New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Jane Simmons reviews Tara Bergin: The Secret Life of Eleanor Marx

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Jane Simmons is a retired teacher/lecturer who is now studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She has written several short stories and is currently working on her second novel and a collection of poetry. She is a member of the Lincoln-based Pimento poets and Outspoken Poets and regularly reads/performs her work in the Lincoln area. Although her main interests are poetry and prose fiction, she has written a short play which is to be published and performed in summer 2018.  Jane says she does not know how she ever found the time to go to work. Jane lives with her husband in a village outside Lincoln. They have one daughter – who is a vet, and Jane’s number one reader.

Tara Bergin: The Secret Life of Eleanor Marx

Carcanet Press

ISBN 9 781784 103804

Shortlisted for the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize
A 2017 Poetry Book Society Recommendation
Shortlisted for The Forward Prize for Best Collection 2017
Shortlisted for the 2018 Irish Times Poetry Now Award

Features the poem Bride and Moth, shortlisted for the 2017 Listowel Writers’ Week Irish Poem of the Year Award

Tara Bergin was born and grew up in Dublin. She moved to England in 2002 and now lives in Yorkshire. In 2012 she completed her PhD research at Newcastle University on Ted Hughes’s translations of János Pilinszky.

The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx is Bergin’s second poetry collection. The name of Karl Marx is well-known, but few people know much at all about his youngest daughter.

England-born Eleanor Marx (1855 – 1898)  was herself a socialist activist and pioneering sociologist. She was also a translator of various literary works, including the first English translation of Gustave Flaubert‘s Madame Bovary. She studied Norwegian in order to be able to translate Ibsen’s plays into English, and in 1888, was the first to translate An Enemy of Society. Marx also translated Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea in 1890. Her partner was Edward Aveling, a prominent British Marxist. Although they never married, Eleanor often went by the name of Eleanor Aveling. In 1898, after discovering that Aveling had secretly married a young actress the previous year, the 43 year old Eleanor committed suicide by taking poison. In the method of her death she imitated Flaubert’s heroine, Emma Bovary. Both women could be said to have died passionate deaths, and many of Bergin’s poems in The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx are concerned with intense love and intense grief.

Bergin’s first collection This is Yarrow contained many poetic monologues – a form which the poet continues to use in this collection. However, in this collection she also uses the idea of trying on masks as a way of exploring character. The method is explored in Mask:

It won’t help if I tell you this but it might.
I was making this mask for the children.
I was holding the white face in my hand,
its underside around my palm.
I was painting it.
It was not at all frightening.
But as I was doing it I was thinking,
This is interesting.
This is like a physical manifestation of what I do.
I mean: what I do daily in my room.
I held the face in my hand and painted it.
Then I tried it on and said What do you think?
Everyone squealed and screamed.
They all wanted to make one.
Some of the paint got on my hair.
No one cared.
Soon all the kids had made a mask.
They put them on and went around screaming.
Some of them got paint on their hair.
No one cared.
They were both themselves and strangers.
That’s all they wanted.

Bergin understands that it is not the mask itself so much as the act of masking and unmasking which is so powerful. Sometimes the paint rubs off on the poet, so closely do poet and subject become connected. She explores the ways in which people play with their identities and sometimes become trapped in the roles they play. It is true of the fictional Madame Bovary, and it is true of the real Eleanor Marx – as told in the second poem in the collection The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts:

[…] betrayed by Edward of the two faces.
She orders chloroform, with just some traces
Of prussic acid-blue- a beautiful imitation

The poet continues to tell the story and ends with the words nearly all of this is true – the first hint of a subversive aspect to the writing which is to emerge and develop in later poems.

Bergin continues to explore her theme of tragic women in the third poem, The Giving Away of Emma Bovary by Several Hands, where she presents the reader with six translators’ versions of one line of Flaubert’s novel:

If he asks me for her I’ll give her to him.
If he asks for her, he shall have her.
If he asks for her, I’ll give her to him.
If he asks me for her he can have her.
If he asks me for her, I’ll give him her.
If he asks me I shall say yes.

 Pronouns change places, commas appear and disappear from one version to another as the poem moves towards the climax of the final line from which her has been entirely removed. Bergin is showing us how Emma Bovary is removed from her own story – it is a forceful comment on the powerlessness of women.

As the poet tries on more masks, there are monologues and lyrics in many voices: great lovers in Samson and Delilah; great writers in Renting Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom by the Hour, in Appointment with Jane Austen, in On not picking mushrooms with a famous writer and in Rehearsing Strindberg. Bergin shows and explores the theatricality of great lovers, great writers and great characters, showing them all to be like the children in Mask, both themselves and strangers and comments That’s all they wanted.

Although so many of the poems draw on drama, tragedy, and theatrical monologue, they are not limited to that genre alone. They also draw on fairy tale, on folksong tradition, and on nursery rhymes, in their subjects as in Hansel and Gretel or in their use of rhythm, questions and answers grouped in threes. Bergin emphasises that these are worlds where nothing is what it seems, and happy endings can be subverted.

Throughout the collection, are poems which return to the subject of Eleanor Marx: Dying, O My Little Eleanor, Karl Marx’s Daughters Play on the Ouija Board, and The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx. Sometimes, the references in these poems need no explanation; where they do, Bergin provides the relevant information in the explanatory Notes which serve almost as an epilogue to the collection.

There are other poems where the references to Eleanor Marx are less overt, more oblique, poems such as The Stenographer which is one of several pieces to use characters from more recent times to explore the same theme of dramatic erasure from a life or a narrative – others introduce us to a hairdresser, a bride, a commuter. The Stenographer is also a technically inventive poem which uses quotations from Flaubert’s novel translated by Marx:

After the quotations will come the accusations […]
It exists only in cut-outs and commentaries […]
We see her downfall in the forest […]
She dies in all the glamour of her youth […]
I am passing over nothing.

This poem, like the earlier poem of translations, demonstrates once more Bergin’s inventiveness with form. Elsewhere, she even experiments by constructing a poem from footnotes to a missing page. It is this combination of imaginative playfulness with interwoven stories and formal inventiveness which ensures that this collection is a volume of surprises well-deserving of the praise and accolades which it has received.







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