Her splendid principles, she intoned, Such a lot



Her Performance


Madapusi Pera

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1. Without Her



The gaslit hall: no one about,

no escape.


In this direction, alone,

get up noiselessly

and light the gas,


think of rounders in the garden,

specks of bright amber in her eyes

talking about free-will.


Tomorrow: a world without her,

nothing now

but governessing and muddles,

an ordinary final flourish.















2. On Relief



A dim religious, smiling tightly.

Beneath her firelit face,

the plain shape you like.


Slenderly, with relief –

Her outdoor things were off,

with little rujabiba frills.


Downstairs, rotten –

Ghastly –

Treacherously outspoken –

A relief, this sense of relief.


















3. What Everybody



Frivolous dimples fastened clean skin

Over the bulge of a German professor.


Such splendid principles, she intoned,

Such a lot in you.


Just what everybody hates.




















4. Glorious



Thickish curves weeping,

crimson spread and deepened.


We’ll make ourselves glorious,

said Eve,


As she went

down the great oval of dark.




















5. Smiles



Affable at first, smiles.

With closed eyes she dreamed

and the staff crowded round her.


Like hostesses loathing privilege,

women’s smiles –

self-satisfied, horrid.


She clutched at her keep,

and mountains, and tenderness.



















6. A Reversal



The reversed snub: he never

included her or only sometimes,

when she pretended,


her long hair flinging back,

her eyes gazing across him.


Come bright morning,

nothing was real but getting up.


They flumped

out of the high bed with a gasp.


“Hi!” they gurgled solemnly,

and performed an uproarious toilet.
















7. Fairy Tales



Fairy tales stretched away into space

as her large hands did their work.


On her own shelf jesting

as she watched –


Swiss Family Robinson, delicate buffoonery,

Grimm, quiet swearing,

The Bible, voluntary incongruity – 


She quoted to herself

and sang and revelled.


Which and why,

she could not remember.
















8. Voice



Thickset murmurs

crept up the stairs;


Carolled “don’t be long,”

and stopped abruptly;


Gasped “you’ll be a bonny woman,”

and disappeared.


He wanted her gone

but need no longer hate her,


for they themselves never knew

whose voice it was.


















9. On Dread

(Published in Scout and Birdie)



The convulsive force of

Arms, her own dreadful.


Eager and dumb and remorseful

She had stood, face


To face sinking,

Before each releasing paroxysm.


There would be breakfast, cold;

Exhaustion, an end;

Her father.



















10. What He Wanted

(Published in Scout and Birdie)



Very good, she heard him say.

Select, she heard,

Daughters of gentleman.


Her lonely

Pilgrimage heart-sinking;

Their dismay, her fear.


Determination in insisting

and carrying her,

Poor dear.


He always wanted

Her to be the same.


















11. Faces



Condescendingly scuffling along the quay,

he admitted Dutch faces

with sturdy gait

and indifferent desire for windmills.


Rushing towards flat meadows,

she began to think.


Bright clearness

brought tears to her eyes.


His face excited and important,

he was not listening.


















12. Giving



A fool’s errand:

nothing to give scornful girls

she had never thought of parsing.


The moment she imagined:

analysis too late.


There had been cahiers

of them, her German girls.


Read English to them

and make them happy:

on to the parts of speech.

















13. Even Here



A moment, an explanation

was beyond her scope.


Whenever she feared

they would despise her,


she scented something

of imminent catastrophe.


Serene assurance disappeared –

even here, disgrace ahead.


Freedom, somewhere at hand –

but would mean knowing German

and being quick.
















14. The Pale Face



Solid money, more as she needed.

The pale face had given her all the things.


She felt she had a right, without fuss –

like other people.


With a false position ahead

and after a short space,

they would marry.




















15. No One Else



Her father gravely reading

her own disappointing

the narrowing of


With the sea creeping

the disappearance of
red-walled garden.


Wading out through green

hour after hour for
weeks together,


No one else knew

the old stone jetty and
coves and cowrie shells.


No one else had seen

the river valley and
hills and oaks beyond

shining up out of mist.

















16. Practice



The girl was practicing.


Thin fingers hovered and fastened convulsively

like cold, throbbing claws.


Something flinched, relaxed.

Within her, a beginning of response.


A great gonging had gone limpid.





















17. Her Performance

(Published in Scout and Birdie)



A radiance for a moment.

The gravity opened

on her ribbon-knotted dress.


Prepared for the difference

Between the performance

of these girls and nearly all.


Firmly-poised, bare

with absence.




















18. Something Funny



Those quite near to her

prevented her risking

with them any meeting.


Something funny about her mouth,

rabbity teeth,

giggles hollow-cheeked,

bodice askew.


Her eyes at dinner-time cut

towards the danger zone,

someone named Hugo

who did not wear a moustache.


Her warm plump presence

guessed the details.


She liked to take food,

flash slowly,

and reflect light nausea.












19. The Secret

(Published in Scout and Birdie)



Bright sweep of girls

brought misery.

The very minims had stiffened

and she had worked them


and resented.

She had a nice firm mass

and forgotten fear.

She fumbled


until the thumping

began again.

She had to reproduce


the secret.

Twice she succeeded and

once laughed.















20. Fancy Work



Settling down to fancy work,

white-cuffed needles jerked

and bent into light.


She spread out

towards a featureless freedom,

a great brightness,


On and on, hastening:

Her utmost experience

of fancy work.


















21. Woman of Forty



Her place square and stout,

steadily down at the corners.


Loose wrists flickered,

her eyes like the eyes

of a dog.


She played without music

unfinished phrases

with heavy fervor.


She had let herself go old,

a woman of forty.

















22. The Finger Game



Rippling through swaying body,

little hands rose and fell –

The finger game.


Jack played

very sweetly, no prelude.


At the end appeared

two large hands shining red

and shapeless with chilblains.


Lied, not a note quite true –

she pink-flushed,

a love-sick Linden tree.
















23. Slang



Drifts of slang and careless pronunciation

gratified her to the worst.


She was awfully slangy herself

but delicate caustic,

the purest.


Rules borrowed from unremembered reading,

decisive for cultured people.





















24. Evening Prayers



It dawned bright and exceedingly uncomfortable –

a huge Bible,

vivid and real in this new tongue.


With something child-like,

a moment of revolt in spirit, 

she rose.


Solomon fluttered the hymns heartily,

his jewels


How did it happen?


She longed for the end –

the girls were getting on their knees.


Oh dear, every night.














25. She Had Heard



The moment she dreaded.

Desperate shaking hands

adjusted her disguise.


This was Germany, no escape.

No mention of grammar.


German children knew names

and worse than that,

the meaning of names.


She had heard such things.

They all subsided and moaned

the whole sentence.


They watched her not discover,

in any sense.














26. Spiky Green



She flew upstairs,

saying the point

had been faultlessly forgotten.


Her wretched self had been

real, half-conscious, strange

like those spiky green figs.


Ready to swing forward

into the rising storm of her page,

she blinked.


Only one tear fell

and that was from the left eye

towards the wall.
















27. Responsibility



She rediscovered all she had learned.

Eagerly beginning, she told herself

to attach meaning to the familiar.


Always omitting the first,

she began to understand the fury.


“Ah!” she said aloud,



She sang once or twice, very quietly,

but soon gave that up,

her baby face full of responsibility.


















28. Hair Washing



Too late. Faces emerged

and plumped her down upon the table.


Outrage imperative, nausea

as she surrendered.


The woman briskly snapped

her amazed ears, her flared face.


Relentless disgust seized

her egg-sodden head.


Her hair had been washed.

















29. Morning Coffee



The snarling rattle sounded,

grinding coffee.


Girls were sitting in a fuzzy cloud

as boiling water snored on.


Coffee cups slid up Gertrude’s end

and were rapidly filled by her.


Like a country servant,

she drank noisily and furtively.



















30. New Girl



Her features shone like Greece and Rome.


Her classic head, high and straight.

Her classic knot like loosened marble.


Looking into her like a mirror,

their eyebrows trilled in wrath.


How they hated the new girl.





















31. Often



She wanted them to come to her and taste

the wonderful Germany she had achieved.


She articulated silently

and felt aloof from things they suggested.


She could have killed them often

in her curious lipless way.





















32. Stay



A little gathering of people,

All rush-seated and scrooping.


English, the way they would smile

And take things for granted.


She sat, chafing

Against the side of her silky.


She fidgeted and felt

For thoughts she tried to compose.


From far away, a radiance.

A large ostrich feather gleaming.


Best to stay

With the Germans.














33. Not Able



On the watch,

The next move longed for her.


So sweet,

Just the fact of their standing together.


Afterwards, to confess hysteria

Amused her.


She would not be able.




















34. Beginning to



Refuse to derive solace

To pretend interest.


Men’s sermons, worse
than women’s smiles –

You could not stop the

Until your brain was


Despise it all –

Make it plain –

No heed.


If she should ask,

Everything would come


She wished she could

The things she was

To feel about women.


Strange –

The logical fallacy,

The winking grimace.













35. First Line




She read that first line again

and felt how much better the thing was,

 without “we” and “our.”


A perfect phrase

to mark time to,


A jerk to each syllable

with a twisted glove-finger tip.


Now, thank all, God –

They all felt it.

















36. Lessons


School-routine, as she
knew it,

had no place in this new world.


A framework of fortuitous days

was not securely calculable.


Half-impatient, half-exasperated booming

came to her from the lectures of German men,


who despised women.

Why teach anything at all?


The girls sat round bookless

and politely attentive.


There was no kind of preparation

for these lessons.














37. Finished



She remembered up the hill

where girls were “finished”


As if they had no minds,

no dreaming.


Teachers were formal

towards the facts they flung out,


Faintly wheezy tones bleating

words and syllogisms,



It was an expensive school.

















38. Go Back


Her agony at the thought

that she could never go back.


If only she could really begin

knowing what she wanted.


Things would get clear,

results visible.


Lilla would think that

very funny,


and would not care for her,

now that she was old.

















39. Life Story


Woven through her
retrospective appreciations,

a doubt:


Brought up differently,

would she have grown up modern?


Would she have been

affected by the Aesthetic Movement

or troubled about Ireland and India?


Or would she have been like most girls,

placid and serene,

shopping and directing?


She would have been astounded to discover

what she still regarded with provisional suspicion,

she decided.


She would have envied the life-story

of some poet.












40. The Signal



On a master’s morning

the girls collected one by one,


occupations devised

apparently from hour to hour.


Time after breakfast

was full of uncertainty and surmise,


the lack of any planned programme

a standing annoyance to the English.


The German side was uncritical

and prophecies always fulfilled,


an air of knowledge

stricken into certainty:


the appearance of the signal

for bounding anticipations.












41. A Third Person



Uncertainty hung over hours

prolonged by a provisional distribution:

ten girls, five pianos.


Neither she nor mademoiselle

received any instructions,

awaiting the possible arrival of a third person.


Quite odd when he came:

he would watch her

every time with fresh wonder.


She did not want her place,

though it meant

a quiet alcove of freedom.
















42. Her Aurist



Obliged to a series

at the hands of her aurist,


whose tangible odor added a great deal

to her abhorrence,


She looked about for visible signs

of an invisible fog


pervading the premises with pungency,

a quality of onions that multiplied.


She could not explain his character;

she imagined:


His meals, his slippers, his dingy books in the room

where Minna started and moaned;


His effect of indigestion

so that his very name exasperated her.













43. Her Nose



Dreaded expeditions reflected doctor’s treatment

For her nose and her perpetual cheerfulness.


A pang capped in pity of all the care

Bestowed on her person, her disconcerting nose.


A nose that would do splendidly

For charades.





















44. At Home Abroad



Thoroughly at home abroad,

Germany all around them.


Here she sat, securely adrift.

Here they sat, free.


It must be changing them,

Having got away.


Decision in their bearing,

They could shout if they liked.


They had the same horridness

But they did not pretend.


















45. Source of



Come back safe and happy to the beehive,

she instructed,

stabbing at them all the while.


Relentlessly through the throng

they promenaded streets,

a recurring Saturday humiliation.


The great foreign paradise,

tantalizingly half-seen;


The chocolate,

required to be described;


The careless, alone

meandering in their excesses;


And the main source of her trouble:

a complete failure

of her polyglot role.













46. How to Begin



Growing conviction and distress of it

were confirmed,

a daily spectacle


She could not escape

and was growing to hate.


Making mockery of her attempts

were others carrying out the design

with no clear idea


That they were carrying out

any design at all.


She remembered trying hard

and making no impression,

struggling to know


How to begin.















47. Conversations



Now and again, she thought:

a stirring of animation.


Then someone was being discussed

or perhaps beginning to tell her about food.


Each left her more puzzled and helpless,

gravely walking aloof.


She would grow cold and constrained

and conversation would drop.


She did not know why

her presence led to silence.

















48. A Very Vulgar



He had a very vulgar,

too vulgar to be spoken;


it was breathed in the half-light.


Miriam was begged to forget;

remember only the beautiful


that preceded it.


Timidly she responded

and received no more. 


















49. Less Than Silly


Ashamed of her share,

she grieved over things felt:


Dreaming that life was beauty,

finding it was duty;


Young people wanting reform,

and nothing done.


She could do nothing,

no good;


She did less than silly.


















50. Bath Story



A gentle decisive voice went on

about sponge-bags,

those monuments of bathing,


Each large enough to contain

a veritable family of sponges.


General approval was registered for soaps,

best when scented lavender,

kept separate from sponges.


Bath stories prolonged until breakfast,

rejoicing over washstand jests

and bubble incidents.

















51. In With the



The message came panting:

You’re one of the distinguished ones,


A swell,

in with the specials

and the classic knot.


No idiots admitted

to read Goethe,

breathed a low voice.


She paid no heed

as chattering flew.


Holding her arms out,

she gave herself up

to undulating blank verse.















52. The Heiress



Her pitch sounded out rich and full and liquid,

trembling her slight body


and echoing against the walls

of her face.


Entreating tones and despairing ululation

roused mademoiselle heavily


as she issued a fascinating gaze,

an indulgent smile,

a flashing hatred.


The little heiress frowned.

















53. Past Baths



Water lathered her

in blissful warmth.


Between tea and dinner

they were fragrant,

tubbing in steamy air.


Splashings echoed sponge-fights

and cleaved wavelets,


her laugh raucous

in the glass-roofed bath.


She let her shoulders sink

and paused dreaming,


recalling past baths,

so characterless now.













54. Quick Clever



The prophecy: she might be ill one day,

Never ill and sad and helpless.


Half-withdrawn, she plunged in,

Her vacant eyes unveiled.


The vision: she could imagine

That girl married.


She could not face

Her quick clever movements.


















55. Charades



A lavishly decked tea-table

Awaited English girls to act charades.


A timid suggestion supplied singsong,

Fussy little absurdities they laughed

Through all evening.


Planning farcical scenes for syllables,

Her face upturned so the audience would catch

The clear outline and refrain.


She felt herself in a vast space

Alight with approving voices.

People always liked her on the stage.
















56. Cobwebs


The bell sounded and they blew out

the candle piercing the darkness.


Shadows bobbed and darted

in little quick dancing steps.


She got to her feet and went marching gently

round the room near the walls.


Cobwebs up there, dangling in corners,

volleying high over her head.


She began recover breath,

sighing brokenly.


She saw the room again,

swelling and shrinking.















57. Blouses



Real grand proper blouses,

within an inch of her life.


One, squashed strawberry,

smart but not too much.


The other, buffy,

zephyr cotton.


She fumbled the disarranged conclusion:


Extraordinary blouses

would make a difference.


The duffer at the tennis-club

would be flabbergasted.















58. English Lesson



Hours that lay ahead would bring tests

and opportunities to see her incapability.

She wanted to be still, and smaller,

in the green fields and woods.


She heard Fraulein talking in English

of councilors and centuries,

taunting words.

She did not know what to say.


Fraulein’s eye passed her

a look of intelligence,

and she rallied to repeating

English names earnestly.


Pigs. Poultry. Hay. Straw.


A moment of relief to look easily

at the little pigs trotting,

as they reached the cobbled open space

and stood still.


Peaked houses stood all round them

and she almost cried aloud.









59. Old-Time



She turned a radiant face

and Fraulein made some movement with her lips:

“I think you have something of the German in you.”


Little sounds of affectionate raillery

encouraged response.


“You like old-time Germany?” Fraulein pressed.


She stirred heavily and looked up, flushing,

her eyes avoiding the German arbors.


Of course there wasn’t anything

a bit like Germany in England.


She paused in her mental comment,

a crimson tide bridling.


“All towns are beautiful, perhaps.”

And comparisons, odious.












60. Ending



At sunset, minutes were passing;

soon they must go.


She wanted to stay

in the musty room behind the quiet dim,

more than anything in her life.


Fraulein beckoned girls

to collect in a little group,

and listen as she quoted:


“Still we of the wild

are the better men.”


She felt her eyes grow strong and clear,

a coolness flowing through her.