and eyes big love-crumbs

Elaine Thayer circa 1920

“Elaine was living alone in a lovely apartment on Washington Square. She was the Blessed Damozel, the fair, the lovable, the lilymaid of Astolat. To romantic youth, she seemed the poet’s dream. Those of us who weren’t in love with Cummings were in love with Elaine…. (Cummings and I) would go home to work and then would meet in the late afternoon at Elaine’s for tea. (Edward) Nagel would appear, or Slater Brown, or (Stewart) Mitchell and after an hour or so of talk – though she was silent as a mouse nobody ever dared show off too much at Elaine’s – we would go out to our Italian speakeasy of the moment….

John Dos Passos, Memoir – The Best Times.

i like my body when it is with your

by e. e. cummings

i like my body when it is with your
body.  It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body.  i like what it does,
i like its hows.  i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss,  i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh… And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new


I wonder if Cummings learned the beautiful Portuguese word “saudade” during his time in Lisbon?   It roughly means the feeling of longing in fulfillment of desire or the melancholy following the attainment of a long held desire, the realization that achievement has not brought about the contentment you thought it would.  Saudade is what happened to Elaine and Estlin before and after they married in March of 1924. 

Cummings and Elaine had traveled and lived in Europe together and separately since her divorce from Scofield in 1921, much of that time living in Paris.  Elaine returned to New York in September of 1923 and Cummings followed shortly after New Year’s in January of 1924.  Cummings increasingly wanted to be part of Nancy’s life, she was 3 1/2  years old, Mopsy as he called her, was charming, intelligent and fun, though Cummings was not really capable of being a full time father, as he had a tendency to focus on his own interests and needs.  In March, Estlin and Elaine were wed, with the main reason behind the wedding to allow Estlin to formally adopt Nancy, despite the two of them tending to their usual ways, maintaining separate residences at the start of the marriage.  Scofield, ever Estlin’s benefactor,  payed for adoption papers to be drawn up and on April 25, 1924 Nancy became Cummings legal daughter, though Nancy was never told.   Several weeks earlier, before the finalization of the adoption,  Elaine’s younger sister had died.  Elaine and Nancy left to see after her Sister’s affairs in Europe, while Cummings remained in New York.  During the passage over, Elaine met an Irish banker and politician and fell in love.   She broke the news to Cummings in a letter later that spring, and by June of 1924, Elaine was demanding a divorce. 

At first Cummings was furious and considered violence, either to himself or Elaine’s lover, Frank MacDermot.  But as time went on, he realized that Elaine didn’t love him anymore and that he had been more like another dependent on Elaine than partner, and so he agreed to the divorce without explicitly spelling out visitation and custody arrangements in respect to Nancy. Cummings mistakenly thought the recent adoption papers would protect his rights as a father.   Cummings quickly realized his error, as his paternity had not been set out explicitly in the divorce.  Although Cummings quickly tried to rectify his mistake, even seeking  his parents assistance, Cummings soon learned that with Elaine having quickly wed MacDermot and residing in Ireland or Paris, that he had little leverage or legal backing on which to establish his visitation claims.  Elaine and MacDermot would make it increasingly impossible for Cummings. In the end, Cummings would only see his daughter 4 more times as a child between 1924 and 1927, Nancy never aware that Cummings was his father.  It was not until 1946, when Cummings and Nancy had reconnected when she was an adult in New York City, that as he was painting her portrait, Cummings blurted out, “did no one ever tell you I am your father?”  Nancy had spent her entire life up until that point believing that Scofield was her father.  

Following Cummings death, Nancy published the children’s books, four fables, that Estlin had written and read to her as a little girl.  The books were published with illustrations by a Canadian illustrator who approximated some of Cummings style into his compositions.  Their publishing is evidence of the reconciliation between them, as the stories took on more meaning for Nancy once she realized the significance behind them.  

No one ever truly knows what goes on in another person’s marriage.   Cummings and Elaine were never equals financially and that had to be difficult for both.  Cummings suffered from the feelings of inadequacy because he lacked the financial resources to care for Elaine (and Nancy) in the manner to which she was accustomed.  But if you appreciate some of the best of Cummings early poetry, both the beauty and the sadness that permeates it, there was obviously a deep connection between the two during the time that Cummings wrote and published his first three volumes of poetry, from which, both of today’s  poems come.  It makes Elaine’s actions all the more hard to understand, seeing how callously visitation rights and the sudden estrangement played out, and the ultimate betrayal of never telling Nancy that Estlin was her father. 

 

Illustration by John Eaton from the Children’s Book The Little Girl Named I, a story Cummings created privately for his daughter, Nancy, that was published posthumously.


My sweet old etcetera 

by e. e. cummings

my sweet old etcetera
aunt lucy during the recent
war could and what
is more did tell you just
what everybody was fighting

for,
my sister

Isabel created hundreds
(and
hundreds) of socks not to
mention fleaproof earwarmers

etcetera wristers etcetera, my
mother hoped that

i would die etcetera
bravely of course my father used
to become hoarse talking about how it was
a privilege and if only he
could meanwhile my

self etcetera lay quietly
in the deep mud et
cetera
(dreaming,
et
   cetera, of
Your smile
eyes knees and of your Etcetera)

goodby Betty,don’t remember me

E. E. Cummings in France in 1917

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

e. e. cummings

Sonnets – Realities
Tulips and Chimneys

III

by e. e. cummings

goodby Betty,don’t remember me
pencil your eyes dear and have a good time
with the tall tight boys at Tabari’
s,keep your teeth snowy,stick to beer and lime,
wear dark,and where your meeting breasts are round
have roses darling,it’s all i ask of you –
but that when light fails and this sweet profound
Paris moves with lovers,two and two
bound for themselves,when passionately dusk
brings softly down the perfume of the world
(and just as smaller stars begin to husk
heaven)you,you exactly paled and curled
with mystic lips take twilight where i know:
proving to Death that Love is so and so.


The quote from Cummings above is often given to young people in a card  who are graduating from high school or college.  But really it should be mandatory reading when we turn 30, because for most adults who actually achieve becoming the person they want to be, they don’t do it until their 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, everything leading up to that is simply the prerequisite experience, successes and failures, needed to shape  and reshape the clay.  Artists rarely wake up at age 18 and are the artist that we look back on as the seminal genius history remembers. Cummings was no different. The period from graduating from Harvard (1916) and publishing his first book of poetry (Tulips and Chimneys, 1923) are not even the period when e. e. cummings summoned the courage to be who he wanted to be, it was the period where he was trying to figure it out.

It is not easy to follow in the footsteps of a father who is as accomplished as the Reverend Edward Cummings. Edward the elder had grown up in a comfortably wealthy family in Cambridge and as a young man was a successful sociology professor at Harvard.   But midlife, he realized that was not his calling, and so he went back to Harvard Divinity College and became an ordained minister, supercharging his considerable intellect and focus on religion, social justice and peace.  Estlin grew up under the shadow of expectations watching his father lead a large congregation and as the head of the World Peace Foundation.  So when Estlin graduated from Harvard and the U. S. not yet in the conflict in Europe, he became more active in the peace movement, attending antiwar rallies and becoming more and more concerned about the war. Cummings did what many educated intellectuals had done before him potentially facing the draft, he volunteered for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service in France, a non-combatant duty that fit his inclinations of service and pacifism.  In route to France via ship, he was seasick and in his common misery struck up a friendship with William Slater Brown.  Upon arrival in France he, along with his fellow volunteers, got themselves to the office in Paris, only to find the city relatively little impacted at that time by the war.  They put themselves up in an affordable and suitably shabby-chic hotel along the Seine and promptly set out to do what most 18 years old would in a bright urban city; figure out how to get laid. Paris in 1917, allowed a certain amount of sexual freedom, with beautiful and sometimes partially clad women on stages and in night clubs, a sexual vibrancy that clearly set it apart from the still relatively conservative New York City where he had been living. But Estlin was a late bloomer in terms of puberty and sexual confidence. Combine that with being the son of a famous Minister and for Estlin that period in Paris was more titillation than actual tits, as he would come back from his war years at least professing to still be a virgin. 

However, all that sexual tension may have contributed to what would become a seminal moment in his life, an actual act of rebellion.  Cummings had arrived in Paris in mid-April and was not placed on his assignment in the town of Germaine until mid June, giving him and his buddies 2 full months to explore all that Paris had to offer young men in uniform. But the fun and freedom of Paris rapidly turned into the drudgery, boredom and barbarity of the front.  Ambulance drivers were assigned in pairs and Cummings and Brown grew closer as their world view differed from some of their coarser counterparts in their unit.   The two became a bit estranged from their unit and didn’t follow protocol, preferring the company of French troops over their own.   The two also began using their down time to try and outwit the censors by using their considerable intellectual powers and poetry skills to try and insert secret messages in their letters to family and friends back home.   The combination of their questionable correspondence and non-compliant attitudes and pacifist leanings eventually got them both arrested and thrown in detention on suspicion of espionage.  The culminating act when in September of that year, Cummings was detained at a border point by French authorities and refused to answer the question ” Do you hate the Germans?”

Fortunately for Cummings his malfeasance was not taken as seriously as it could have been and although he was arrested and taken to La Ferte-Mace, a holding station for aliens awaiting their investigation to determine if they were to be deported or turned over to the military for trial, the ordeal had the pleasant side benefit of giving him time to write in relative comfort.  La Ferte-Mace was a pleasant enough Normandy agricultural station that had been retrofitted for its current purpose and Cummings and Brown were put in with other detainees in one large room.  Cummings and Brown immediately found comaraderie with their fellow prisoners and this experience would become the creative fuel for Cummings first book in 1922, which in turn would open the gates of the publishing world for his poetry.  Cummings was detained for three months, and despite his father’s attempts to intervene sooner, Cummings had to wait for the process to work itself out.  As expected he was deported back to the United States by January of 1918.   Obviously the U. S. Government did not consider his shenanigans in the French ambulance service a threat to the war effort because he was drafted in July and told to report to Camp Devin in upstate New York for training immediately.  Fortunately for Estlin, his conscription into the Army came late enough that although he spent six miserable months as a private at Fort Devin, he was released before ever having to see combat or go overseas again.  Cummings accepted his time in the army with grim fatalism, knowing that doing what he was required and keeping his head down was better than being defiantly noticed by his superiors.  However, having stood for his principles as a pacifist and as a budding artist during his brushes with the stodgy bureaucracy of both the French and U. S. armed forces emboldened Cummings for what would be the next stage in his journey, leaving Cambridge,  Massachusetts,  and the shadow of his families legacy for good and establishing himself in New York City by early 1919. 


Sonnets – Unrealities 
(Tulips and Chimneys)

III

by e. e. cummings

A connotation of infinity
sharpens the temporal splendor of this night

when souls which have forgot frivolity
in lowliness,noting the fatal flight
of worlds whereto this earth’s a hurled dream

down eager avenues of lifelessness

consider for how much themselves shall gleam,
in the poised radiance of perpetualness.
When want’s in velvet beyond doomed thought

is like a woman amorous to be known:
and man,whose here is always worse than naught,
feels the tremendous yonder for his own – 

on such a night the sea through her blind miles

of crumbling silence seriously smiles