Friday, November 23, 2012

Everyday Reading Outtakes: The Bealor Family Poetry Scrapbook

On Wednesday of this week, P&PC was thrilled to learn that Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America has been nominated for a 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, and we would have celebrated by sending the office interns home early, except that they had already gone home early for Thanksgiving festivities with family and friends. Alone in the office, a single light bulb glowing from its chain in the middle of the room, the rain of the Oregon winter coming down on the dark streets, and a turkey awaiting our ministrations at home, we turned, as we not infrequently do in times of meditation, to one of the 175 or so old poetry scrapbooks that form the archive we consider in Chapter One of Everyday Reading, that are representative of a widespread American practice of cutting and pasting poems between the Civil War and World War II, and that we've written about from time to time on this blog (here, here, here, here, here, and here).

It's one of our regrets that Everyday Reading didn't give us enough space to focus on every one of our favorite poetry scrapbooks, because many of them are really provocative and moving. Take, for example, an album started by Minnie R. Shaw Bealor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on November 29, 1926—almost exactly eighty-six years ago. Between 1926 and 1938, Minnie would collect over seventy poems in her anthology, most of them cut out from newspapers but a few written longhand. A high concentration of poems from Edgar Guest's syndicated "Just Folks" newspaper column suggests that Minnie was a particular fan of the "people's poet"; she even pasted a picture of Guest on the album's inside front cover (pictured here). But we find others as well, like "In Flanders Fields" and "From an Oldtime Flapper" (see the next picture below) that also anchor Minnie in the modern world of World War I, the nineteenth amendment, the Roaring 20s, and the era of the New Woman. Here's "From an Oldtime Flapper" (a sonnet written in couplets by someone identified only as "Diana"):
I was a flapper in nineteen-two,
Big Pompadour and a big hat, too;
Habit-back skirts were then in date
And suited alluring out-curves great.
We smoked cigarets [sic] on the strict Q. T.,
And a cocktail or two never worried me!
Now I am a cheery blithe old dame,
While the habits of youth are just the same—
They devil their elders and kick their heels.
Old Fate smiles on as their doom she seals
With a ring and a book and a bridal veil,
A Harlem flat and an infant's wail—
Jazz along, girls, here's luck to you
From an old-time flapper of nineteen-two!
Was Minnie herself meditating on the "doom" of marriage, motherhood, and domestic life that Diana sees linking successive generations of women: "Old Fate smiles on as their doom she seals / With a ring and a book and a bridal veil / A Harlem flat and an infant's wail"? We think it's very likely. The first poem Minnie pastes in the album, for example, is "Our Mother" by children's author and poet Josephine Pollard, which concludes:
Better for us to be faithful and kind
To mother dear, while she is living;
Better for us when we bear in mind,
Kisses and sympathy giving,
Than after her presence is missed from the home,
And she's gone from this world to another,
To weep and lament, and with anguish repent
Of the way we neglected our mother.
Minnie uses several Guest poems—"The Good Wife," "My Wife and I," "Ma and I," "Picking Up After Him," "Ma and the Auto," "She Mothered Five," and "Babies"—to extend her theme, offering evidence not only of how scrapbooking provided readers with a way to meditate in an extended way on a topic, but also how important Guest might be to studies of women's poetry and twentieth-century women readers as well.

What's so moving about this scrapbook is not just Minnie's reflection, but that it witnesses to her death as well. About halfway through the album, Minnie has dated (Oct. 29, 1936), handwritten, and signed a poem of her own (pictured here)—the only time she includes her own verse. Here it is:
Where are all the thoughts we think and then forget?
They surely cannot melt away and never leave a trace.
Perhaps I'll find in later years they're close around me yet—
At least I'll find their history is written in my face.
Minnie's final words—which we can't help but read as an epitaph retooling Keats's famous line, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water"—are followed by a blank page and then a full-page notation (pictured here) handwritten and signed a year and a half later by Minnie's daughter, Margaret Jane Bealor: "This Scrap Book continued in Loving Memory of my Mother, Minnie Rebecca Shaw Bealor, This Twenty-fourth day of March, in The Year of Our Lord, Nineteen Hundred and Thirty Eight."

Margaret would go on to include 35 pieces of her own selection—poems and passages about grief and existential need such as "Consolation," "What Is Life About?," Kipling's "If We Only Understood" "The Lonely Road," "Is Life Worth Living?," "Fear," "Resolve," and "Courage." Was Margaret continuing her mother's album as a way of working through the anguish that Pollard identifies at the end of "Our Mother" quoted above—as an act of repentance? Had Margaret discovered, upon her mother's death, Minnie's private, twelve-year wrestle with the subject of motherhood and married life? Had she recognized the "doom" that they shared but likely never talked about—and was she now processing it in private, via the scrapbook, just as her mother had done? Was Margaret possibly thinking of her own daughter, or her future daughter, and how—as in "From an Oldtime Flapper"—she would live to see women's doom repeat itself at midcentury?

The silence—of the individual reader, but also the silence between mother and daughter—that themes the two parts of this album is moving, but it's not as moving as the horrible silence that ends it. Margaret's additions to the scrapbook end, like her mother's section, with a handwritten, epitaph-like passage beginning, "One reason our Lord gives for not worrying about the future is that we have nothing to do with it." Then, repeating the transitional motif she established halfway through the album upon the occasion of her mother's death, Margaret skips a page and writes:
September 3, 1939
     War in Europe Begins
December 7, 1941
     Japan attacked Pearl Harbor
December 8, 1941
     We entered the war against Japan, Germany + Italy.
May 7, 1945
     The War in Europe ended.
August 6, 1945
     The first Atomic Bomb was dropped by the U.S. in Japan
August 14, 1945
     The War ended.
The rest of the scrapbook—sixty pages—is entirely blank. P&PC flips page after page looking for something—some word, some gesture, some voice, some recovery from the war, some continuation of any type, but it's like there's nothing to say or do after the dropping of the atom bomb, no possible answer any longer to the question "Is Life Worth Living?" that the earlier poem of that title posed. It's a nuclear holocaust as figured by the scrapbook, a test pattern that is nothing but white on white. Margaret probably wouldn't have known who Theodor Adorno was, but it's her version of Adorno's famous statement, "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."