I have looked him round and looked him through,
Know everything that he will do
In such a case, and such a case,
And when a frown comes on his face
I dream of it, and when a smile
I trace its sources in a while.
He cannot do a thing but I
Peep to find the reason why,
Because I love him and I seek,
Every evening in the week,
To peep behind his frowning eye
With little query, little pry,
And make him if a woman can
Happier than any other man.
Yesterday he gripped her tight
And cut her throat—and serve her right !
Ouch – she didn’t see that one coming, did she? And neither, I think, did the reader. Part of the craft of this poem is that sudden change of narrator in the last couplet, so that the death of Nora, can hardly be expected. In a way, however, that change – and the murder – comes as something of a relief. As often happens with Stephens’ poetry, we find ourselves in sympathy with the devil, laughing at quite undeserved violence and bloodshed: by the end of the poem we’re heartily annoyed by the prattling Nora with her prying and ‘peeping’, and her simpering, idiotic love for her husband – the monotonous rhythm of the poem and its pat, easy rhyming serve to heighten our annoyance. ‘Serves her right!’ her husband said as he dispatches her, and if we don’t quite agree, we at least understand.
In this poem, as in a bawdy joke, normally morality is cast aside, and we can laugh at things we would never normally laugh at – murder and domestic violence.
But perhaps we laugh at such things much more than we would normally admit to ourselves. A few years ago I was watching the local news and a story came up about a man who had murdered his wife in a pique of rage. Theirs hadn’t, as you may have suspected, been a happy relationship – they were arguing when the husband picked up a hammer and threatened her with it. ‘Go on,’ she taunted him, ‘You’ll probably make a mess of that like you have everything else in your life’. He went on to strike her 47 (or so) separate times. I am not a psychopath – I did not laugh loud and heartily when I heard this story, but I saw the grim humour in it, as the news reader didn’t (or pretended not to). If you were of grimmer of mind than me even, you could search the regional news stories of the world and every week make a list of such incidents for your own and others’ amusement.
Back in 1906, a French journalist did just this, making an art form of short, terse news reports for the ‘News in Brief’ section of Le Matin. Fèlix Fènèon was an ex-anarchist, reviewer and publisher of literary journals (his other claim to fame is as the first French publisher of James Joyce, whom Stephens too counted an associate). His reports, translated and collected in a NYRB book called ‘Novels in Three Lines’ (that was the column space allocated for each story) capture the life of France’s underworld – and its demimonde – with some literary élan and not a little sardonic humour. The lives he depicts are nasty, brutish and short – affreuse, brutale et courte, if you like – and absurd. Here are a few real life Nora Crionas for your guilty delectation:
Lyons carter Mârius Paris killed himself, but being a finicky husband he first wounded his wife with three shots.
In Marseilles, Sosio Merello, a Neapolitan, killed his wife. She did not wish to market her endowments.
Love decidedly has a hard time sitting still. Èmile Contet, 25 Rue Davy, pierced with his knife his wife’s breast.
Fèlix Fènèon , Trans. Luc Sante , From Novels in Three Lines, NYRB Classics, New York, 2007
I realise this sort of thing may not be to everyone’s taste… I will post something sweet and tasteful next post – or the one after, maybe. No promises, though.