Elza De Locre, How May I Endure: Selected Poems, edited by John Arnold (Fanfrolico Two 2019)
This elegantly produced, limited-edition poetry book is a work of cultural retrieval and a labour of love.
Elza De Locre was the intimate partner of Jack Lindsay in the 1930s, when Lindsay was running the Fanfrolico Press in London along with P R Stephenson.
Whereas Jack’s father, Norman Lindsay, is still a household name in Australia, thanks mostly perhaps to The Magic Pudding, Jack himself, P R Stephenson and Fanfrolico Press, let alone Jack’s work as a Marxist literary critic after he broke from his father, would elicit blank stares in a pub trivia quiz. Even more so Jack’s tragic lover Elza, who even in her lifetime was better known for her bewitching beauty (she was the subject of Edith Young’s 1931 novel, Lisa) than for her poetry.
John Arnold is a distinguished Australian Literature scholar – he co-edited the four-volume Bibliography of Australian Literature (2001–2008), which has been described as ‘an essential reference work for the reading, study and collecting of Australian literature’. Among his more personal scholarly publications is The Fanfrolico Press: Satyrs, Fauns and Fine Books (2008). Now retired from his position of Head the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University, he has compiled this selection of Elza De Locre’s poems, and published it over his own imprint, Fanfrolico Two.
His introduction begins:
Elza De Locre is a now a forgotten minor figure of 1920s literary and artistic London. Her life started badly in 1897 and ended even more so in 1952. It was one of mystery, oppression and fighting mental demons, relieved only with occasional periods of freedom and beauty. Her story deserves to be told and this selection of her poetry has been compiled as a tribute to her.
The introduction gives a fascinating glimpse of the writerly life in 1920s bohemian England. Drawing on many sources, especially Jack Lindsay’s memoir Fanfrolico and After, it pieces together an outline of Elza’s life. Born illegitimate as Elsie May Hall in Bristol, by the time she met Jack Lindsay in 1926, she had lived through very hard times, married, had a daughter, found work where she could, including sex work, and gone by a number of names – Arnold lists nine. With Jack she found a turbulent but committed relationship, which didn’t stop her from becoming increasingly mentally troubled through the 1930s. In late 1941 when Jack was called up to the army, she couldn’t manage on her own and voluntarily went into a ‘mental home’. She then lived in a series of hospitals until her death eleven years later – Jack paid her expenses, but his own financial resources were limited.
Elza’s two books of poetry, a short story and ‘Time Please!, a light-hearted novel’ (co-authored with Jack) were published in the early years of her relationship with Jack.
Arnold quotes Jack as saying of her poems that many were ‘direct transcriptions of dreams, written down in the early morning’, and that their world ‘is one of elemental change and dissolution, with her lonely spirit pursued and tormented, finding release only in momentary identifications with the bright life of nature’. Ominously, Arnold says that some of the poems are ‘of genuine quality’,
So I approached the poems themselves as to a museum exhibit: of historical interest at best. And then was shocked by the intensity and rawness of many of them. I was expecting fairies and satyrs and classical references, and I got those, but I wasn’t expecting:
And always I would lose my way And stumble over rotting minds, Tree-roots in the darkness, thorns anywhere And mangroves thrusting their fingers Into my wounds
There are poems about life and death, about erotic annihilation, poems of ecstasy and terror and despair. There are some amazing poems about, of all things, the moon:
Her naked body lying on the waters Shakes my five senses.
Jack Lindsay’s description of these poems as transcriptions of dreams rings completely true, and she had extraordinary and often terrible dream.
Here’s the shortest poem in the book:
THE LAST REFUGE Twice in this life have I been dead; But the mortal gods have bewitched me. I have crawled back like a wretched slave. Pelted with clods back to my body. The third time I think I'll get away.
See what I mean? That looks very simple on first blush, but something in it niggles at you. The first line is startling enough, but enigmatic. Maybe it’s literal: two heart failures. Maybe it’s semi-literal: two suicide attempts. Maybe it’s completely metaphorical: two moments of existential nothingness. Maybe the speaker isn’t human, but a mythological character. The poem works for any one of these readings, for a kind of mental miasma containing all of them, or a reading that leaves the question hanging.
Then ‘the mortal gods’ can carry at least two meanings: the gods of death (we can assume the poet is influenced by the Lindsays’ brand of neo-paganism), or mere humans who take on themselves the godlike ability to bring someone back from the dead. Whether it’s human intervention or dumb luck, the effect is bewitchment – not so much a miraculous (Christian) resurrection as some kind of (pagan) magic.
She has crawled back ‘like a slave’. She has been deprived of agency and comes back from the dead against her own will.
The blunt physicality of ‘Pelted with clods back to my body’ is what makes the poem leap from the page; but that last word comes as a surprise. The being that is being pelted is not physical at all. It’s the soul – or disembodied mind, or whatever – being driven back to its bodily existence.
The last line here is a powerful, matter-of-fact embodiment of suicidal ideation. I’m not a fan of suicide poems, and I won’t be turning to this one in moments of depression. But this is a living voice speaking to us very directly, brought back from literary oblivion.
How May I Endure was printed in a limited edition. I am grateful to John Arnold and Fanfrolico Two (scholartis @ gmail.com) for my copy, which is number 61 of the 150 numbered paperback copies. There may be some copies left for sale.