“Dust” by Katherine Barrett Swett

Katherine Barrett Swett


Constance Woolson died
in Venice January 24;
an apparent suicide,
she was not 54.

Henry James said half one’s feeling
for her was anxiety.
He wrote it repeatedly
in letters that scholars find revealing
of James’s ongoing anxiety.

He thought her cheerful manner a facade
as flowers set in the window
have nothing to do with what’s inside.
Did he think how
the pots might fall below,
the careless maid knocking
them off the windowsill?
His metaphor is shocking
as Woolson was the pot that fell.

She would hate the bios and novels
about her love-lorn melancholy.
She was a writer who wanted readers;
and, of course, she was lonely,
living abroad, far from home, to save money.

I reread her novels most years.

I like the smell of old papers and books,
of library stacks, forgotten lives.
I take them like snuff in the afternoon,
the past boxed up like Bluebeard’s wives.

Who isn’t lonely as she grows older?

I clean the embossed spine
of East Angels, bought for nothing
when second-hand books first went online.
I spend hours dusting
and wiping each shelf with lavender oil
to fight off mildew and soil.

The last Christmas she turned down
all invitations. She wanted to be alone
with her things and memories.
Her gondola wound
for miles around the lagoon.

I am now her age, and I don’t believe
she killed herself for love.
Hers was a deeper grief,
and she was not afraid to die;
she wrote that repeatedly.

James couldn’t get over
that suicide is very impolite
—it seemed so out of character—
like refusing to eat your host’s meat.
I think she reached the limit
of memory, writing and stuff.
Even a gentle lady has the right
to say enough, not enough, enough.

from Rattle #51, Spring 2016
Tribute to Feminist Poets


Katherine Barrett Swett: “For me the most interesting work of feminism is the recovery of lost lives and lost writing. I have studied the writings of 19th century women for 30 years. I am amazed by the bravery and tenacity of women who wrote and still write against enormous pressures to be silent. I love to enter into their worlds and break that silence.”

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