style. These thefts create the deficits that put one in need of a little unearned feeling. Thus in “Dressing Up Our Pets” the sentimental, cute, empathetic/aggressive act of costuming a rodent is freighted with philosophical (abstract) questions about how to perceive the animal: “Its movement, the difference between a thing and its color burdens this activity of dressing our pets” (23).[37] The convention of wearing clothes, and the domestic convention of dressing a being for which one cares, emerges as a moment of deeply inappropriate abstraction. Convention’s abstraction here amounts to a refusal of the pet’s specificity and difference. But how, then, are we to distinguish between the abstraction in this convention and the kind of abstraction that renders dressing a pet a phenomenological problem? It is not so much that Berssenbrugge “raises” sentimentalism to the stature of phenomenology as that phenomenology “burdens” it, intervening in the very physical practicalities of dressing a mouse. It squirms: but in what does squirming consist? Nothing about that question allows us to answer the more pressing one: why are you dressing a mouse? Berssenbrugge thus explicitly flags the way in which a dense passage suffused with the phenomenological terminology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (visible/invisible, extension, flesh) renders “this situation” — the exceedingly sentimental, rather improbable situation of sewing a costume for a pet rodent and making said squirming rodent wear it — “as thought, as a universal” (23),

From the perspective of a longer literary history, then, Nest raises all the ghosts of gender wars past, and especially the tensions within late twentieth-century self-identified “experimental” poetry. In 1983 Kathleen Fraser founded HOW(ever), a journal of feminist poetics, in response to what she and many others diagnosed as a gendered split between an anticapitalist, critique-oriented “language-centered” writing and a commodified “mainstream” poetics.[38] Significantly, these concerns arose in parallel with a feminist poetics of subjectivity founded on the confessional tradition. As Linda Kinnahan puts it, “the framing term feminist poetry has not historically admitted avant-garde/experimental/innovative approaches, while the framing term Language writing [implicitly, also, “experimental”] has generated a history built up around men.”[39] The writing that was, in Kinnahan’s word, “innovative” (might we say “productive”?), was rendered masculine, while regressive, stylistically “conventional,” commodified or at least commodifiable writing — in a word, sentimental writing — was by the same stroke feminized and identified as the site of feminism.[40] Since that time, the division between “experimental” and “feminine” writing has been deconstructed in numerous essays, manifestoes, monographs, and anthologies, in part on the basis of the work of Fraser and many other women writers who have identified strongly with terms like “innovative” and “experimental”; moreover, even the “experimental”/“mainstream” split on which it is founded has been repeatedly refuted, notably by an anthology brought out by the ultimate anthologizer, W. W. Norton.[41] In the literary-critical age of the “post-,” the problem of domestic space has been declared obsolete, along with the other gendered binaries that have structured intellectual life.[42] Yet placing Nest in 2003, when, in Lynn Keller’s words, “we are now a generation past Fraser’s launching of HOW(ever) […] with the Language writers now a senior generation among experimentalists,”[43] we see how easily that chord again sounds within, how swiftly the dwelling is naturalized, and with what difficulty the sentimental may be excluded from the feminine as a category. In 2003, Berssenbrugge could not have quite anticipated the literalism with which your making a “friend” would make Facebook, Inc. profits;[44] yet Nest’s sentimentalism reveals infinite relays of the unearned that underwrite the diffusion of unpaid emotion work and the visualization of affective ties. It still seems “unnatural” to be paid for feeling, even as profiting on the feelings of others is the status quo. The embarrassments of Nest mark that basic contradiction, the gap between what is and what is longed for that sentimentalism both compensates for and creates. If we are “post-” all those gender wars, it is only because that gap now characterizes production of all kinds, conferring on all space the evanescent and sentimental character of the nest that can never quite be a permanent home.





I wish to thank Dan Blanton, Julia Bloch, Eric Falci, Hillary Gravendyk, and Patrick Pritchett for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. This essay was written with support from a Roberta C. Holloway Postdoctoral Fellowship in Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, Berkeley.





1.  Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (1958; repr., Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 91.

2.  Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991), 85.

3.  Lefebvre, Production of Space, 121.

4.  See Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 98–102.

5.  Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Nest (Berkeley: Kelsey Street Press, 2003), 11. Hereafter cited in text.

6.  Lefebvre, Production of Space, 77.

7.  Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 11.

 8.  Cathy N. Davidson, “Preface: No More Separate Spheres!,” in “No More Separate Spheres!,” ed. Davidson, special issue, American Literature 70, no. 3 (1998): 443–44. Davidson points specifically to “Politics and Culture in Women’s History: A Symposium,” Feminist Studies 6 (Spring 1980): 26–64, and “Beyond Roles, Beyond Spheres: Thinking about Gender in the Early Republic,” The William and Mary Quarterly 46 (July 1989): 565–85. Davidson’s own special issue of American Literature (1998) makes the third such intervention in the series.

9.  Lefebvre, Production of Space, 120.

10.  Lefebvre, Production of Space, 120–21. I would argue that Lefebvre sets himself up to make this concession as soon as he concedes the existence of an autonomous nature.

11.  Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 14.

12.  Charles Altieri, “Intimacy and Experiment in Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s Empathy,” in We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics, ed. Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 56.

13.  Lefebvre, Production of Space, 70.

14.  Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 97. 

15.  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri distinguish sharply between affect and emotion, writing that “[u]nlike emotions, which are mental phenomena, affects refer equally to body and mind. In fact, affects, such as joy and sadness, reveal the present state of life in the entire organism, expressing a certain state of the body along with a certain mode of thinking […]. One can recognize affective labor, for example, in the work of legal assistants, flight attendants, and fast food workers (service with a smile).” From their description, it is clear that what they term “affective” is identical to the “emotional” phenomena Hoschschild observes in her flight attendants. Except when explicitly discussing Hochschild’s work, I will use Hardt and Negri’s terminology. Hardt and Negri, Multitude (New York: Penguin, 2005), 108.

16.  Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 164–65. On emotional and affective work, see also (for example) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Hardt and Negri, Multitude; Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); and Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

17.  Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution in the Home (New York: Viking, 1989).

18.  See especially Hochschild, Managed Heart, 132–36.

19.  Hochschild, Managed Heart, 163.

20.  Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, January–March 1879, in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), 768. Part of this famous letter has been published elsewhere under the title “De Profundis.”

21.  Ironically, the sentimental, like emotion work, is “cheap” precisely because it isn’t free. For the price of a movie ticket you can be made to cry; an airfare will buy you unlimited human smiles. As soon as these things are paid for, they lose the status of nature.

22.  Hardt and Negri, Empire, 293.

23.  Hochschild, Managed Heart, 175–76.

24.  Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 109.

25.  Antonella Corsani, “Beyond the Myth of Woman: The Becoming Trans-Feminist of (Post-) Marxism,” trans. Timothy S. Murphy, SubStance 36, no. 1 (#112, 2007), 124–26. See also the special section “Devenir-Femme du Travail” in Multitudes 12 (Spring 2003), 125–77.

26.  On the concept of “intimate publics,” see Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 5–13. Chapter 2 of The Female Complaint first appeared in No More Separate Spheres!, cited above.

27.  Berlant, The Female Complaint, 3.

28.  Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 100.

29.  Bachelard here echoes Gertrude Stein, specifically in the guise of one speaking for another’s soul: “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them.” See Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in Writings 1903–1932, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Chessman (New York: Library of America, 1998), 661.

30.  Berlant, The Female Complaint, 3.

31.  Quoted in Bachelard, Poetics of Space, 100.

32.  Bachelard, Poetics of Space, 92.

33.  Tobias Menely, “Zoöphilpsychosis: Why Animals Are What’s Wrong with Sentimentality,” Symploke 15, nos. 1–2 (2007), 247.

34.  See Cecire, “A Sense of the Real: Experimental Writing and the Sciences, 1879–1946” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2010).

35.  Berlant, The Female Complaint, 218.

36.  Ibid., 3.

37.  On the mutual aggression implicit in cuteness, see Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 811–47.

38.  On the history of HOW(ever), see Lynn Keller, Thinking Poetry: Reading in Contemporary Women’s Exploratory Poetics (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010), 3–4; Linda A. Kinnahan, Lyric Interventions: Feminism, Experimental Poetry, and Contemporary Discourse (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004), 1–40; and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 1–19.

39.  Kinnahan, Lyric Interventions, 9. This American formation ran rather contrary to contemporaneous French feminist theories of poetics, e.g. Julia Kristeva’s notion of écriture féminine.

40.  That the assertion of a female “I” was not admitted as a kind of “innovation” speaks to the very peculiar ways in which the word “innovation” continues to be used concerning and in the vicinity of poetry.

41.  David St. John and Cole Swensen, eds., American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (New York: Norton, 2009).

42.  See also Jed Rasula, Syncopations: The Stress of Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), especially chapter 1, “Women, Innovation, and ‘Improbable Evidence.’”

43.  Keller, Thinking Poetry, 4.

44.  Facebook was launched in 2004.