Iris Tree, a Frog, and Modigliani

Modigliani- Female Nude (1916)

Any archival post is a shot in the dark. The Modernist Journals Project stops curiously at 1922, and many journals held in the UNZ archives were held under copyright. Nevertheless, I took a stab at Iris Tree in the 1923 issue of Poetry magazine because I thought what a curious name for a poet, is that the poet’s name? More research let me know she was known as an artist’s model and you see her posed above in none other than one of my favorite Amedeo Modigliani paintings. I didn’t know, and so you can imagine it was a pleasant surprise. Iris Tree was an English bohemian, shall we say, born to mother and father actors both. She published two books of poems, in 1920 and 1927. It doesn’t seem like she made a huge splash, but here is her poem entitled “The Frog”:

The Frog

He climbs down murky stairs,
With splayed feet pushing back dark curtains,
Green fans and slowly-waving filmy arrases.
White globes float up from him,
Bubbles glossed with twilight and moonlight.
Shadows writhe under him,
Shooting duskily, poised
With tremulous fins
And wriggling darting tails.
His eyes stare with broad search-lights,
His mouth gulps, he sucks and swallows;
His belly feels the slime
Glide polished, yielding, secret.
He kicks and paddles with long gestures,
Continuing their ripple, swaying the weeds apart.
He lies on the smooth black surface.
His eyes know the starlight,
And he hears the barking and croaking of the lovers.
He is lusty and swells with passion
Waddling up the lily-pads,
Watching the speckled flash where the females leap,
Stretching their yellow bellies, jerking their legs.

Firstly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, arrases are hanging screens tapestry fabric formerly placed round the walls of household apartments and in the theatre, often at such a distance from them as to allow of people being concealed in the space between. Anyways, things I admire in the poem are its attention to detail, its verbs acting as adjectives (“splayed”, “glossed”, “poised”), and most of all, its commitment to a world from a strange point of view. Now, I may have read some poems that do this, and I’m no expert. Is this groundbreaking? Probably not, but chances are, it is something poetry allowed itself in the modern era. What I mean by that is that each successive breakthrough in poetry can be seen as an admission, “Yep. You can do that in a poem.” This poem seems to say, “Yep. You can write from the perspective of a frog.” This pushes words like “stairs”, “curtains”, “arrases”, “globes”  out of their normal use and refreshes their meaning. It works a bit like Spring does for William Carlos Williams. In fact, upon closer inspection, just the placement of the viewer in the poem (down low in the swampy landscape, just think Honey I Shrunk the Kids) seems to shed language of its old ties. Towards the end of the poem, it becomes perhaps a bit predictable as a sort of parable–the sexuality of the frogs is supposed to remind the reader of human sexuality. I guess the moral of the story is, we aren’t that much different than frogs. Thank you Iris Tree.

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One Response to Iris Tree, a Frog, and Modigliani

  1. Prof VZ says:

    This poem does capture two worlds: a kind of gothic and high-class sensibility combined with the amphibious. In this way, the poem offers the kind of juxtaposition that was so key to imagist poetry, but its extended trope would be a bit overwrought for the likes of Pound and company–certainly he would see some opportunity for condensing this expanded conceit. As an “animal poem,” it would be interesting to compare to Moore’s animal poems–something that Katherine will be exploring in her final project. Thanks for bringing this poem–and poet–to our attention. The Modigliani connection is quite fascinating!

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