The Ironist in the Garden: Remembering Jane Hess Flanders '62

In the Afterword to her first collection, Leaving and Coming Back, Jane Flanders compares writing poetry to raising children in its satisfactions and its difficulties. I think that she is a domestic poet in the best sense of that word; she is able to extrapolate from the dramas of family to the drama of the world at large. She is fascinated with the process by which children become adults, under no illusion that it is not fraught with danger and tragedy. In her early poem "Nell's Bath," a mother compares her scarred body with that of the lovely youngest daughter whose birth almost cost her her life. In some of her poems, Flanders, like Elizabeth Bishop, is further able to isolate those "spots of time" in which a child intimates (through language) the complexity of the adult experience.

"Flanders is…a radiant poet," Publishers Weekly wrote of Jane Hess Flanders, who died in April 2001 of a rare cancer. Anthologized, appreciated by cognoscenti, her poems appeared in the places where contemporary poets want their work to be published, including The Paris Review, The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, Poetry (Chicago), Prairie Schooner, and The Atlantic Monthly. She published three collections to critical praise: Leaving and Coming Back, The Quarterly Review of Literature XXI, No. 3-4 (New Poetry Series), 1980; The Students of Snow, University of Massachusetts Press, 1982 (recipient of the Juniper Prize); and Timepiece, Pitt Poetry Series, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988. A fourth volume, Family Ground: New and Selected Poems, is anticipated.
The product of a semi-rural childhood, Flanders was an accomplished child pianist and had a soft spot for the Romantic composers, particularly Schumann. As a mature poet, she concerned herself with the country more than the city, looking to nature and the family for lessons about life. She meditates about the inequalities in the relations between men and women, without amplifying her conclusions into polemic.

Flanders takes an ironist's view of life, a view assisted in its humor by her taste for fantasy and dreams. A Daphne figure in one of her poems simply unzips the trunk of a tree and stands, shivering, on the winter lawn, like a wild child in suburbia; in another, the Muse takes the poet out to lunch at the Rive Gauche Restaurant and hands her the check at the end. The comedy in her work is partly that of what we become: Stanley, the boy next door, poet, pianist and athlete, grows up to be an orthodontist, and Bobby Kribbs, the object of every schoolgirl's crush, grows up to be a very ordinary adult, as we learn in "Late Report from Miss Harriet Robinson's Third Grade." But Flanders suggests that the reason Jesus swears the blind man to silence, once he is restored to sight in the Gospel According to Mark, is because the world looks so ludicrous. "No one had told me how funny things looked," says the blind man.

If families have something to teach us in Flanders' work, then gardens do, too, but we must have the patience to look and to understand. "You who would hurry by have lost / a chance to be astonished, comforted," she writes, and titles like "How I Began My Study of Leaves and Vines," "Flowering Privet," "Morning Glories," and "Moss" give away the fact that she is an avid gardener. Her poems do take a sumptuousness from gardens, but it's not the verbal sumptuousness of an Amy Clampitt. Her style is cooler, sparer, more Oriental. But this coolness is deceptive; what drives her still is the sober truth of where we will all end. Look at the world long enough, she seems to say, and you will understand, first our place in it, and then our departure from it, till we are "dust grown wild in its longing to be / timothy, yarrow, daisy, dandelion."

"One must cultivate one's garden," says Candide at the end of Voltaire's novel: the high-flown speculations of philosophy are fine, but in the end one is responsible for one's own plot of earth. This is a position Flanders must have embraced wholeheartedly, and nowhere in her work is it given more brilliant illustration than in her late poem "Mantises." (link to poem Mantises) To the child, the world is all new and strange. The labor of a poet's life is to know that world and its ways and, through "long residence and decent behavior," as Edward Gibbon once said, to earn a rightful place in it. The wonder of a poet's life is that, at the end of the labor, the world may come to seem once more as strange as it did to the child so many years before. This is the learned innocence of late life-and of the afterlife-of which Yeats speaks in his Autobiographies.

After beauty has had its way with us
we confront the grotesque.
Three praying mantises turn their spade-shaped heads,
their stony eyes toward us.
Who are aliens in this garden? Not they,
ambulatory leaf and twig and stem. Not they,
brittle as seedpods, front legs burred and cocked.
One grows silent before them,
as if having walked into a strange church.
O marigolds, zinnias, petunias,
all that we wanted was you.
The watchers watch us. They do not start or flee.

By permission of the Estate of Jane Flanders.
"Mantises" was originally published in The New Yorker, June 13, 1988.

We spend our lives, Flanders suggests, in the thrall of beauty; but just as tragedy repeats itself as farce, so the grotesque has been waiting behind beauty all along. The mantises in her poem-a redemptive trio, as at Calvary-though they seem to have arrived in her suburban garden from some sci-fi shocker, in fact partake of the attributes, both of something man-made (their heads are "spade-shaped") and something natural (their eyes are "stony"). The human witness cannot see them except in the terms of a confrontation; for to see them, to truly see them, requires that we accept the fact that a part of ourselves becomes petrified and alien with experience. Without knowing it, we too have become something "brittle…burred and cocked," and accepting this is no easier for us than it is for Gregor Samsa in Kafka's fable. The "strange church" to which Flanders refers, narthex of arbor and nave of ordinary seed-bed, is a post-lapsarian Eden in which the voice of God has not been heard for eons. But God has placed in the garden these silent avatars, beyond the cheerful ephemera of "marigolds, zinnias, petunias." The boundary from just beyond which the "watchers watch us," according to Flanders, is that separating the human from the natural, and life from death. We are under their scrutiny; we are judged; and in the end, we may not "start or flee," except to join them. In the clarity of its engagement with the natural world, and in its utter lack of sentiment, this poem epitomizes her best work.

On 'The House that Fear Built: Warsaw, 1943'
In general, Jane Flanders' poetry is stubbornly and deliberately apolitical; or at least it is not "political" in any usual hortatory or ideological sense of that word. Thus the title of this poem is intended first to remind the reader of a childhood ditty such as "The House that Jack Built." But to readers of contemporary poetry, the poem's simple, accumulative structure will also be reminiscent of the darker fable provided by Elizabeth Bishop's 1950 "Visits to Saint Elizabeth's," about visiting Ezra Pound in the insane asylum.

Bishop's is another poem which manages to be "political" (concerned, in the largest sense, with addressing, if not righting, a social wrong) without seeming to be so. Flanders' poem also takes its place in the tradition of ekphrastic poems, that is, poems in which a work of visual or plastic art "speaks out," poems which address or contemplate a drawing, painting, sculpture or photograph. Its stark declarative sentences are meant, as far as possible, to counteract by their tone the outrage of the image described-an icon of the Holocaust in which a boy in knee-socks with his hands raised over his head is deported under the stolid gaze of a flat-footed Wehrmacht soldier, who has his rifle levelled at the boy. And yet the very accumulation of detail in those simple sentences results in an intolerable burden by the poem's end, just as legend has it that the infant Christ's weight became greater and greater (because of the burden of the world) with each step Saint Christopher took, carrying him on his shoulder across a river. Flanders also plays with the art-historical science of eye-lines, that is, of studying the interlocking gazes of the figures in a painting. Each stanza in fact describes a widening circle of involvement, more and more people drawn into complicity, willing or unwilling, with the unspeakable moral offense at the center of the picture. With the final muttered expression of the crone ("What's this? What's this?"), combining as it does ignorance and cunning, there is no one who has not stood by while innocence was murdered. And this realization by the reader confirms the substance of the poem's epigraph by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (himself a witness to events like those Flanders describes): "... our house is open, there are no keys in the doors." -KK

The House that Fear Built:
Warsaw, 1943

The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors....
-Czeslaw Milosz, "Ars Poetica"

I am the boy with his hands raised over his head
in Warsaw.

I am the soldier whose rifle is trained
on the boy with his hands raised over his head
in Warsaw.

I am the woman with lowered gaze
who fears the soldier whose rifle is trained
on the boy with his hands raised over his head
in Warsaw.

I am the man in the overcoat
who loves the woman with lowered gaze
who fears the soldier whose rifle is trained
on the boy with his hands raised over his head
in Warsaw.

I am the stranger who photographs
the man in the overcoat
who loves the woman with lowered gaze
who fears the soldier whose rifle is trained
on the boy with his hands raised over his head
in Warsaw.

The crowd, of which I am each part, moves on
beneath my window, for I am the crone too
who shakes her sheets
over every street in the world
What's this? What's this?

From Timepiece, by permission of the Estate of Jane Flanders.

The right mentor
"Writing...is an isolating business," Flanders wrote to me when I was only a few years into the vocation of poetry. "It's important to find people with whom you can talk, trade work, and so forth...."
Flanders Poetry Nook, Reunion Reading, Fund for Poetry
To remember Jane Flanders, who had a flair for friendship as well as for gardening, classmates headed by Karen Wilner Ferguson '62 and Agnes Moncy '62 have created a pleasant garden spot between Pembroke East and Taylor with a bench for reading and the poem "Mantises" engraved on a plaque for contemplation. The Flanders "Poetry Nook" will be dedicated at Reunion with a reading of Jane's poems on Saturday, June 1, at 2:30 p.m. This event will also launch a campaign to raise money to enhance the teaching of poetry at Bryn Mawr, a cause Jane staunchly espoused. The Flanders Fund for Poetry will bring leading poets to campus as visiting professors-in-residence, supplementing the current literary arts faculty and extending the range of poet-professors to whom students are exposed. Contributions may be sent to the College's Resources Office, earmarked for the Flanders Fund.
Never having found a "guru" herself, she noted, she was "possibly not the right person to ask" about mentors. But she was exactly the right person. She provided me with constant inspiration in the difficult business of surviving spiritually and creatively as a poet in this country, which cares little about poetry or cares in wrong ways.

She never suffered fools gladly. A blunder in a poem I'd sent her brought, "Why risk annoying me?" Neither was her acerbity ever tinged with the least envy or ill will. It never overshadowed her willingness to help. Starting to submit poems to magazines, for instance, I wondered how to keep track of what was languishing on which editor's desk. "Get a pack of index cards," she said, "and a little metal box. Make a card for each poem. Make a card for each magazine. Cross reference everything."

The little olive-drab steel box still sits on my desk. With characteristic straightforwardness, generosity, and curiosity, Jane Flanders lessened my isolation. I was lucky to know her, to learn from her.

Director of Bryn Mawr's Creative Writing Program and Senior Lecturer in the Arts, Karl Kirchwey is the author of four books of poems: A Wandering Island (1990, recipient of the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America), Those I Guard (1993), The Engrafted Word (1998), and forthcoming in October 2002, At the Palace of Jove. His play in verse based on Euripides' Alcestis received the 1997 Paris Review Prize for Poetic Drama. His poems have appeared in numerous periodicals including The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Partisan Review, Poetry (Chicago), The Southwest Review, and The Yale Review. From 1987 to 2000, Kirchwey was director of the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center in New York City. He has taught creative writing and literature at Smith College and Yale, Wesleyan and Columbia universities.

The Bard of '62
"Jane Ann Hess-Music" reads the heading for a bright-eyed, alluring brunette in the Class of 1962's yearbook. The capsule biography quotes her: "Sometimes I think…in iambic pentameter…No, I'm not an English major…Have you ever heard of a Nathan Pusey?" Her friends are quoted, too: "Our bard," the paragraph concludes, "our mapmaker."

Bard, indeed. While she studied scores to graduate magna cum laude with Honors in Music, Jane began to distinguish herself in writing, collecting a variety of prizes for poetry and fiction, including the Academy of American Poets prize; like Sylvia Plath, she won a Mademoiselle College Contest-in Jane's case, for fiction. When she went to New York for graduate work, Columbia University awarded her a preceptorship in English Literature. A few years later, married to Steven Flanders (Haverford '62), the mother of three small children, she began to accumulate prizes and fellowships for her poems (often written at the dining room table amid rambunctious offspring): the "Discovery"/The Nation Award, the Pushcart Prize (three times); a MacDowell Colony fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a New York Foundation for the Arts grant. Gifted with students, she taught at Sarah Lawrence and other colleges, at writers' conferences and poetry workshops, for many years. She was chosen as poet-in-residence at Clark University, the University of Cincinnati, and Bryn Mawr, as visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Her stage presence at poetry readings attracted audiences wherever she read, and she made a name for herself as a lecturer as well. They may still be talking about her in Ohio, where she surprised a University of Cincinnati audience. They expected a lecture on Elizabeth Bishop, and that's what they got, a substantial one, too. But Jane gave it, sans explanation, in the first person, as Elizabeth Bishop. Such acts of imagination, large and small, were, like her poems, the natural expressions of her diamond spirit, at once deep and shining, grounded and transcendent. Our Marianne Moore, our Jane.

Poet Saves President
When Harvard elected in 1960 to replace the Latin of its College's diplomas with English, it probably didn't expect a riot. At the end of the fifties, student uprisings were still less likely than pranks. But in late April 1961, President Nathan Pusey found his Cambridge house besieged by students protesting the break with tradition. What to do? As journalists reported, he stood on his porch and read to the crowd from his wife's (Anne Woodward Pusey '36) copy of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin (Spring 1961):
     What's pat in the Latin
     Or chic in the Greek
     I always distinguish
     More clearly in English.

The author of this handy quatrain was Jane Hess, who didn't have a college diploma in any language yet. She was a junior who lived in Pem East. Reporters quickly located her there. Would she be interviewed? Would she write an article for the New York Times Magazine? Few barely-turned-21-year-olds could field such attention with aplomb. Jaunty, interested to see what the world had to offer, Jane found the hoopla amusing.

Over the years, she recounted the birth of the verse casually: a poetry assignment was due, and she had nothing to hand in. The night before class, the lines came to her in her sleep; she woke enough to scribble them on a bit of paper, and turned them in the next day. Her professor—probably the poet, Robert Wallace—submitted "A Classic Situation" to the Bulletin. Hats off to the editor who, at a college noted for its classics and archaeology departments, published a witty poke at pretension. Jane was no rebel. She followed the College's Latin motto, Veritatem Dilexi ("I seek truth"): self-possessed, practical, she sought the truth of her own mind and declared its independence.

The University President wrote the undergraduate to thank her for a verse in which "in a troubled moment I found a degree of patness." As for the micro-media frenzy, Jane declined all blandishments. She always preferred poetry to self-promotion. -STW

cover icon Return to Summer 2002 highlights