What I like about post cards is that even if in an envelope, they are made to circulate like an open but illegible letter… (Derrida, The Post Card)
Last week, I blogged about the new edition of Novel on Yellow Paper, of which Virago Books very kindly sent me a copy.
To heap joy on joy, the parcel included two sets of vintage postcards.
There are six postcards in each set, in pristine condition; they’re joined along perforated lines. Each has a poem and a sketch by Stevie Smith (except one, which quotes from her short story, ‘Sunday at Home’).
The postcards seem to have been produced to mark the publication of Me Again: The Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (1981), ten years after Smith’s death. I can’t track down much about them – there seem only to be two references online. The catalogue of her papers at the University of Tulsa lists ‘Set of 6 postcards bearing poems and illustrations taken from the book’, and the Bertram Rota catalogue from spring 2012 mentions ‘six Stevie Smith colour illustrated postcards, still joined together and unused, from her book Me Again published by the Virago Press.’ That sounds right.
But I still can’t work out what the postcards were really for. Each set includes a price (£1.15), so presumably they were merchandise. Perfect, in theory. Smith’s poems read like vignettes; they have an aphoristic ‘portability and detachability’ (Fagg) which should make them ideal to put on postcards. Plus Smith drew pictures. Pictures and funny captions: ready-made postcards, surely?
Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone spotting these cards in a shop and buying one for a friend.
Postcards are cosy and comforting. They have just enough space for a platitude: ‘Wish you were here’. Smith’s cards, on the other hand, are gorgeous, hilarious, deadpan – and yet they’re totally unsuitable for pretty much any occasion.
I suppose I could send this card to my mother for Mother’s Day – if it weren’t for the (drunk? Dying?) woman slumped over the bed in the picture:
Or I could send this one as a get-well card. If I hated the person and wanted them to know it.
But that’s what makes these cards so exciting. Smith’s neat, epigrammatic poems seem to be satisfyingly transferable, a little nugget of wisdom to simply be enjoyed. But Smith’s work is so unsettling. It won’t be cosy; it won’t be a postcard platitude.
To use the terms of my DPhil: postcards invite clichés and proverbs. Smith’s poems, conversely, are multiply-suggestive, enigmatic aphorisms. It’s a small but important difference.
These postcards remind me of Karl Kraus’s aphorisms. When you first read them, quickly, they seem normal: versions of familiar clichés. It’s only when you pause and reread that you realise how strange they are. How many avenues of experience they’re sneakily opening up.
You don’t even live once.
To be human is erroneous.
Lord, forgive them, for they know what they do!
So these postcards end up ironizing their own form. At first sight, they nurture the postcard’s cosy self-sufficiency. When you look a second time, though, they’re skewering the postcard’s pretensions.
I think Smith would have approved.
Thanks to Virago Press and Rachel Wilkie for sending me these amazing postcards!
© Noreen Masud 2015