Wednesday, March 10, 2010

BEATRICE RAVENEL: The Confused Subjectivity of Modernism OR How I Came To Write Her Poem

If you don't already, after reading this post, you will think me daft.

The mind that used to be like the famous "steel trap" has become a notorious sieve, still stainless steel but with gaping, wide mesh.

Many years ago, someone steered me to the poetry of Beatrice Ravenel. It's one of those names, isn't it? A delight to say. Say it with me now: Beatrice. Ravenel. Beatrice Ravenel! In-to-na-tion as-cen-dante! I can practically feel the sharp taps on the head from my French linguistics professor (who was, sadly, obsessed with phonetics -- and corporal punishment with rulers).

Furthermore, like Seinfeld, I also enjoy the word salsa. From the episode about "The Pitch," where George and Jerry establish "nothing" as being the show's key concept:

GEORGE: So, what's happening with the TV show? You come up with anything?

JERRY: No, nothing.

GEORGE: Why don't they have salsa on the table?

JERRY: What do you need salsa for?

GEORGE: Salsa is now the number one condiment in America.

JERRY: You know why? Because people like to say "salsa." "Excuse me, do
you have salsa?" "We need more salsa." "Where is the salsa? No salsa?"

GEORGE: You know it must be impossible for a Spanish person to order
seltzer and not get salsa. (Angry) "I wanted seltzer, not salsa."

JERRY: "Don't you know the difference between seltzer and salsa?? You
have the seltzer after the salsa!"

Ravenel, salsa, seltzer, Beatrice. Also, multicolore and vraisembablement -- a regular party in the mouth, those!

Anyway. Yes, that's it. It must have happened that way -- that someone, with great intent, led me right to Beatrice Ravenel. How else would I have found her in this world overrun with Norton Anthologies and Citations of Authority? The last clear authority I acknowledge is 99 years out of date! The centenial celebration of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is an exciting prospect. Er, to people like me, who excite over a word's mouth-feel and false etymologies.

Sal-sa. Multi-co-lore!

We are a small group, but likeable. Really. What is sad, and truly unfortunate, are those who think that these little performances emanate from reclusive virtuosos.

Do not!
Are not!

So, sieve steadily leaking, I searched the aforementioned beloved encyclopedia for any mention of Ravenel. What a moment of excitement when the search returned a hit from the article about Charleston, home of the poetess in question! At its tail, referential end, there is a brief allusion to a 1906 book on the city by one "Mrs. St. Julien Ravenel."

Forget your [dearth of] excitement and imagine mine! Then, as is usual, follow its rapid descent into disappointment. I turned to a Charleston County Public Library publication -- because librarians, constitutionally, cannot lie -- where I found this next to a picture of the "Ravenel House":

This house was also the home of his son, Dr. St. Julien Ravenel, the noted scientist who designed and built the Civil War semi-submersible torpedo boat, the Lucy, and was a leader in the development of the phosphate fertilizer after the Civil War. lt was also the home of Dr. Ravenel's wife Harriett Horry Rutledge, who, using the name Mrs. St. Julien Ravenel, authored the book Charleston: The Place and the People, and other works on local history.

Amazing that this decorated, decorous family name was lost to me for almost ten years.

Imagine, too, having to deal with a name like Whory Harriett in your playground days. C'mon, you know it had to happen! En plus, imagine being married to the progenitor of lazy-assed terrorists and their fertilizer bombs.

What? Oh, please, you are in charge of what-came-first insistances, and order, in general, and all those things.

Okay, so phosphate fertilizer isn't used in those home-grown, cheapo-cheapo production explosive devices. Mrs. St. Julien Ravenel was so greatly relieved when notified that she announced, "It is 5 o'clock somewhere," and poured herself a stiff drink.

Despite my amnesia for sourcework, those shiny metallic threads in the Ravenel tapestry, I retained an uncanny ability this last decade to recall a good many lines from Beatrice Ravenel's creations (with the slight caveat that I did not attribute them to her).

There was one piece in particular that I very much admired. A poem. I called it "Fear," and, as luck would have it, so did she.

You may not remember jotting down the phrase "on or about December 1910" from a lecture on Modernism in one of your lit classes but I assure you that you did. Let's go further and re-place the droplet in the ocean; Let's honor the context. This is what Virginia Woolf wrote in a 1923 essay titled Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown:

[I]t would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character-reading and had some skill in the art. Our marriages, our friendships depend on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help. And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December, 1910, human character changed.

I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.

August 24, 1870 - March 15, 1956: an interesting span, Ravenel's dates. The very time of planes and trains and automobiles. Oh, and Einstein.

The sixteen-year-old Beatrice experienced a major earthquake at 9:50 p.m. on August 31, 1886. Do you think that was formative? Transformative?

On January 23, 1890 -- the 24th being my birthday -- the Rev Father Duffee married Mr. W. H. Welcome, of St Louis, Missouri, and Miss Ginia Leyden, of Mobile, Alabama, in the Charleston of the young Miss Ravenel.

Did Beatrice take note of Virginia's response to Arnold Bennett, a portion of which is cited above, who had declared Jacob's Room a work of inaccessible characters -- who said something to the effect that she wrote stories incapable of surviving... (yes, I *could* look it up. bennett's assertions matter, obviously, and were provocative, but i am tired, this draft has been here over two weeks, and i fear that in the looking-up, my meaning will be altered. correct, but a stifling rectitude.)

You know that one string, the one that threads its way through everything? You know how it nags at you to touch it, grab it, pull it? It's the one that holds it all together, and tears it all asunder, disparate results of the same gesture.

About twenty-five minutes (and a week or so) ago, the internet produced another of its quiet, personal miracles by reuniting our author with her verse. Yes, I managed to find three of Ravenel's poems!

Thus it was that I was relieved of the bizarre and alarming belief that I was the author of one of them.

That's right.

I thought I wrote it.

I never crowed with pride, I never gave it recitation. I knew something was hinky about that memory!

Even back then, way back when... during my initial introduction to her work, she was all dressed up in Southern Camouflage, Refined. For some reason, I attached to the lilting syllables of be-a-trice-ra-ven-el images of moist gardens full of heavy air and heady perfumes, dripping insular ivy leaflets, climbing the careful red brick and piercing the mortar of staid, old Charleston homes. But we all know, if only thanks to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, that there are some very strange, wonderfully different people in...


God, I entertain myself.

Do you see / Do you see how my poor mind / Works?

Anyway, the little contemporaneous criticism that you will find about this poet usually will rapidly tell you that Mrs. Ravenel lives in a former plantation home and that Mrs. Ravenel writes "occasional" poetry -- meaning not that she finds her muse every now and then, but that she composes to honor the events of life.

There is not, to my knowledge (we know well, already, how flawed is my knowing), a notable "occasional poetry" tradition in the United States. Here in Marlinspike Hall, deep, deep in the Tête de Hergé (très décédé, d'ailleurs)? We keep seven full time Occasional Poets on staff, with a dozen or so more on retainer.

Our Verse Section rounds out with three Pastoral Poets (who sleep in the barn and like our hens, are not producing much these days), a half-dozen Odists (usually to be found scattered among the various Listening Rooms, as Our Odes are still proudly declaimed to music), Uncountable Monotonous Modernists (question:reinvent;question:reinvent;question:reinvent), and the Polysemous Intertextuals (Postmodernists, really, but they refuse the reference; Every time Marlinspike Human Resources takes a census, there's a different number of PIs and lots of subterranean giggling) .

Anyway, our Occasional Poets are kept pretty busy, and enjoy unprecedented job security, at least in relation to the other scribes. Given that, they must, of course, demonstrate competency in a wide variety of subject matter -- imagine commissioning a poetic work for, say, some local triumph in animal husbandry, and finding out, at the last clonal minute that the Versemeister you're dealing with doesn't know Mendel from Oliver Wendell, and cannot fathom how the gelded horse still dreams!

Apparently, though, in the Charleston of Mrs. Ravenel's time, occasions begging memorialization were as thin and flitting as pastel tissue paper in air. To gird her loins in preparation for the occasions of her life that would birth such vague and foundless poetry, our Beatrice practiced Noteworthy Accomplishment -- specifically, Harvard and Scribner's. It's all in her nice bio over at the UNC Libraries, where her papers are entombed.

She will forever and always be of the card catalog, filed under the confident listing of Women Poets, American--South Carolina.

I figure she must have felt considerable anger at the environment which stifled her; I know it was poetry that relieved her impotence. There is just something moist, dark, and feminine about the Low-Country - engulfing.

Indeed, she wrote of a coast and in her anger at having been given, then having cultivated, a boundless voice yet no power? (Too bad that she wasn't properly impressed with herself -- She was, for years, self-supporting through published columns, short stories, and poems. There is a power in that, in not owing anyone for one's daily bread.)

Ravenel, it is said, sometimes came to sputters because she felt that South Carolinians were more interested in questions of race than in what was, to her, more pressing: women's suffrage. Tradition, The Old World, both supported her and inflamed her, this weird woman who ended in the camouflage of local Indians, in citations of totems.

Here is what she most wanted to say in terms of a Poetics: To be modern is to be disoriented in one's subjectivity. Trust me, she'd have said just that, eventually.

I know her, and understand her, because, remember, I wrote her poem.


I am only afraid
Of the cold dull lids of eyes,
And the cold dull grain of sand in the soul,
Indurate, insensate, not to be made incandescent
Even by God.
I am afraid of the stupid people.

(Yemassee Lands, 77)

*** ** *** ** ***
From The Charleston Library Society Fall, 2009 Newsletter:

Beatrice Witte Ravenel
Beatrice Witte Ravenel was the third of six daughters
born to Charles Otto Witte, a German-born businessman
as well as German and Norwegian Consul to Charleston, a
philanthropist, a rose gardener, and a music lover. In 1866
Witte married Charlotte Sophia Reeves, twenty years his
junior and desperately poor after the “Confederate War.”
She was only 20 when her first daughter was born, and
over the next ten years a girl was born every two years.
Beatrice is characterized as “gifted with the brains of the
family” in youngest sister Laura’s memoir The Way It Was
in Charleston. Laura contends that Beatrice inherited
a “colossal” memory from her father and “cared more
for books and for reading,” though she was interested
in drawing, painting, and writing plays. She was also a
marvelous storyteller to “spellbound children.”
Beatrice’s sister Carlotta “had the style of the family,”
according to Laura, who writes that Carlotta “…had
a great talent for making doll’s clothes and was most
unselfish in giving her time for such things.” Thus perhaps
a handmade paper doll equipped with several beautifully
fashioned costumes in the Library Society’s Beatrice
Ravenel collection may be the work of Carlotta—perhaps
created for Beatrice St. Julian (Kitty) Ravenel, daughter
of Beatrice Witte and her first husband, Frances Gualdo
(Frank) Ravenel.
Beatrice proves herself to be an artist of sophisticated style
and elegant hand in her collection of drawings to illustrate
One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Thirty-one elegant
art nouveau drawings, numbered and titled, are preserved
in the Beatrice Ravenel collection. The images are seductive
and mysterious, befitting the text that inspired them, and
remind the viewer of the highly stylized work of Aubrey
When Beatrice married for the second time after the death of
Frank Ravenel, she did not have to change her monogram,
for she married Samuel Prioleau Ravenel, widower of
Florence Leftwich Ravenel, in December of 1926. The couple
left on a honeymoon to the Middle East and Europe, taking
Kitty with them and not returning for three years. Beatrice’s
journal of those travels, which is held by the Library Society,
contains a few small sketches of birds at Lake Maggiore in
Italy. Though Beatrice Ravenel later wrote interesting and
exotic poems which draw on the Voodoo culture in the
Caribbean, her collection in the Charleston Library Society
contains no illustrations from that era.

Collection Title: Beatrice Witte Ravenel Papers, 1892-1948
University of North Carolina Libraries
The Wilson Library
Southern Historical Collection (SHC)

Beatrice Witte Ravenel (24 August 1870-15 March 1956), daughter of Charles Otto and Charlotte Sophia Reeves Witte, was born in Charleston, S.C. Her father was a German-born businessman and civic leader in Charleston. Beatrice was educated at the Charleston Female Seminary, and, in 1889, enrolled in the women's division of Harvard University. While in college, she played a prominent role in a group of literary young men and women, including William Vaughn Moody, Trumball Stickney, and Norman and Hutchins Hapgood. She wrote for the Harvard Monthly and the Advocate, and published poems in Scribner's Magazine, the Chap-Book Magazine, and the Literary Digest.

In 1900, she married Francis Gualdo Ravenel, whose mother, Harriot Horry Ravenel, was a well-known writer and biographer. In 1904, Beatrice and Francis had a daughter, Beatrice St. Julien Ravenel. After the birth of her daughter, Beatrice Witte Ravenel lived on a plantation south of Charleston. This was the setting for several of her best poems, which primarily deal with the Yemassee Indian heritage of the Carolina low country. Francis Ravenel was no businessman, and, by the late 1910s, the sizable fortune left Beatrice by her father was gone. She helped support the family by writing fiction for Ainslee's, Harper's, and the Saturday Evening Post, and, after 1919, she wrote editorials for the Columbia (S.C.) State.

In the late 1910s, Beatrice began writing poetry again, and, in the early 1920s, came abrupt change in her verse. She ceased to write the sentimental abstractions of the waning genteel tradition and began producing free verse of notable economy of diction, precision of language, and vivid imagery. The formation of the South Carolina Poetry Society brought her into contact with other poets, including visitors such as Amy Lowell, with whom she formed a strong friendship.

In 1926, six years after Francis Ravenel's death, Beatrice married Samuel Prioleau Ravenel. After her second marriage, she no longer had to support herself and daughter through writing. The Ravenels traveled extensively. Though she wrote little poetry during her later years, one sequence based on the West Indies, unpublished in her lifetime, is among her most accomplished work. Beatrice Witte Ravenel died on 15 March 1956 at the age of 85. Her best known work is The Arrow of Lightening, a book of poetry published in 1926.

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