Sunday, January 03, 2010

Written in Red: Selected Poems of Voltairine de Cleyre

Gods of the World! Their mouths are dumb!
Your guns have spoken and they are dust.

But the shrouded Living, whose hearts were numb,
have felt the beat of a wakening drum
Within them sounding — the Dead men’s tongue —
Calling : "Smite off the ancient rust!"
Have beheld "Resurrexit," the word of the Dead,

Though far less well known than her contemporary Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre made a significant contribution to the development of anarchism as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth. Before dying of meningitis at the age of forty five, de Cleyre lived a life of struggle against the brutal conditions which constantly surrounded her, and this shaped her speech-making, essay-writing, and not least her poetry.

Voltairine was born into a family of poor Michigan radicals in 1866, and named after the 18th century Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. The de Cleyres had been part of the Abolitionist movement, and were linked to the Underground Railroad. However, the family's progressive ideals had retreated by the time by the time Voltairine was packed off to a Catholic convent school. She didn't exactly enjoy the experience, and tried to escape, before eventually describing how "it had been like the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and there are white scars on my soul, where ignorance and superstition burnt me with their hell fire in those stifling days". De Cleyre's poetry is shot through with the language of Catholicism, from her initial struggles with her faith ('The Freethinker's Plea' versus 'The Christian's Faith', through to her emphatic renunciation of it ('The Burial of My Past Self'), and beyond.

After leaving the convent, she got involved with the 'freethought' movement, and it was through these meetings that she became influenced by thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. But just as with Goldman and many others, it was the frame-up and execution of the Haymarket martyrs which led her to anarchist conclusions. Haymarket and its repercussions are the focus of numerous de Cleyre poems ('At the Grave in Waldheim', 'Light upon Waldheim').

Initially upon conversion, de Cleyre upheld the individualist strain of anarchist thought. This was one contributing factor to a rivalry with Goldman, who she saw as being too communist. At this stage, the former's poetry concentrated on the apparent irrationality of certain institutions, and the church in particular. Later on, de Cleyre became an early 'anarchist without adjectives', defended Goldman in her writing, and ultimately contributed to her journal, Mother Earth.

Towards the end of her life, de Cleyre's poetic output acquired a strong social materialist element. Pieces such as 'The Suicide's Defence' and 'Nameless' explained why acts considered immoral by religious opinion - suicide and prostitution respectively - may be seen as a rational choice in certain circumstances. The contrast between the realities of working class life and the supposed ideal of religious 'purity' is shown most starkly in these passages.

De Cleyre's style varied greatly. Many of her works are discursive, and take the form of prose more than poetry as it is normally considered. On the other extreme, some are very rhythmic and lyrical, and I believe 'The Feast of Vultures' in particular has the qualities the qualities to be found amongst the best in modern day rapping.

The 'Written in Red' selection was made by Franklin Rosemont, a poet, surrealist, labour historian and Industrial Workers of the World member, who sadly died in April 2009.
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