Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cracked Marys & Crazy Janes

"A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent."

from "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop"
W.B. Yeats,
Words for Music Perhaps (1932)

After a brief hiatus for vision-seeking and spirit-talking (and, let's face it, craft-beer-drinking in Michigan), Biblioasis's daily poems are back. And because walking in downtown Detroit is sometimes enough to put the best of us in the mood for crazy, I thought I'd take a minute to talk about Cracked Marys (the several homeless women said to have inspired one of Yeats's most well-known personae), and Crazy Janes (the poems in turn that inspired our own Wayne Clifford's Jane Again).

Yeats had been contemplating the persona of Cracked Mary for almost 30 years before he published Words for Music Perhaps. A 1904 note to The Pot of Broth mentions having borrowed a tune from "an old woman known as Cracked Mary, who wanders about the plain of Aidhne, and who sometimes sees unearthly riders on white horses coming through stony fields to her hovel door in the night time." There was another Cracked Mary, furthermore, with whom George Yeats had many conversations: "she was a bit touched in the head," George wrote. "But it was a head full of amusing, often obscene stories about things she'd see on her rambles. I used to seek her out and get her to tell them to me. Then I'd go home and tell W.B. ... He loved them. He asked me to get as many as I could for him. And so I saw a good deal of Cracked Mary at that time." The phrase Cracked Mary, as Clifford observes, "might translate today into 'street person', one of the homeless that the system has dispossessed." There were likely a few Cracked Marys in Yeats's acquaintance.

Yeats wrote several poems on Cracked Mary before he changed the name to Crazy Jane: the most famous of the latter are, as above, "Crazy Jane talks with the Bishop," and "Crazy Jane on God," but others include "Crazy Jane grown old looks at the Dancers," "Crazy Jane Reproved," and "Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman." As the stanza from "Crazy Jane talks with the Bishop" indicates, Jane's obscenity and contrary spirit was frequently used by Yeats to point out--quirkily but not cruelly--institutional and social hypocrisies. (The bishop Jane meets tries to persuade her to contemplate the afterlife by observing that her tits are flat and fallen, poor lass. What's the point of earthly life without those?)

Anyhow. Below are a few of my favourites from Clifford's work, which (in his words) is an imagining of "what might have given her the sauce" to flip the bird to the bishop like that. Lovely lovely lovely. The image above I thought nifty if only because it points to a gentling of the critique Yeats levels when he changed the name.

Crazy Jane Contends with Gravity

I caught you thinking of black holes
in which the all of something falls
to point so mootly singular,
this girl with God must mingle her,
so that it never be denied
there in the straitness of that Now,
I held my newborn dead and cried
but None replied, for None cared how.

Jane’s Eighth Sea Song

I bore a daughter dead
and set her in the sea
on wracky, makeshift bed,
not to come back to me.

The dear that men contrive
to land up on the shore
cheats thus her face alive,
if still I ask no more,

but they, their cargoes, catch,
their wreckage, grief and ghosts
together will not match
my wealth the sea-greed boasts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There were earlier broadside ballads about Crazy Jane. Richard Dadd, whose work Yeats knew, painted a couple of Crazy Jane pictures in Bedlam.