Properties (E. G. Burrows, QRL 1978)

The third poet I have discovered through volume 21 of the Quarterly Review of Literature is E. G. Burrows. He was much published as a poet, as well as having had a long career in public broadcasting, and his work in the QRL brings together the two strands of his career. Titled Properties, A Play For Voices, it is a radio play about Fanny Kemble’s marriage and divorce. Kemble was a fascinating woman, a British actress who, during an 1834 tour in the United States, met and married Pierce Butler, an extremely wealthy plantation owner. At first they lived in Philadelphia, but when they moved to his Georgia plantation she came up against the reality of slavery and began keeping a diary of her growing outrage and disgust — a diary which her husband forbade her to publish, threatening to separate her from her children if she continued writing. She left him in 1845, an extremely bold move for a woman at that time, and returned to the stage, giving dramatic readings of Shakespeare; in 1849 Butler divorced her, claiming she had deserted him without cause. She continued on the stage, as well as writing and speaking as an abolitionist and feminist, and published her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1863, during the Civil War.

Inspired by this journal, Properties interweaves Burrows’ poetic rewriting of Kemble’s thoughts and feelings with direct quotes from an apologia Butler published in 1850 to explain why he had taken the drastic step of divorcing his wife. It makes for a powerful piece, poetry flowing into prose and back again, the voices passionately at odds with each other, and although I am firmly upon Kemble’s side in all these matters, the way it is done allows Butler’s confusion and misery to come through as well. Burrows never forgets how these personal conflicts were embedded in the cultural moment; he points out that the “title of this play has a triple reference, to stage “properties,” to slavery, and to the Victorian concept of marriage.” Kemble’s growing awareness of her predicament is very well done, the way she is caught between all the different things, love for her husband and disgust at where their wealth comes from and fury that he does not share her disgust. It is beautifully written, and very rewarding to read out loud — unsurprising, given that it was written for performance. The piece works so much as a whole that it was difficult to find a passage that stood alone enough to quote. This one is from the beginning; Kemble is framing what is to come, standing outside of her own story and surveying all the roles she will find herself playing during her long life:

One minute, Miss Kemble.
One minute is always the time left
to decide which of me shall go out alone
to that island where we are all finally
down to our bones.
I am scattered like words.
In a panic we take the least and know
it is never enough, it is not what we are.

So easy to say
I am Goneril, Juliet, Beatrice, Hamlet, Lear,
housewife, verse-maker, mother, flirt,
toast of kings, rabble-rouser, scurrilous
pamphleteer, actress, feminist, lover
and lonely woman picking at grey hairs.
Are you Frances Anne Kemble or Butler?
Is there one woman you are, and no other?
What were you once and nothing else?

Burrows died in 2011. I wish he was still alive so I could tell him how glad I am to have discovered his work, and how much I would love to hear it performed.

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