The Book of Alice
The Book of Alice—Process Commentary
Writing a half-crown of sonnets was a significantly more intense process than I had anticipated, but I would say well worth the time and effort. The form of my project, a half-crown of sonnets, was inspired by this work of Marilyn Nelson’s (hers a far nobler attempt than mine): http://www.poetrynet.org/month/archive/nelson/faith.html
Mostly what was difficult was trying to get into Alice’s head—to understand the point she was making in her writing, and to then delve deeper into the words to get a sense of what she might have been feeling when she wrote them. I kept the sonnets in a quasi-diary format, with each sonnet dated as the entry from which I drew my inspiration (and many words and direct phrases, also). They are not in chronological order, as I found that Alice did her most profound thinking in the late springtime, with the exception of an entry about a month before she died, in March. I selected passages that we had talked about in class or that appealed to me during my reading of the diary, and sought to convey Alice’s feelings without necessarily saying exactly what she was thinking. This, for me, was a sort of mirror of her hypocritical tendencies. The repetition of the final line in each sonnet as the first line of the next, creating a circle (hence the term “crown”) was representative of Alice’s chronic illness.
I hope to let Alice, and these poems, speak for themselves to a certain extent, and much of the language should be familiar since it is taken directly from her diary. Through this creative medium, I hope that I have demonstrated my critical purpose, which is this: Alice often directed her criticism outwardly when in fact she was dissatisfied with her own capability and productivity. Because poems allow writers to express feelings without making explicit statements, the sonnet was the perfect form for translating Alice James’ diary. It was an important study in genre for me, and a really interesting observation of form mimicking content. Translating Alice into this crown of sonnets gave me deeper insight into how she viewed herself.
The Book of Alice
“…that I may lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me.”
I. July 11, 1889
Next best to having been in Rome myself
Imagination leads me there each night—
The city of survival, hope, and might.
Letters from my friends upon the shelf
Sing songs of foreign happiness and wealth.
My mind can take me anywhere in sight,
To ancient Roman ruins in fading light
My mind: invincible to failing health.
The chirping birds awake me in my bed,
From whence I’ve learned such wondrous things
As Rome in picturesque detail—though far,
I travel there; I visit in my head,
Recording the impressions vision brings.
My mind is capable, though quite bizarre.
II. April 7, 1890
My mind is capable, though quite bizarre:
A coral insect building up its reef,
By microscopic progress (can’t go far),
Of theory, observation, disbelief.
My body, on the other hand, is rot,
And thus I spend my days in judgment’s hand
While gazing out the curtains, time forgot.
Observing how behavior does command
Disgust for the simplicity of men.
Our world is more than what we see from here
(Too easy to point out your faults again)
Forgive me if I’m being too severe
Avoiding self-reflection is my creed
What ghastly lives some people choose to lead!
III. June 16, 1889
What ghastly lives some people choose to lead,
Five babies and another born today!
A mother draped in rags with mouths to feed
Poor virtue in a state of disarray.
A father drunk since Christmas is no use,
The toddler yet to walk, a bracing burden.
Yet they’re content, by way of faith’s excuse,
I’ll be neither keeper nor their warden.
Excuse this flaccid virgin’s interest in
The furthering of our piteous race—
I fear I must convey with deep chagrin
Your constant procreation’s a disgrace.
Though it may be a secret admiration,
I can’t escape this tone of lamentation.
IV. July 18, 1890
I can’t escape the tone of lamentation,
For this physical collapse has been excessive.
From my bed, the air of condemnation:
Hysteria is tragically oppressive.
My nerves are steadied with the medicine,
So I’ll experience the pain without
Distraction: shiv’ring whacks that beat my skin
and lift me from the present. I doubt
my faith in anything but patience, for to
tolerate the pain will make me strong,
more so than men who whimper, whine, and mew
At the pulling of a tooth. Compared to this,
I laugh at what they suffer thinking, still,
How well one has to be, to be so ill!
V. May 20, 1890
How well one has to be, to be so ill!
I ventured through my headache to the yards,
Where spring is sprouting, over grassy hill
And hay-fields filled with silly sheep guards.
The intoxicating grades of shade and light
Result in rich sensational identity:
With swooping birds and browsing kite,
still greenery and drifting cloud, serenity
is in my bones. I think too much.
Should I like to be an artist? Despair
And joy in learned sight: as such,
Expression remains a separate affair.
That creativity be resurrected,
We carry our gifts with us, protected.
VI. May 9, 1891
We carry our gifts with us, protected,
Airtight and hidden from the world’s harsh light
But leaving bits and pieces unconnected
And exposed in childlike candor. A right
To know: are we unconscious victims of
Our Nature? Or fields left fallow to seeds
Of accident? Proclaim your mind, thereof,
Your ignorance. Separate from earthly needs
The wings of my imagination!
Turn to smooth illuminating rays
The movement of true inspiration.
By this I count and recount all my days,
My mind your faith and wit transcends—
Success or failure of a life depends.
VII. February 1, 1892
Success or failure of a life depends
On luck: to seize a moment of eclipse
And run with it. Tender touch descends,
Roused by days of suffering, although
The tragedy lies not in pain or sorrow
But in sympathy from worthless men
(like William), who contemplate the morrow,
and it’s coming—I have nothing again.
How can I live when nothing makes me whole?
With nothing left for me to write or plea,
At last I perch by letters on that shelf,
Discords and nervous horrors sear the soul.
Though I will only feel, sweet K. will see—
Next best to having been there for myself.