Turns and Movies

by John Holbo on February 12, 2006

Couple days ago I posted some fine metaphysical poetry and extremely witty self-criticism by Conrad Aiken at the Valve. I like Aiken very much. (One of our commenters mentioned that Eliot praised him as "il miglior fabbro", but someone else noted he also called Pound that. So maybe he just carried around a whole tray of that one at parties.) There’s also a family friendship on Belle’s side. Warings and Aikens have been friends for generations, apparently.

Anyway, I’ve been reading poems from Aiken’s second book, Turns and Movies (1916), long out of print. One couplet – and that’s pretty much it – from "All Lovely Things" sometimes gets quoted, from the end of this stanza.

All lovely things will have an ending,
All lovely things will fade and die,
And youth, that’s now so bravely spending,
Will beg a penny by and by.

Since the book’s public domain, I’m tempted to make a nice CC edition. Be a bit of work. But here’s a start: the title poem, which you won’t find intact elsewhere on the web, although you will find bits. It’s got a certain something. "In Turns and Movies he willfully sacrificed his ability to write in smooth involute curves for a dubious gain in matter-of-fact forcefulness." Of the title poem in particular: "although immature and uneven … at least a crude vitality." So writes Conrad Aiken. I agree the metaphysical stuff he wrote later is better. But if Art Spiegelman decided he wanted to illustrate something like The Wild Party again, he could do worse that this. (You could really do a Batman and Robin-inspired number on part xii, "Aerial Dodds".)

Turns and Movies

After the movie, when the lights come up,
He takes her powdered hand behind the wings;
She, all in yellow, like a buttercup,
Lifts her white face, yearns up to him, and clings;
And with a silent, gliding step they move
Over the footlights, in familiar glare,
Panther-like in the Tango whirl of love,
He fawning close on her with idiot stare.
Swiftly they cross the stage. O lyric ease!
The drunken music follows the sure feet,
The swaying elbows, intergliding knees,
Moving with slow precision on the beat.
She was a waitress in a restaurant,
He picked her up and taught her how to dance.
She feels his arms, lifts an appealing glance,
But knows he spent last evening with Zudora;
And knows that certain changes are before her.

The brilliant spotlight circles them around,
Flashing the spangles on her weighted dress.
He mimics wooing her, without a sound,
Flatters her with a smoothly smiled caress.
He fears that she will someday queer his act;
Feeling his anger. He will quit her soon.
He nods for faster music. He will contract
Another partner, under another moon.
Meanwhile, ‘smooth stuff.’ He lets his dry eyes flit
Over the yellow faces there below;
Maybe he’ll cut down on his drinks a bit,
Not to annoy her, and spoil the show. . .
Zudora, waiting for her turn to come,
Watches them from the wings and fatly leers
At the girl’s younger face, so white and dumb,
And the fixed, anguished eyes, ready for tears.

She lies beside him, with a false wedding-ring,
In a cheap room, with moonlight on the floor;
The moonlit curtains remind her much of spring,
Of a spring evening on the Coney shore.
And while he sleeps, knowing she ought to hate,
She still clings to the lover that she knew,—
The one that, with a pencil on a plate,
Drew a heart and wrote, ‘I’d die for you.’

From acting profile parts in the ‘legit,’
He came to this; and he is sick of it.
The singing part is easy. What he hates
Is traveling with these damned degenerates,
Tight-trousered, scented, both with women’s hips,
With penciled eyes, and lean vermilioned lips.
Loving each other so, they pick on him, –
Horse him, off stage and on. He smiles, is grim,
Plays up the part, saving his final card
Till Jones should dare to slap his face too hard.
But what’s ‘too hard’? – Meanwhile, four times a day
He drinks, to make things pleasanter; while they
(Those damned degenerates) eat up cocaine.
The call-boy calls him on. And once again
With a crushed hat, long hair, and powder face,
Dressed as the villain in black, he booms deep bass,
Asks the fool question, takes the slap, and sings
As if he did for the first time all those things.
My God, how tired he is of hearing Jones,
Simpering sweetly in falsetto tones,
‘Chase me, boys, I issue trade-stamps’:
Tired of grease-paint, dirty clothes, and lamps.
At ease on sawdust floors, he leans and drinks,
Swapping old stories with the crowd; or thinks,
Roving a blear green eye about the bar,
Of the girl he loved, or the one time he was star.

He skips out lithe and tense into the light,
Throws off his gown, and smiling, lifts his hands
With a theatric gesture, opening fingers,
Like a vain child. And having rippled slowly
Under the smooth while tights the gleaming muscles,
Smiling again, he turns; and lifts black weights, –
Staggering, flushing deep his face and neck, –
To drop them with a crash. She, sweet and blonde,
Stands by (in white tights too), smiles at the peple,
Catching the handkerchief he tosses to her
When he has wiped his hands; and at the end,
Feigning timidity, sits in a chair
Which he heaves up to balance in his teeth.
But as she sits there, waving frantic hands,
And sees his coars red fist gesticulating,
She looks down on him with a look of hatred,
And wishes he would only burst a vein.

‘Where did you get that ring?’ he said to her,
While they were waiting turn. She looked at it,
Twisting her head to this side and to that
To see it sparkle. ‘What is that to you?’
‘That drummer gave it to you. I’ve seen him watch you.’
‘What if he does?’ ‘You cut it out, that’s all!
Don’t you forget that time that I half-killed Schmidt.’
She smiled at him. ‘Why drag that up again?’

Then, they went on, – he quivering, she cool …
And as she caught his handkerchief, she turned
Disgusted from him, thinking of her lover;
And how he said in his delicious voice,
‘I’ll meet you Thursday night at half-past ten.’

The parrot, screeching, flew out into the darkness,
Circled three times above the upturned faces
With a great whir of brilliant outspread wings,
And then returned to stagger on her finger.
She bowed and smiled, eliciting applause …
The property man hated her dirty birds.
But it had taken years – yes, years – to train them,
To shoulder flags, strike bells by tweaking strings,
Or climb sedately little flights of stairs.
When they were stubborn, she tapped them with a wand,
And her eyes glittered a little under the eyebrows.
The red one flapped and flapped on a swinging wire;
The little white ones winked round yellow eyes.

He slips in through the stage-door, always singing;
Still singing, he slips out, without a word
To stage-door man, or any of the others.
All through his act, wagging upon each hand
A grotesque manikin, he laughs and sings,
Sings with a far-off ventriloquial voice
Through fixed and smiling lips. Sometimes, not often,
He barely moves his mouth, for a ghostly word.
You see his throat fill, or his nostrils quiver.
But then, staring ahead with stretched white eyes,
And never stirring, he throws his voice way off,
Faintly under the stage, or in the wings,
Creeping nearer, or fading to a whisper.
And since he always sings and never talks,
And flits by nervously, swinging his cane,
Rumors are thick about him through the circuit.
Some say he hates the women, and loves men:
That once, out West, he tried to kiss a man,
Was badly hurt, then almost killed himself.
Others maintain a woman jilted him.
But the one story they tell everywhere
Is how, at his father’s funeral, he threw his voice
Suddenly into the coffin; and all the mourners
Jumped from their seats and ran, and women fainted,
And the preacher stopped the service, white as wax.

Zudora said a friend of hers had seen him
Mooning alone at ‘Carmen.’ And at the end
He cried like a baby: what do you think of that.

He thinks her little feet should pass
Where dandelions star thickly grass;
Her hands should lift in sunlit air
Sea-wind should tangle up her hair.
Green leaves, he says, have never heard
A sweeter ragtime mockingbird,
Nor has the moon-man ever seen,
Or man in the spotlight, leering green,
Such a beguiling, smiling queen.

Her eyes, he says, are stars at dusk,
Her mouth as sweet as red-rose musk;
And when she dances his young heart swells
With flutes and viols and silver bells;
His brain is dizzy, his senses swim,
When she slants her ragtime eyes at him …

Moonlight shadows, he bids her see,
Move no more silently than she.
It was this way, he says, she came,
Into his cold heart, bearing flame.
And now that his heart is all on fire
Will she refuse his heart’s desire?—
And O! has the Moon Man ever seen
(Or the spotlight devil, leering green)
A sweeter shadow upon a screen?

Here on the pale beach, in the darkness;
With the full moon just to rise;
They sit alone, and look over the sea,
Or into each other’s eyes …

She pokes her parasol into the sleepy sand,
Or sifts the lazy whiteness through her hand.

‘A lovely night,’ he says, ‘the moon,
Comes up for you and me.
Just like a blind old spotlight there,
Fizzing across the sea!’

She pays no heed, nor even turns her head:
He slides his arm around her waist instead.

‘Why don’t we do a sketch together—
Those songs you sing are swell.
Where did you get them, anyway?
They suit you awfully well.’

She will not turn to him—will not resist.
Impassive, she submits to being kissed.

‘My husband wrote all four of them.
You know,—my husband drowned.
He was always sickly, soon depressed. . .’
But still she hears the sound

Of a stateroom door shut hard, and footsteps going
Swiftly and steadily, and the dark sea flowing.

She hears the dark sea flowing, and sees his eyes
Hollow with disenchantment, sick surprise,—

And hate of her whom he had loved too well. . .
She lowers her eyes, demurely prods a shell.

‘Yes. We might do an act together.
That would be very nice.’
He kisses her passionately, and thinks
She’s carnal, but cold as ice.

Well, there was still a sure hand, anyway,
When she stood up alone, in a casket of light,
In the jet velvet blackness; and round her neck,
And along her outstretched naked gleaming arms,
Felt the cool python slowly coil and coil …
But that was for the snake, more than for her.
And when that Russian upstart ran out dancing,
Flinging her little arms about so foolishly,
The audience went half-crazy with applause!
Pretty? Well, if you call it pretty, to have
That listless scanty flaxen hair, and eyes
So sentimentally blue. When she was hired,
She was half-starved, poor thing, and cried and cried, –
And, really, it was half in pity she took her.
And now to have her getting all the notice,
With those ridiculous dances! Hopping about,
Frisking her hands up, perking her rat’s head sideways,
Smiling, or looking sad, running and jumping,
Or toddling on her toes – it was disgusting.
And as if that weren’t enough, to have her men
All whining round this girl like a lot of tom-cats,
Even her husband – (not that she wanted him).
And then, to have that cornet player get up
And give her a box of roses, on top of all! …
She wondered if her strength would fail her, sometimes;
And if, instead of smiling when the girl
Was given an encore (taking her hand to share it),
She’d suddenly burst out laughing and slap her face:
The wretched thin little measly skin-and-bones!

– She paused, fatigued with combing out her hair,
Sick of trying to get those scraps of tinsel,
And stared at red mirrored eyes. She was getting old.

Quiet, and almost bashful, and seldom looking
Into the rows of eyes below and above,
He went about his work as if alone;
His cast, upon their table, sat and yawned:
Or, paws curled under, blinked their sleepy eyes.
And one by one, with deft pale hand, he lifted
Rats from a lidded box, and set each one
On a little pedestal. And then a cat,
Black, with green insolent eyes, gravely and sleekly
Stepped over them, and sniffed, and waved his tail,
And glared at the spotlight with his ears laid back,
And leap back to the table … The audience laughed …
Later, when one cat balked, he gave up weakly,
And let the curtain fall with scant applause.

Ten years before this he had lost his wife.
He was a trapeze artist: in his act,
While hanging from the trapeze by his legs,
Lifted the girl up in a jeweled girdle
Clenched in his teeth, and twirled her with his hands,
In darkness, with the spotlight blazing on them.

It was a love-match. – Many had envied them.
But he was always queer, a moody man,
And things got quickly on his nerves. The girl,
Perhaps, had been too young … But anyway,
One night before his act they heard him scolding –
‘For Christ’s sake, put less powder on your arms!
Look at my clothes – look here!’ – And that same night
He let her fall – or anyway, she fell,
And died without a word. Soon after that
He quite the trapeze work, and got these rats …

Sometimes there on the stage, he heard himself
Saying, until the words grew meaningless,
Multiplying themselves in tireless rhythms,
‘I’m sick of her. But how get rid of her?
Why don’t I let her fall? – She’s killing me!’
And then he’d glance, half-scared, into the wings.

When she came out, that white little Russian dancer,
With her bright hair, and her eyes so young, so young,
He suddenly lost his leader, and all the players,
And only heard an immortal music sung, –

Of dryads flashing in the green woods of April,
On cobwebs trembling over the deep wet grass:
Fleeing their shadows with laughter, with hands uplifted,
Through the whirled sinister sun he saw them pass, –

Lovely immortals gone, yet existing somewhere,
Sstill somewhere laughing in woods of immortal green,
Youth he had lived among fires, or dreamed of living,
Lovers in youth once seen, or dreamed he had seen …

And watching her knees flash up, and her young hands beckon,
And the hair that streamed behind, and the taunting eyes.
He felt this place dissolving in living darkness,
And through the darkness he felt his childhood rise,

Soft and shining, and sweet, hands filled with petals …
And watching her dance, he was grateful to forget
These fiddlers, leaning and drawing their bows together
And the tired fingers on the stops of his cornet.

Sitting in a café, and watching her reflection
Smoke a cigarette, or drinking coffee,
She laughed hard-heartedly at his dejection …
He laid his cigarette down in his saucer,
And stolid with despair
Put his elbows on the table, ran his fingers through his hair.

Watching how her lips primed, dusty in the mirror,
To meet the gilded tip between her fingers,
As the cigarette approached them in her hand:
She told him he was seriously in error …
And noticing how her lips moved, in reflection,
She thought it queer, she said,
That in spite of all her warnings he should go and lose his head.

Just as she was smiling, the noisy music started;
She tapped upon the tablecloth in rhythm …
Were those blue eyes of hers so icy-hearted?
How was it, otherwise, she could not like him?
Women were different, then,
From these strangely childlike passionate selfish men …

She rose and took his arm; they slowly walked together
Out through the maze of tables, people drinking,
Into the windy void of rainy weather …
And in the taxi, sitting dark beside him,
She moved, and touched his knee,
And when he kissed her, hated him, but kissed him, passionately.

Ingratitude – the damned ingratitude!
After these years, and all he’d done for him,
To run away like this without a word!
Without so much as thanks, – and still a boy, –
Though he had taken him as a child and trained him!
This moment, he could kill him with his hands,
Wring his young neck … And worst of all, to think,
After he’d poured out love on him so long,
That he should run off with that rotten girl,
That whore, who couldn’t dance, and couldn’t sing,
Who only kept her job because, being shameless,
She splashed about in the spotlight like a mermaid!
My God; he’d kill him if he ever found him.
Had he been cruel to him? No, not cruel.
Sure, he had whipped him sometimes, – once in a while, –
Partly for discipline, of course … But never
More than to make him shrink, or his lips tremble,
His cheeks a little white. Not more than that.
And then, he had loved him so! And given him things,
All the money he needed, and all the clothes …
– And the boy had been a foundling to begin with!

He got up from his chair, groped in the darkness,
And struck a match under the mantelpiece, –
Watching it spurt from blue to yellow flame,
Startling the room with agitated shadows.
And one by one he lifted from the trunk
The clothes the boy had work: the soft-soled shoes;
The white ones with the sockets in the heels,
For whirling in the swing; the satin tights,
And the broad golden girdle, crystal starred,
He had looked lovely in this sleek white satin –
And he remembered now the day they bought it;
And how he stood up, smiling, by the mirror,
With big blue fearless eyes, and curly hair,
Just as he looked, sitting in his trapeze,
Wiping his hands so calm, and gazing down.
His throat was just like ivory, in this lace …
And he had look so slim, so like a child,
So white and fragile!

        And now, my God, he’d gone.
And he would never touch again that skin,
So young and soft; or have against his mouth
Those curls … or feel the long-tongued venomous whip
Curl round those knees, and see the young mouth tremble.

How is it that I am now so softly awakened,
My leaves shaken down with music? –
Darling, I love you.

It is not your mouth, for I have known mouths before, –
Though your mouth is more alive than roses,
Roses singing softly
To green leaves after rain.

It is not your eyes, for I have dived often in eyes, –
Though your eyes, even in the yellow glare of footlights,
Are windows into eternal dusk.

Nor is it the live white flashing of your feet,
Nor your gay hands, catching at motes in the spotlight;
Nor the abrupt thick music of your laughter,
When, against the hideous backgrop,
With all its crudities brilliantly lighted,
Suddenly you catch sight of your alarming shadow,
Whirling and contracting.

How is it then, that I am now so keenly aware,
So sensitive to the surges of the wind, or the light,
Heaving silently under the blue seas of air? –
Darling, I love you, I am immersed in you.

It is not the unraveled night-time of your hair, –
Though I grow drunk when you press it upon my face:
And though when you gloss its length with a golden brush
I am strings that tremble under a bow.

It was that night I saw you dancing,
The whirl and impalpable float of your garment,
Your throat lifted, your face aglow
(Like waterlilies in moonlight were your knees).

It was that night I heard you singing
In the green-room after your dance was over,
Faint and uneven through the thickness of walls.

(How shall I come to you through the dullness of walls,
Thrusting aside the hands of bitter opinion?)

It was that afternoon, early in June,
When, tired with a sleepless night, and my act performed,
Feeling as stale as streets,
We met under dropping boughs, and you smiled to me:
And we sat by a watery surface f clouds and sky.

I hear only the sussuration of intimate leaves;
The stealthy gliding of branches upon slow air.

I see only the point of your chin in sunlight;
And the sinister blue of sunlight on your hair.

The sunlight settles downward upon us in silence.

Now we thrust up through grass-blades and encounter,
Pushing white hands amid the green,
Your face flowers whitely among cold leaves.

Soil clings to you, bark falls from you,
You rouse and stretch upward, exhaling earth, inhaling sky,
I touch you, and we drift off together like moons.
Earth dips from under.

I told him straight, if he touched me, just once more, –
That way, you know, – I’d kill him. And I did.
Why shouldn’t I? I told him straight I would.
And here I am! – And I hope to God I die.
You wouldn’t think this hand could hit so hard, –
Look, there’s still powder on it, and rouge on the nails!
Maybe it’s blood. – I told him, if he touched me! –
And he’d come grinning up, and think, because
The house was watching everything we did,
That he could touch me, while he danced with me, –
That way, you know, – and get away with it …
Well, you can’t say I didn’t give him warning.
My God, I hated him! The things he did!
You wouldn’t believe them if I told them to you,
They were so nasty. They almost killed me, – killed me, –
Night after night! – Well, anyway, he’s dead,
Dead as a stick, or a stone, or an old cigar-butt.
You wouldn’t think I would do a thing like that, –
I don’t look strong, do I? – But when you’re dancing,
You’ve got to keep in shame. And then, my God! –
When he came leering downward with thos eyes,
Those red-brown eyes, like fire, like a vampire’s eyes,
I thought I’d scream, go mad, or fling myself
Over the footlights, into the orchestra, –
Anywhere, anywhere, – only to get away!
They were like wheels of fire, those eyes of his, –
Whirling and whirling, and always getting bigger;
Like terrible doors, with fires roaring inside them,
Roaring and roaring, and always coming nearer, –
And sort of sucking at me, and pulling my dress
And pressing hot cruel fingers against my breasts,
And blowing my hair up, and pushing against my knees, –
And all the while laughing and laughing at me!
O, it was terrible, terrible, – like a nightmare,
Slowly leaning downward upon you and crushing,
And your heart stops beating, and you can’t move a finger,
But lie there sweating! –

I had to kill him, – that’s all, – I had to kill him.
I told him straight, if he touched me just once more, –
That way, you know, – I’d kill him. And I did.
Those fire-wheel eyes! Do you know what I thought I was doing?
Well, when they came down, bigger and bigger, and whirling,
Whirling so fast, with fire all round the rims,
And the spokes all going so quick you couldn’t see them,
Only a sort of blur, – I thought I’d stop them,
By suddenly sticking a knife in through the spokes!
And I did. And all of a sudden the music stopped –
Just like grand opera! And he was kneeling there,
Putting his hands down, sort of groping, and nodding,
As if he were looking for something. Ha! A joke.
And seeing that he was done for, I stabbed myself:
A Jap I knew once showed me how to do it.
And I heard great bells go roaring down the darkness;
And a wind rushed after them. And that was all.

Behold me, in my chiffon, gauze, and tinsel,
Flitting out of the shadow into the spotlight,
And into the shadow again, without a whisper!—
Firefly’s my name, I am evanescent.

Firefly’s your name. You are evanescent.
But I follow you  as remorselessly as darkness,
And shut you in and enclose you, at last, and always,
Till you are lost,—as a voice is lost in silence.

Till I am lost, as a voice is lost in silence …
Are you the one who would close so cool about me?
My fire sheds into and through you and beyond you:
How can your fingers hold me? I am elusive.

How can my fingers hold you? You are elusive?
Yes, you are flame, but I surround and love you,
Always extend beyond you, cool, eternal,
To take you into my heart’s great void of silence.

You shut me into your heart’s great void of silence …
O sweet and soothing end for a life of whirling!
Now I am still, whose life was mazed with motion.
Now I sink into you, for love of sleep.

If you like that, you might check out the one volume that’s in print – which contains the really good stuff, like Senlin. Which you can, however, find free online.



roger 02.12.06 at 1:48 pm

All I know about Aiken is what I’ve read in Malcolm Lowry’s diary and letters. But he is often called a “nasty man” or a monster by Lowry critics and biographers. Lowry hosted him and his to be second or third wife in Mexico during the crucial under the volcano years, and something happened then that seemed to really disturb Lowry.

Since you have access to family legends, perhaps you could find out about this.


freddie 02.12.06 at 2:37 pm

Eliot de3dicated The Wasteland to Pound (the better craftsman, from Dante) but where does he say this about Aiken?


Ian 02.12.06 at 6:41 pm

John – thanks for this. I’d read some of Aiken’s poetry 15 years ago, and had forgotten how effective it can be in medium length (despite the occasional windiness). There’s also a worthwhile Collected Novels in secondhand bookstores everywhere – very Freud-influenced. An Aiken short story, “Mr Arcularis”, has to be one of the most nightmarish ever written.

Roger – Aiken might not have been an easy person (his father shot his mother then killed himself while the 12-year-old Conrad was upstairs in the house) but he couldn’t have been as bad as Lowry himself… “Under the Volcano”, of course, gives the Lowry side of the relationship. BTW, Aiken ended up as Poet Laureate of Georgia, which is kind of sad somehow (no snark at Georgia, just at the laureate biz).


John Holbo 02.12.06 at 7:08 pm

The morning after the father killed the mother, then himself, not knowing where else to go, young Conrad showed up on the doorstep of the Waring house – Belle’s great grandfather’s – in Savannah. That’s all I know, family legend-wise. As to the Eliot praised Aiken bit: don’t have a reference for that one. It is conceivable the commenter was simply misremembering who received the Pound tag, but he seemed pretty confident that wasn’t the case.

Glad to be of service, Ian. (I agree the stuff can sometimes get too windy.)


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 02.12.06 at 7:24 pm

Does this mean Belle knew Joan?


John Holbo 02.12.06 at 9:39 pm

Patrick, Belle’s mom knows Joan (I’m pretty sure that’s right). I’m not sure how well. Belle has met Joan (I think). I’m thinking of doing some Dido Twiteblogging some time soon myself. I should have Belle verify all this Waring/Aiken stuff, which is nothing I am privy to.


John Holbo 02.12.06 at 9:41 pm

Oh, wait. Patrick said ‘knew’. I just checked. Joan Aiken died last year. I didn’t know that. Shows how much I know.

Comments on this entry are closed.