Toward a poetry and poetics of the Americas (17): Adah Isaacs Menken
'Sale of Souls,' A poem with an accompanying commentary
[In the transnational assemblage of the Americas (“from origins to present”) that Heriberto Yépez and I are now composing, a wide range of English-language poetry will be positioned alongside the multiple languages spoken and/or written on the two American continents. As with the work of Adah Isaacs Menken (1835–1868), we will also be giving special attention to a number of earlier poets still awaiting recognition in whatever we take to be an American canon or pantheon. With Menken, as with many others, the continuing neglect has been a matter both of gender and of the innovative and transgressive quality of the work as it appeared in its own time and place. The possibilities of restoration are now, of course, enormous — in Menken’s case, to see her anew as a towering figure whose poetry moves easily into the ranks of our greatest forerunners. (J.R.)]
SALE OF SOULS
Oh, I am wild-wild!
Angels of the weary-hearted, come to thy child.
Spread your white wings over me!
Plead for me, plead for me!
Souls for sale! souls for sale!
Souls for gold! who'll buy?
In the pent-up city, through the wild rush and beat of human hearts, I hear this unceasing, haunting cry:
Souls for sale! souls for sale!
Through mist and gloom,
Through hate and love,
Through peace and strife,
Through wrong and right,
Through life and death,
The hoarse voice of the world echoes up the cold gray sullen river of life.
On, on, on!
No silence until it shall have reached the solemn sea of God’s for ever;
No rest, no sleep;
Waking through the thick gloom of midnight, to hear the damning cry as it mingles and clashes with the rough clang of gold.
Poor Heart, poor Heart,
Alas! I know thy fears.
The hollow echoes that the iron-shod feet of the years throw back on the sea of change still vibrate through the grave-yard of prayers and tears;—
Prayers that fell unanswered,
Tears that followed hopelessly.
But pale Memory comes back through woe and shame and strife, bearing on her dark wings their buried voices;
Like frail helpless barks, they wail through the black sea of the crowded city,
Poor Heart, what do the waves say to thee?
The sunshine laughed on the hill sides.
The link of years that wore a golden look bound me to woman-life by the sweet love of my Eros, and the voice of one who made music to call me mother.
Weak Heart, weak Heart!
Oh, now I reel madly on through clouds and storms and night.
The hills have grown dark,
They lack the grace of my golden-haired child, to climb their steep sides, and bear me their smiles in the blue-eyed violets of our spring-time.
Sad Heart, what do the hills say to thee?
They speak of my Eros, and how happily in the dim discolored hours we dreamed away the glad light, and watched the gray robes of night as she came through the valley, and ascended on her way to the clouds.
Kisses of joy, and kisses of life,
Kisses of heaven, and kisses of earth,
Clinging and clasping white hands;
Mingling of soft tresses;
Murmurings of love, and murmurings of life,
With the warm blood leaping up in joy to answer its music;
The broad shelter of arms wherein dwelt peace and content, so sweet to love.
All, all were mine.
Loving Heart, loving Heart,
Hush the wailing and sobbing voice of the past;
Sleep in thy rivers of the soul,
Souls for sale!
The wild cry awoke the god of ambition, that slumbered in the bosom of Eros;
From out the tents he brought forth his shield and spear, to see them smile back at the sun;
Clad in armor, he went forth to the cities of the world, where brave men battle for glory, and souls are bartered for gold.
Weeping and fearing, haggard and barefoot, I clung to him with my fainting child.
Weary miles of land and water lay in their waste around us.
We reached the sea of the city.
Marble towers lifted their proud heads beyond the scope of vision.
Wild music mingled with laughter.
The tramp of hoofs on the iron streets, and the cries of the drowning, and the curses of the damned were all heard in that Babel, where the souls of men can be bought for gold.
All the air seemed dark with evil wings.
And all that was unholy threw their shadows everywhere,
Shadows on the good,
Shadows on the bad,
Shadows on the lowly,
Shadows on the lost!
All tossing upon the tide of rushing, restless destiny;
Upon all things written:
Souls for sale!
Lost Heart, lost Heart!
A soul mantled in glory, and sold to the world;
O horrible sale!
O seal of blood!
Give back my Eros.
His bowstring still sounds on the blast, yet his arrow was broken in the fall.
Oh leave me not on the wreck of this dark-bosomed ship while Eros lies pale on the rocks of the world.
Driven before the furious gale by the surging ocean’s strife;
The strong wind lifting up the sounding sail, and whistling through the ropes and masts; waves lash the many-colored sides of the ship, dash her against the oozy rocks.
The strength of old ocean roars.
The low booming of the signal gun is heard above the tempest.
Oh how many years must roll their slow length along my life, ere the land be in sight!
When will the morning dawn?
When will the clouds be light?
When will the storm be hushed?
It is so dark and cold.
Angels of the weary-hearted, come to your child!
Build your white wings around me.
Pity me, pity me.
I have written these wild soul-poems in the stillness of midnight, and when waking to the world the next day, they were to me the deepest mystery. I could not understand them; did not know but what I ought to laugh at them; feared to publish them, and often submitted them privately to literary friends to tell me if they could see a meaning in their wild intensity. (Adah Isaacs Menken, from Notes on My Life, 1868)
The power and bright newness of Menken’s writing has been obscured over the years, yet always on the verge of reappearing. Probably born as Adelaide McCord in Milneburg, Louisiana, or possibly Philomène Croi Théodore or Dolores Adios Los Fiertes in New Orleans, there was an ongoing play of identities: multiple versions of her birth, her parentage, her ethnicity. Her ongoing artwork in that sense was an elaborate self-construction — assertively Jewish in her earlier writings, militantly feminist later on. As such the work developed a rare female violence and eroticism: “wild soul-poems” in the writing but mirrored as well in her stage presence, an actress who famously played the young male lead in an adaptation of Byron’s poem Mazeppa — transgendered and shockingly nude (or appearing to be so in flesh-colored tights) as she made her exit from the stage, helpless and strapped astride a “fiery untamed steed.” (Thus Mark Twain’s 1863 account of it, while quoting Byron.) This was her principal and very real celebrity, which carried her across America (New York first, then San Francisco) and established her soon thereafter in London and Paris.
But her formal innovation as a poet, like that of Walt Whitman, whom she knew from the New York café scene of the early 1860s, was in the open/projective/free verse line of her later poetry. In this she need no longer be viewed as an imitator of Walt but as someone drawing like him from the Bible and Ossian while driven by a very different sense of mind and body. Nor was she a recluse or an isolate — like Dickinson — but a public person moving in the company of still more public figures — Charles Dickens, to whom her first and only book was dedicated, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, George Sand, and Alexandre Dumas, with the last three of whom she was rumored to have had sexual encounters as well as friendships. Her book of free-verse poems, Infelicia, published shortly after her early death, caused astonishment and bewilderment, and only now may appear as what it surely was: the emergence of an unfettered woman artist and poet. In that regard her best known poem, “Judith,” covers a theme celebrated today in painters like Artemisia Gentileschi, Lavinia Fontana, and Elisabetta Sirani but seldom if ever among premodern women poets. Menken’s own cry of independence:
O horrible sail!
O seal of blood!
Give back my Eros!
Or in a feminist essay called Self Defence: “A woman can be strong and free only as men and nations obtain their freedom, viz.: that of showing herself capable of obtaining and holding it. He who cut the Gordian knot told the whole secret of human success — if the knot will not be unraveled, cut it!”
[As originally published in J. Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson, Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, 2009.]