I recently came across an essay by Matthew Skelton, a teacher of book history in Mainz, Germany. He describes sorting through a collection of old books and papers left by an obscure librarian named Elma Mitchell after her death in 2000. Mitchell was also a feminist poet who confronted Ruskin with the truth about women (see her poem below.)
“We did not know whose body of work we were exhuming. Neither of us had noticed the obituary in the newspapers,” Skelton wrote. “We shook our heads at the pile of dust her lifetime of reading, writing, and book collecting had amounted to and set to work on her remains.”
More than 20 boxes of books were scattered around the library. Skelton and his assistant became Mitchell’s literary executors and in an afternoon they tried to reassemble her.
Spiders had spun webs inside some of the boxes and many of the books were damp and misshapen, hoary with mould.
This woman’s life included books on art history, foreign-language dictionaries, and most of all poetry. Hundred of volumes written during the 1970s and 1980s by forgotten poets. “The untongued dead,” was how she had once described these writers.
Back to Skelton: “The spines were brittle and snapped in our hands like old bones. The pages were withering. Each poem was a skeleten of ink, its lifeblood sapped.”
He also found buried treasures. One box held a small, devotional volume of Milton; in another, an early Seamus Heaney and a pristine copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.
“Curious, we skimmed through the occasional text, searching for a clue to [Mitchell’s] identity, a link to her past.”
Some books had personal inscriptions, reminiscences of readings, notes from friends, for instance this one: “To remind you that I have existed, and do exist, which implies that I love you.”
In conducting this forensic bibliography, they found spiders flattened against the sides of boxes, and pressed flowers and seed head emerging from AAA guides “like bookmarks from summer afternoons long ago, wine stains purpling the margins, moments of romance in the folded maps of France.”
There were shopping lists wedged into books, notebooks with indecipherable handwriting, and even a card for a hairdresser appointment made 35 years ago.
“Her books were indeed a form of autobiography, but they were incomplete. They needed a body, blood, a voice, to incarnate them, to make them speak.”
As Mitchell herself said: people disappear around the edges of words.
And now, her take on why women remind her of blood and soap.
Thoughts After Ruskin
by Elma Mitchell
Women reminded him of lilies and roses.
Me they remind rather of blood and soap,
Armed with a warm rag, assaulting noses,
Ears, neck, mouth and all the secret places.
Armed with a sharp knife, cutting up liver,
Holding hearts to bleed under a running tap,
Gutting and stuffing, pickling and preserving,
Scalding, blanching, broiling, pulverizing,
— All the terrible chemistry of their kitchens.Their distant husbands lean across mahogany
And delicately manipulate the market,
While safe at home, the tender and the gentle
Are killing tiny mice, dead snap by the neck,
Asphyxiating flies, evicting spiders,
Scrubbing, scouring aloud, disturbing cupboards,
Committing things to dustbins, twisting, wringing,
Wrists red and knuckles white and fingers puckered,
Pulpy, tepid. Steering screaming cleaners
Around the nags of furniture, they straighten
And haul out sheets from under the incontinent
And heavy old, stoop to importunate young,
Tugging, folding, tucking, zipping, buttoning,
Spooning in food, encouraging excretion,
Mopping up vomit, stabbing cloth with needles,
Contorting wool around their knitting needles,
Creating snug and comfy on their needles.“Their huge hands! Their everywhere eyes! Their voices
Raised to convey across the hullabaloo,
Their massive thighs and breasts dispensing comfort,
Their bloody passages and hairy crannies,
Their wombs that pocket a man upside down!“And when all’s over, off with overalls,
Quickly consulting clocks, they go upstairs,
Sit and sigh a little, brushing hair,
And somehow find, in mirrors, colours, odours,
Their essences of lilies and of roses.