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The Book of Alice

MissArcher2's picture

The Book of Alice—Process Commentary

            Writing a half-crown of sonnets was a significantly more intense process than I had anticipated, but I would say well worth the time and effort. The form of my project, a half-crown of sonnets, was inspired by this work of Marilyn Nelson’s (hers a far nobler attempt than mine):

Mostly what was difficult was trying to get into Alice’s head—to understand the point she was making in her writing, and to then delve deeper into the words to get a sense of what she might have been feeling when she wrote them. I kept the sonnets in a quasi-diary format, with each sonnet dated as the entry from which I drew my inspiration (and many words and direct phrases, also). They are not in chronological order, as I found that Alice did her most profound thinking in the late springtime, with the exception of an entry about a month before she died, in March. I selected passages that we had talked about in class or that appealed to me during my reading of the diary, and sought to convey Alice’s feelings without necessarily saying exactly what she was thinking. This, for me, was a sort of mirror of her hypocritical tendencies. The repetition of the final line in each sonnet as the first line of the next, creating a circle (hence the term “crown”) was representative of Alice’s chronic illness.

I hope to let Alice, and these poems, speak for themselves to a certain extent, and much of the language should be familiar since it is taken directly from her diary. Through this creative medium, I hope that I have demonstrated my critical purpose, which is this: Alice often directed her criticism outwardly when in fact she was dissatisfied with her own capability and productivity.  Because poems allow writers to express feelings without making explicit statements, the sonnet was the perfect form for translating Alice James’ diary. It was an important study in genre for me, and a really interesting observation of form mimicking content. Translating Alice into this crown of sonnets gave me deeper insight into how she viewed herself.


The Book of Alice

“…that I may lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me.”


I. July 11, 1889


Next best to having been in Rome myself

Imagination leads me there each night—

The city of survival, hope, and might.

Letters from my friends upon the shelf

Sing songs of foreign happiness and wealth.

My mind can take me anywhere in sight,

To ancient Roman ruins in fading light

My mind: invincible to failing health.

The chirping birds awake me in my bed,

From whence I’ve learned such wondrous things

As Rome in picturesque detail—though far,

I travel there; I visit in my head,

Recording the impressions vision brings.

My mind is capable, though quite bizarre.



II. April 7, 1890


My mind is capable, though quite bizarre:

A coral insect building up its reef,

By microscopic progress (can’t go far),

Of theory, observation, disbelief.

My body, on the other hand, is rot,

And thus I spend my days in judgment’s hand

While gazing out the curtains, time forgot.

Observing how behavior does command

Disgust for the simplicity of men.

Our world is more than what we see from here

(Too easy to point out your faults again)

Forgive me if I’m being too severe

Avoiding self-reflection is my creed

What ghastly lives some people choose to lead!



III. June 16, 1889


What ghastly lives some people choose to lead,

Five babies and another born today!

A mother draped in rags with mouths to feed

Poor virtue in a state of disarray.

A father drunk since Christmas is no use,

The toddler yet to walk, a bracing burden.

Yet they’re content, by way of faith’s excuse,

I’ll be neither keeper nor their warden.

Excuse this flaccid virgin’s interest in

The furthering of our piteous race—

I fear I must convey with deep chagrin

Your constant procreation’s a disgrace.

Though it may be a secret admiration,

I can’t escape this tone of lamentation.



IV. July 18, 1890


I can’t escape the tone of lamentation,

For this physical collapse has been excessive.

From my bed, the air of condemnation:

Hysteria is tragically oppressive.

My nerves are steadied with the medicine,

So I’ll experience the pain without

Distraction: shiv’ring whacks that beat my skin

and lift me from the present. I doubt
my faith in anything but patience, for to
tolerate the pain will make me strong,
more so than men who whimper, whine, and mew

At the pulling of a tooth. Compared to this,

I laugh at what they suffer thinking, still,
How well one has to be, to be so ill!


V. May 20, 1890


How well one has to be, to be so ill!

I ventured through my headache to the yards,

Where spring is sprouting, over grassy hill

And hay-fields filled with silly sheep guards.

The intoxicating grades of shade and light

Result in rich sensational identity:

With swooping birds and browsing kite,
still greenery and drifting cloud, serenity
is in my bones. I think too much.

Should I like to be an artist? Despair

And joy in learned sight: as such,

Expression remains a separate affair.
That creativity be resurrected,
We carry our gifts with us, protected.




VI. May 9, 1891


We carry our gifts with us, protected,

Airtight and hidden from the world’s harsh light
But leaving bits and pieces unconnected
And exposed in childlike candor. A right

To know: are we unconscious victims of
Our Nature? Or fields left fallow to seeds

Of accident? Proclaim your mind, thereof,
Your ignorance. Separate from earthly needs
The wings of my imagination!
Turn to smooth illuminating rays
The movement of true inspiration.
By this I count and recount all my days,

My mind your faith and wit transcends—

Success or failure of a life depends.

VII. February 1, 1892


Success or failure of a life depends

On luck: to seize a moment of eclipse
And run with it. Tender touch descends,
Roused by days of suffering, although
The tragedy lies not in pain or sorrow
But in sympathy from worthless men
(like William), who contemplate the morrow,
and it’s coming—I have nothing again.

How can I live when nothing makes me whole?

With nothing left for me to write or plea,

At last I perch by letters on that shelf,

Discords and nervous horrors sear the soul.

Though I will only feel, sweet K. will see—

Next best to having been there for myself. 


Anne Dalke's picture

Crowning Obliquity

This was a VERY ambitious project!...and I'm much impressed by your ability to turn Alice's (sometimes leaden, sometimes visionary) prose into poetry; the way you weave some words and direct phrases of hers into your own poetic form is quite nicely done. The form of the (half) crown, or circle, of sonnets is also beautifully apt for the static fixedness of a chronic illness (though I note that your very last line doesn't mimic exactly your first--a little movement slips in there!).

I have a couple of technical questions for you: did you mean to have standard doubling spacing throughout, and exchange "fixed" the lines into stanzas for you against your will, or were you intending some clusters of lines w/in some of the poems? I'd like to talk a little w/ you, too, about how to introduce this project on the web: you begin as if your readers had overheard our planning conversation, knew what you were up to ... how better to introduce this so it seems fresh, and motivated, to someone who might just "happen" upon it? Is it appropriate here to testify to how much work this was, and how intense it was?

I'd also like to know more about the organization of your poems--I realize, of course, that the last line of each becomes the first line of the one that follows, but I am curious to know more about the process, how this particular sequence emerged.

You might also be intrigued to see that one of your classmates, who was 'extracting' some of AJ's most vivid visual images, also selected the "tooth extraction" passage that you poeticize: see The Visions of Alice James.

I'm also a little puzzled about just what you learned from this lovely project. You say that "translating Alice into this crown of sonnets gave me deeper insight into how she viewed herself," but I'm not sure I see into those depths: what have you learned about her that you didn't know before? You say, on the one hand, that you "sought to convey Alice’s feelings without necessarily saying exactly what she was thinking"--a version of the obliquity--what you call the hypocrisy (?)--of her own writing; and you find that the sonnet form is particularly well suited to this sort of indirection. Can you say more about that association? I assume that this is the "form mimicking content" that you mention in conclusion, but you found her content hypocritical in the diary. So how does the changed form change that understanding? Then you also say (on the other hand?) that you hoped to let the words "speak for themselves to a certain extent." Doesn't this presume, however, a sort of directness, rather than the obliquity you mention above?

Looking forward to more illumination/explication/interpretation--but I very much enjoyed the poems even without all that!