Carolyn Smart


I am currently working on a collection of narrative poems in the form of dramatic monologues. The manuscript will contain seven poems in total, and I include one here, written in the voice of Dora Carrington, a British painter and member of the Bloomsbury Group.

La Tendresse

Dora de Houghton Carrington, March 29, 1893 - March 11, 1932

What is life

that we read about it as if it were

an antique curiosity?

- Mary Ruefle, “The Death of Shelley”


today I saw a tattooed Venus

I spat upon my finger,
reached out to touch the canvas
with those mermaids, serpents,
sailors, tigers, vessels in full sail

the whorls of red and blue and black
like chapter headings in Petite Larousse
or my favourite paisley shawl

Venus turned indignantly

I forgot she was alive
she was that beautiful:
all agog in sea sights
and the sky


this is a love story:

I walked in the woods near Asheham,
the old man with a beard drew near

when he kissed me
I was appalled
no one believed me
it was both absurd and remote

I crept into his bedroom at dawn
the intention was shearing that beast
but when I leaned over
he opened his startling eyes
and I was hypnotized

I loved Lytton Strachey for all time

no matter he’s a sodomite
and I a person of separate artistic degree
for sixteen years we loved each other with a tenderness


to be a girl is appalling

I have a slim and active frame
and that’s what Lytton saw at first in me:
all wire and nerve,
the fascination of androgyny

Prussian eyes
a bell of wheaten hair

they named me baby face
and mocked my pointed toes
they called my eyes false innocent:

to them I was a heartless flirt
because the act disgusted me


I saw my bottom first when I was five

I lay upon my nurse’s lap
as she spanked my bare behind

I turned my head ’round:
oh how massive and how pink it was!

and worse, the monthly fiend that came upon me later
how the female body curses,
how the body reeks and offends


my father was already old when I was born:
I loved to draw him as he sat at ease

Noel, Teddy and me, we’d laugh so hard
I’d wet myself
but Mother and Lottie Louise were
nothing but furniture to me

here are the rules of my childhood:
do not speak about the body
wear your special clothes on Sunday
carry your prayer book in the open,
whisper the word confined

I learned to be a liar,
left the provinces for London
and at the Slade won prizes for my drawings

like all good artists I’ll be known forever
by only my last name


I sketched my face at seventeen
lit up by flame at night:
a portrait without vanity,
thick strokes of lead, blunt and looking back,
old beyond my years

to be pursued is terror and there’s nothing but distaste

but I am drawn to the demeanor
and baroque ways of the rich
they like my homemade clothes
my dancing and always
my virginity

I love no one ’til I’m almost 23

and then the sumptuous paintings that I made:
the sonorous and layered oils,
Lytton with his Goya hands
pellucid eyes
Lady Strachey regal and half blind
Annie in the kitchen

and our countryside:
rich as witchery and constant
a relief after a long and fearful span


I fell in amongst the Bloomsberries:
they stroke me like a cat

but Lytton reads to me alone
as we lean by a cordial fire
and I bring him milky tea

to make a life of such tenderness!

a bower bird I’ll be,
a sweet deep nest I’ll wind
round his commodious limbs

but Lytton is a man in love with men
so a man I must draw near

my darling dream of three,
with Lytton loving Ralph who married me


we took delight in the meanderings, to Paris,
Venice, Yegen and Madrid
and we talk and read and gossip while I paint
and make secure my Lytton’s true content

he is the centre and we moths
round his unrivaled flame

why do I feel no lust for Ralph
the way he urges me?
while he pricks another girl
his dear friend Gerald takes the lightning bolt for me
and I proceed to kiss and kiss him in the haystacks
on the hillsides on the beach
and practice lying to keep me safe and free

I never lied to Lytton
all his thoughts he shared with me

the complexity of this game
is enough to make me lose my aptitude for life:
should Ralph leave us, and the whole construction fall
there would be no point to breathing


whilst I am busy with my brushes and my carving
a host of small commissions and
my orchard, garden, Millhouse still to keep,
Lytton grows to fame and is far courted
by gentry and the curious alike

I sit at home with puss and drink my whisky,
write the many letters and their frill
then hurry off to bed to listen to the rats

late at night the owl comes floating past my window,
in the dark I lie all nightmared and alone

Ralph loves Frances
but Lytton writes his love every day to me

I was never happy when I was without him
he was everything to me


Clive Bell said
there are no divorces in Bloomsbury,
only reshufflings:
Ralph lives with Frances
and though I sleep with Gerald, Henrietta and Beakus
there is that incessant remorse

yet in the long and sweetest days with Lytton
we two are much at ease

I adored every hair, every curl of his beard,
devoured him as he read to me at night
loved the smell of his face on the sponge
the ivory skin on his hands, his voice
the sight of his hat as I watched it from my window
as it moved along behind the garden wall


Lytton, the morning I knew you were dying
I lay in the closed garage with the chuggish motor running
but Ralph found me and made me live again

when I looked at your dead face it was so bleached and cold

I kissed your eyelids and your mouth
my tears dripped on to your fine face
I placed a crown of bay leaves on your head

and where did they take you?
I walked in the woods and felt nothing

please let me sit with your clothes in my arms
and smell you again and again
I want to hold your books and stand in your rooms alone
but they will not let me be

in the morning I saw Virginia who knows more than all the rest
she held me in her arms
the smell of her tobacco in the wool against my face

you will come and see us next week, or not, as you like, she said
I will come, or not, I said


I waited two months before I took the rifle
and botched the very job:
I shot my side off

I bade the doctor drink some sherry
he looked so beastly sad
when he tried to ease my pain

Ralph’s stricken face forced yet another lie:
that I was shooting rabbits and I slipped

that’s all, and died

they do not now remember where my ashes lie

love is love, and hard enough to find