Alas. ǀ Alas!: On the Origins of “Variant Table”
March 23, 2013 § 1 Comment
Elizabeth Wade, author of “Variant Table” in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and the possibilities of form:
Marianne Moore constantly revised throughout her lifetime, publishing poems only to republish them later in new—and often considerably different—forms. Heather Cass White’s books, A-Quiver with Significance and Adversity & Grace, compile those changes and revisions, offering critics a handy guide of all the variations of Moore’s poems published in specific time periods. During my graduate studies, White hired me to help with the books, and my primary job was to make the variant tables, which I then checked against White’s tables. The work was exacting, but I liked it—there’s something comforting in the methodical, in reviewing each letter and counting every space. The table formatting was fairly straightforward, with each variation noted by line number, abbreviated edition title, and presentations of the text. For example, the variant table for “Smooth Gnarled Crepe Myrtle!” shows the following shift between three different publications of the poem:
51 New, Sm Alas. ǀ POV Alas!
As I worked on compiling the tables for A-Quiver, I became interested in them not just as a guide to the poems but as an end to themselves, a window on possibility. I wondered about the meaning of the changes, free from the context of the poems. What happens when we substitute “agéd” for “English” (as Moore does in “Virginia Britannia”) or exchange statement (“Alas.”) for exclamation (“Alas!”)? At the time, I was experimenting with form—writing annotations, postscripts, a list of figures—and I wondered how I might compose a creative piece in the form of a table. I tried off and on for several years, always failing because I couldn’t find an appropriate content. Everything seemed gimmicky rather than organic, so finally I shelved the idea and moved to other projects.
In the fall of 2010, I spent about a week conducting research for Adversity & Grace at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. Each day I’d spend hours reading through Moore’s letters—primarily those to her publisher, her mother, and her brother. Each evening, I’d sign out of the library, walk several blocks back to my hotel, finger a well-worn slip of paper, and dial the newly-familiar phone number of a hospital psychiatric ward in Alabama. I’d speak to my brother Austin, often briefly, and wonder if he knew who I was or would remember my call. After his death (it came two months later, after his stay in yet another institution) I returned often to our final conversation, wondering just how cognizant he’d been, how much I might have missed. I’ll never know, of course, and eventually I realized that the not-knowing had assumed an identity of its own, that our last conversation existed only as a text and its possible variants, and thus offered a content to fit the form I’d explored years earlier.
Elizabeth Wade holds degrees from Davidson College and the University of Alabama. She serves as Managing Editor of NANO Fiction, and her work has appeared in such journals as Kenyon Review Online, AGNI, and others. She currently teaches literature and writing courses at the University of Mary Washington.