Poet's Corner IV: Aunts
Updated: Mar 17, 2022
with Audrey Ardern-Jones
In this episode of Poet's Corner Audrey Ardern-Jones, The Hub's resident poet, takes a break from reading animal and tree poems. Audrey focuses on a family relationship that was particularly dear to her and she knows can be important to many of us too. That of an aunt.
This month would have been the birthday of Audrey's dearest aunt Joyce who lived into her early 90s. September, thought Audrey, is a good month to read a poem in memory of Joyce and to think of the role of an aunt.
Aunt Imogen, by American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, "an incorrigible fisher of words", is an uncle poem masquerading as an aunt poem. Robinson used the device to thinly masque his ongoing attachment to Emma Shepherd and her three daughters. Robinson courted Emma and expected to marry her but was humiliated when she married another.
A complicated lovers' triangle ensued, made more complex by Emma's husband being Edwin's younger and more athletic brother Herman. You can listen to Audrey read Aunt Joyce, from her collection 'Doing the Rounds' published by Indigo Press, and Aunt Imogen by Edwin Arlington Robinson, by clicking on the link below.
Aunt Joyce by Audrey Ardern-Jones
Picture: Audrey's Aunt Joyce painting one of her stained glass creations at London's
Royal College of Art / Credit: Audrey Ardern-Jones
She never lost her Englishness living a life
in other lands – insisting on tea in a china cup
and linen napkins for Sunday lunch.
I told her wild tales of strawberries growing
on blossom trees and how English girls
still blushed at the sight of a naked oak.
We’d play Scrabble in the Italian midday sun
in make-up Aunt Joyce language - me fumbling
on a slickslack word, she laughing as she pencilled
in her points, never missing a trick.
After she died, I missed her ocean long calls
in the middle of a night - our marmalade talks
of orange peel and cats – a corner of my world,
where we shared our history and our art.
by Audrey Ardern-Jones
Aunt Joyce in ‘Doing the Rounds’ published by Indigo Press 2019
Aunt Imogen by Edwin Arlington Robinson
Image: Lilla Cabot Perry, Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1916 /
Credit: Public Domain via WikiArt
Aunt Imogen was coming, and therefore The children—Jane, Sylvester, and Young George— Were eyes and ears; for there was only one Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world, And she was in it only for four weeks In fifty-two. But those great bites of time Made all September a Queen’s Festival; And they would strive, informally, to make The most of them.—The mother understood, And wisely stepped away. Aunt Imogen Was there for only one month in the year, While she, the mother,—she was always there; And that was what made all the difference. She knew it must be so, for Jane had once Expounded it to her so learnedly That she had looked away from the child’s eyes And thought; and she had thought of many things.
Emma (Shepherd) Robinson (1865-1940), wife of Herman Edward Robinson.
/ Credit: www.earobinson.com
There was a demonstration every time Aunt Imogen appeared, and there was more Than one this time. And she was at a loss Just how to name the meaning of it all: It puzzled her to think that she could be So much to any crazy thing alive— Even to her sister’s little savages Who knew no better than to be themselves; But in the midst of her glad wonderment She found herself besieged and overcome By two tight arms and one tumultuous head, And therewith half bewildered and half pained By the joy she felt and by the sudden love That proved itself in childhood’s honest noise. Jane, by the wings of sex, had reached her first; And while she strangled her, approvingly, Sylvester thumped his drum and Young George howled. But finally, when all was rectified, And she had stilled the clamor of Young George By giving him a long ride on her shoulders, They went together into the old room That looked across the fields; and Imogen Gazed out with a girl’s gladness in her eyes, Happy to know that she was back once more Where there were those who knew her, and at last Had gloriously got away again From cabs and clattered asphalt for a while; And there she sat and talked and looked and laughed And made the mother and the children laugh. Aunt Imogen made everybody laugh.
Edward Arlington-Robinson's three nieces (thinly disguised in “Aunt Imogen”), the daughters of Herman and Emma (Shepherd) Robinson. L-R: Barbara (1895-1991), Marie Louise (1893-1938), Ruth (1890-1971) / Credit: www.earobinson.com
There was the feminine paradox—that she Who had so little sunshine for herself Should have so much for others. How it was That she could make, and feel for making it, So much of joy for them, and all along Be covering, like a scar, and while she smiled, That hungering incompleteness and regret— That passionate ache for something of her own, For something of herself—she never knew. She knew that she could seem to make them all Believe there was no other part of her Than her persistent happiness; but the why And how she did not know. Still none of them Could have a thought that she was living down— Almost as if regret were criminal, So proud it was and yet so profitless— The penance of a dream, and that was good. Her sister Jane—the mother of little Jane, Sylvester, and Young George—might make herself Believe she knew, for she—well, she was Jane.
by Edwin Arlington Robinson
N.B. This is an abbreviated version of Aunt Imogen, if you would like to read the full version you can: here.
Listen to Audrey
Picture: Audrey's Aunt Joyce relaxing at her home in New England
in her 90th year / Credit: Audrey Ardern-Jones
Aunts Are Unique
Says Audrey: "Aunt's are unique in that they have the pleasure of their relatives without the responsibility. Sometimes, and in my case particularly, one clicks with one's aunt almost more than one does with one's parents. My aunt Joyce (Pawle) was the sister of my father, (Roger Pawle). She was beautiful and talented.
She trained at the Royal College of Art as an artist. I have enclosed a wonderful picture of her painting at a young age. In the picture, she is in preparation for painting a stained glass window. She was absolutely brilliant at stained glass windows as well as at all her portraits of people.
She married my uncle who was half-Italian and he was based partly in Italy and partly in New England, in the town of Northampton, near Boston, at Smith College. You have probably heard of that college because it was where Sylvia Plath went."
She Was My Type
Joyce lived in Northampton, Massachusetts with her husband, particularly towards the last lap of her life. In the summer months, the couple also lived in Italy"in a wonderful place, on a farm", with an open doors invitation to family members. Audrey was "so lucky" as a teenager to visit her "bohemian, glamourous cousins" Clement and Cynthia. Cynthia was a horse rider and Clem was a motor bike rider and remains the "motor bike rider of the universe".
Living in Africa, Audrey rarely saw her aunt growing up. Joyce was fond of Audrey as a little girl, because when they met Audrey always wanted to spend her pocket money on buying presents for her aunt. "I must have known she was my type!" However, Audrey truly came to know her aunt as that teenage girl on visits to Italy, where she felt a closeness to Joyce.
After Audrey married "quite young" she would visit Italy with her young children where her uncle and aunt were always so welcoming. In Joyce's later years, Audrey would try and visit her aunt in New England, to be with her for at least a week every year when she was "sadly left on her own in her eighties". Audrey loved those visits and saw them as a pilgrimage.
This is where the poem Aunt Joyce, a sonnet, originates. Sonnets are written devices for expressing love and Audrey admits, "this is really a love poem". In the poem, Joyce's sense of humour and love of games shine through.
An Incorrigible Fisher of Words
Picture: Edwin Arlington Robinson as a boy. / Credit: earobinson.com
For this episode's companion poem by a well-known poet, Audrey has chosen another aunt poem, Aunt Imogen, fittingly by a New England poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869 - 1935). Born in Maine, Robinson struggled to get his poems published, and like many poets, to achieve recognition during his life. Robinson is now recognised as "America’s first important poet of the twentieth century", and his poetry garnered three Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry and four Nobel Prize for Literature nominations.
A biography of Robinson describes him as: "...a shy and quiet child, utterly fascinated by the sound of words. He early became "an incorrigible fisher of words"..." He would appear in his neighbours' doorway and cry "Nebuchadnezzar" or "Melchizedek". Late in life Robinson wrote: "It must have been the year 1889 when I realized finally - that I was doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry. There was nothing else that interested me."
Picture: Edwin's younger brother Herman Edward Robinson /
Credit: Public Domain via WikiMedia Commons
Robinson attended Harvard leaving after two years and returning to his home in Gardiner, Maine. He later settled in New York but meanwhile formed an intellectual discussion group, the Quadruped Club. The other members were a banker, a pedagogue and a scientist.
Robinson's niece Ruth Robinson Nivison, in an unpublished family memoir, states her uncle wrote Aunt Imogen in a room rented by the Quadruped Club. The poem is a veiled biographical commentary about the Robinson family dynamics. Emma Robinson wrote shortly before her death in reference to Aunt Imogen that: She was 'Uncle Win' to three little girls, Ruth, Marie and Barbara, and the mother of them E.L.R 1998. Very autobiographical - soul searching penetration - and acceptance."
As Robinson's biography says: "The second son in the Robinson family, Herman, married Emma Shepherd from Farmingdale. "Win" had also courted Emma and expected to marry her. Herman's marriage was a great blow to his pride. During the marriage ceremony, February 12, 1890, the despondent poet stayed home and wrote a poem of protest, “Cortège.” The poem refers to the train that took the newly married couple out of town to their new life in St Louis, Missouri. Since the 1965 publication, Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Ronbinson, the lovers' triangle has become a central theme in Robinson's biography and the interpretation of his poetry." Not least of Aunt Imogen!
Audrey says: "Thanks so much everyone for listening and I hope you’ve enjoyed both these poems." You can listen to Audrey read and discuss her poem choices for this episode of Poet's Corner by clicking on the link below.
A Poet with an Artist's Painterly Sensibility
Audrey Ardern-Jones at the summer 2021 unveiling of the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial in Epsom's market square where Audrey read her poem 'Tattenham Corner' about Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison's last moments / Credit: Audrey Ardern-Jones
“Ardern-Jones is a poet with an artist’s painterly sensibility, a musician’s fine ear, a nurse’s affinity for strangers and their plight. Poems for the ear, poems of language – Polish and Bemba, Portuguese and English. An intelligent, finely crafted poetry of curiosity and caring, of listening and loving, of humour and hope.” Paul Stephenson, an award winning poet and blogger, podcaster and co-curator of Poetry in Aldeburgh and teacher at the Poetry School, who interviews poets on their first collections.
Audrey Ardern-Jones spent her childhood in Africa (Lusaka, Zambia) where her English father and Polish mother were posted. She’s enjoyed a wonderful nursing career, specialising in cancer genetics. Audrey has always loved the Arts and founded The Poetry & Music Ensemble in 1984.
Her poems are widely published and have won prizes or been commended in international competitions. Currently, she is Artist in Residence at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and is an active supporter of poetry projects in her community of Epsom & Ewell.
Credit: Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd.
The publisher's link takes you to Doing The Rounds, Audrey's collection of poems. "This collection touches on the poet's childhood memories of living in Africa - her feelings of being in awe of so much and yet uncertain about many of the happenings. Most of her travel poems in India relate to incidents that have made her question herself - some of the poems about her Polish mother and her suffering post WW2 echo throughout the collection."