After they divorced, T.S. Eliot’s first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood would occasionally show up at his lectures or poetry readings carrying a sign that said “I Am the Wife He Abandoned.”
Review of The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot, The Wall Street Journal
Vivienne Haigh-Wood and T.S. Eliot
There is a proud tradition in the history of Anglo-American poetry of not going gently into that good night of loserdom when one is dumped by a lover. Look at Sylvia Plath, who wreaks vengeance on the reputation of Ted Hughes to this day even though both are dead. Hughes had an affair with something called an Assia Wevill, Plath committed suicide, and her reputation rose while his fell like a dropped 8-pound shot. Or consider T.S. Eliot, whose first wife would show up at his poetry readings carrying a sign that said “I Am the Wife He Abandoned.” Not nearly as succinct as “Ban the Bomb,” but deadly in its own way.
Now, if you will, think of me. I was once the editor of plangent voices, a little litmag dedicated to the worst which has been thought or said, to turn Matthew Arnold on his ear. Don’t worry about old Matthew’s ears—have you ever seen his thick mutton-chop sideburns? His ears will be fine. Then one day Elena Gotchko, my lover, marched into the office with daniel de la sota, a sort of heavy bear who went with her, like a tableau vivant of the Delmore Schwartz poem. I sensed something different about her, and it wasn’t just the brooding omnipresence of de la sota, who looked like a stunt double for the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He didn’t capitalize the first letters of his names because he never got to upper-case in first grade penmanship and elena, taking the road less traveled, followed his lead.
“Hello, Elena,” I said warily.
“if you don’t mind,” she replied with a haughty air, “i would prefer it if you would address me as elena from now on.”
“But I just did.”
“no, you used a capital ‘e’—i now eschew capital letters as a sign of an inflated ego,” she said with an inflated ego, proving the old saw that the worst pretension of all is to pretend that you aren’t pretentious.
“Well, ex-cuse me,” I said, laying on the umbrage with a trowel. “I thought when it came to the spoken word I was free to choose whether I meant upper and lower case, but I guess that went out with the Hula Hoop.”
“did you hear that daniel?”
“what?” the rough beast whose hour had come round at last replied.
elena sneered: “how tacky–hula hoops.”
“You have to capitalize the initial letters, it’s a trade name,” I snapped.
“oh look who’s all hyper-legal and stuff,” elena said. “no wonder you never made it as a poet.”
I won’t deny it, that hurt. elena had always been a viper, lying in wait, writhing on her bed as she read, only looking up and hissing in anger if you ever interrupted her train of thought, which due to mechanical breakdowns usually ran way behind schedule.
I got the message that I had been displaced by daniel, and I could understand from first impressions why; The Big Unit was a little slow on the uptake—perhaps dropped on his head as a child—while I have striven in the verbal phase of my literary culture to create the Poetry of the Snappy Comeback. elena had apparently decided that she’d had enough of my sharp tongue and wanted to retreat into a cave where the man in her life could only grunt, and she could take it any which way she wanted. To retreat from language is to surrender in the struggle to rise above the level of the brute; hardly the sort of thinking you’d expect from a woman who lived by words, but maybe danny boy was good in the sack.
I wasn’t going to take my rude displacement as elena’s lover lying down, however. I picked up my dog-eared copy of The New Cambridge Lives of the Poets and, after checking out the Plath and Eliot thumbnails, knew exactly what I would do. It was the work of an hour to head over to Staples, The World’s First Office Superstore, and buy the poster board, Magic Markers and other various and sundry supplies needed to make The Sandwich Sign of Shame. “I am the poet she scorned!” I wrote on two (2) 22 x 28” white slabs of cardboard. Staples had promised I could get my ideas across “with key words, pictures, or diagrams to illustrate the main points of any presentation,” so I added a genial little stick-figure man being hit over the head with a book by an angry stick-figure woman. As the Chinese say, a picture is worth a thousand words or, in the devalued currency of elena’s poetry, maybe fifteen to eighteen hundred.
My first assault on elena’s poetic reputation would be a surprise attack, like Pearl Harbor, so I had to conceal my sign when I showed up at the local Universal Unitarian “church,” a place where the last time anybody heard the words “Jesus Christ” was when the janitor fell down the stairs. Start time was 7:30 and I arrived at 7:15 to get a seat down front, the better to heckle elena. I kept my overcoat wrapped around me despite the stifling heat of the basement, where many a teen sock-hop had been held before. I was lying in wait as the lights went down and the mistress of ceremonies—a young woman who was apparently taking a correspondence course in self-haircutting—began to rattle off the rules; no smoking, no pictures, turn off your cell phone, in case of fire published poets first, etc.
After the MC left the stage, it was time for the unlucky winner of slot number one to appear; you never want to go first at a poetry slam—the audience isn’t warmed up by an iambic pentameter straight man, a poetic version of Ed McMahon. The audience has nothing to compare you to, so there’s no way you can shine by the reflected awfulness of someone who went before you.
Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson
Out of the dark of the wings, from behind the rustling makeshift curtains stepped—elena her own bad self. If I was a cannibal my mouth would have been watering, but I was mentally slobbering at the prospect of eating a dish of revenge cold.
“Hi, my name is elena gotchko,” she said meekly, and from the back row up came a “woot, woot!” from the mouth of her new lover daniel. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so pathetic. Who brings a claque to a poetry slam?
“my poem for tonight is ‘death and despair, my favorite pair.’ i hope you enjoy it.”
She cleared her throat and, after closing her eyes as if to transport herself to a realm of creativity locked to mere mortals, began:
death, you take away my breath.
despair—you run your fingers
through my hair.
i love both you guys,
because you’re always there
showing me that–unlike my
mom and dad–you really really . . .
The silence that followed was . . . profound. It was the stillness of deep space, where no one can hear you scream because there’s no oxygen or something. daniel wasn’t smart enough to realize the poem was over, and everyone else was either stunned at the blunt trauma of elena’s work, or stifling laughter. I saw my opportunity and, as Tammany Hall ward boss George Washington Plunkett would say, I took it.
“Boo!” I shouted thoughtfully and whipped open my coat to display my message of scorned love to the audience.
“what are you doing here?” elena fairly spat out. Apparently she wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t lapse into italic when she was angry enough.
“Just letting these nice people know that not only are you a bad poet . . . you’re a bad person.”
“you can applaud now!”
“The two usually don’t go together,” a guy in a shawl sweater said. Probably an adjunct professor at our local community college who, like a dog passing a fire hydrant, felt compelled to lay down his marker.
“yeah,” elena said to me, then “thank you” to the tweedy type.
“But it is certainly possible,” I said, leaving for the moment the land of the lyric for that of logic. “Has there ever been a brutal dictator who was a good poet?” I asked of the house in general. “Hearing no answer, I rest my case.”
“What does your sign say?” an elderly woman wearing a beret—indoors!–who considered herself “artistic” asked.
I gulped. It wasn’t easy to admit defeat in romance, but my words were writ large so that those who attended poetry slams might read. I turned to show her the words of shame that hung around my neck like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter.
“She dumped you?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, abashed.
“You, my friend,” Mr. Shawl Sweater said, “are one lucky, lucky man.”