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On "Everyday Alchemy"

Nancy Berke

"Everyday Alchemy" has an interesting publishing history. It originally appeared in Taggard's first collection of poems, For Eager Lovers (1922). Later she republished the poem in her Depression-era collection Calling Western Union, along with "Revolution" also from For Eager Lovers.

With the exception of a few changes in punctuation, the poems appear much like thier original versions. Yet these poems would be read in a different light, within the pages of a radically different book, which expressed the poet's changing attitudes about art in a time of social devastation and suffereing. In their early creation "Everyday Alchemy" and "Revolution" reflected the Greenwich Village bohemia's new social outlook of the 1910s and 20s. Taggard joined important radical intellectuals such as John Reed, Max Eastman, and Floyd Dell in establishing an alternative literary and public culture. The Russian Revolution, experiments in nonconformist art and education, discussions about "alternative" forms of living, and a fascination with Freudian psychology, sexology, and sexual experimentation informed radical culture at this time, and no doubt influenced the writing of these two poems. Yet by republishing "Everyday Alchemy" and "Revolution" in the fervently political Calling Western Union, Taggard remakes these works. She emphasizes their social messages at a crucial point in her career as a writer and at a crisis point in American history.

In a 1938 interview in the Daily Worker, Taggard comments that during the period in which "Everyday Alchemy" and "Revolution" first appeared she had not yet developed her revolutionary potential as a poet. (The orthodox vocabulary that Marxists such as Taggard adopted in the 1930s rejected, for the most part, the idea that one's personal politics--one's sexuality, one's expression of personal freedom -- suggested any revolutionary potential). As she claimed, ". . . I really hadn't as yet found a way of writing. Most of the poems in my first few books were about love and marriage and having children." Taggard both acknowledges and distances herself from the postwar period and its experimental values: "There was a long period in the twenties, after the World War, when I was very discouraged. . . We writers were still too involved in all the foolish ideas of our generation." Whether these ideas were foolish or not, Taggard's change in political outlook was the direct reason for republishing "Everyday Alchemy." The poem extols the private values that the poet's public consciousness would reject by the mid- 1930s. Its republication complicates the poet's theme of the private body valorizing the private relationships of individuals over their social relationships as civil subjects.

In form "Everyday Alchemy" is a truncated sonnet. It revises the love sonnet and reverses the relationship of strong man, weak woman. Rhythmically the poem holds a kind of simplicity; the repetition of the word "peace" suggests an overriding calm within the negative space constructed by the words and phrases (though used as tropes of comparison) connoting lack: "No mountain," "no tree with placid leaves," no sonorous "valley bell on autumn air." Thematically the poem makes social commentary about poverty, while it presents women as work-worn through their roles as nurturers to men. It also symbolically treats working-class women and men who possess nothing but each other. In fact it complicates the sonnet as a form traditionally associated with love. "Everyday Alchemy," when originally published in 1922, might have been read as a gesture toward the love lyric tradition of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie, and Sara Teasdale. Yet Millay's and Teasdale's lyrics evoked the poet as lover, as one generally oblivious to the social landscape in which the love is either lamented or celebrated. Taggard explores the private couple (or couples) as a distinct social unit: the poverty surrounding working-class women and men who can seek only each other. This distinction would seem awkward in Millay's complaint, "I let my candle burn at both ends," or Teasdale's question, "Why am I crying after love?" Taggard creates through these women and men a place to demystify the magic of love, made metaphor by the poem's title--the medieval practice of alchemy: making gold out of dross--wedded to the reality of material deprivation.

"Everyday Alchemy" is also a refiguration of the metaphysical tradition that Taggard, like other significant modern poets, had begun to embrace in the 1920s. The publication in 1921 of T.S. Eliot's essay "The Metaphysical Poets" helped rekindle an interest among modern poets in this sixteenth-century literary tradition. One may read "Everyday Alchemy" with John Donne's "Love's Alchemie," in which the poet muses on the "hidden mysterie[s]" of love. Yet Taggard translates the "sexual chemistry" implied in Donne's poem into a kind of alchemical nurturing, the mothering of world-weary, destitute men.

The meeting of "poor women" and "worn men" in "Everyday Alchemy" might have reflected a tendency of the youthful poets of the 1920s to romanticize poverty as if it were a key ingredient to some of the social experiments they endorsed. When Taggard reprinted the poem in Calling Western Union, at the height of the Depression, her readers would find verse that evoked the collective concerns of ordinary men and women in a time of crisis. We recognize these ordinary men and women through the poet's symbolic rendering of their bodies. The proletarian literary genre's prominent tropes represented working men through images of virility and resilience. Yet Taggard complicates the genre's essential metaphors by representing the male workers' bodies through weakness, and by describing the female bodies in strength: (the worker's long-suffering wives). Though poverty silences the bodies Taggard describes in "Everyday Alchemy," she depicts the male bodies as more vulnerable; they are mute and bent. They provide nothing, but seek. The female bodies are active, (of course because of love) making a "solace" for the male bodies as they seek "peace." Taggard informs us that nothing in the natural world can provide the solace that women provide; their hearts, which in more prosperous times would reflect love as an idealization, now "pour out" only poverty, to men who, far from being ideal lovers themselves, are "worn."

While "Everyday Alchemy" suggests the primacy of the couple whether times are good or bad, it also permits the reading of other tropes, non-sexual unions, nurses / patients as in wartime, or mothers and sons. Whether or not Taggard had it in mind, we cannot overlook the poem's evocation of women, men and war, especially if we are to read the poem in its social context, and as an answer to the erotics of Donne's "Loves Alchemie." With the line "men go to women mutely for their peace," Taggard evokes the image of a pieta or a woman holding a wounded or dying soldier to her breast as in war memorials and antiwar posters. Finally, by removing the poem from its association with the both the love lyric and the metaphysical tradition, Taggard complicates the relationship of poetic form in general.

from Nancy Berke, Women Poets on the Left: Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Margaret Walker. University Press of Florida, 2001

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