by Martha Moffett
At the end of a long obituary in the London Guardian, I found that Laura Riding, “one of the most remarkable figures in modern American literature,” had died at the age of 90. The article stated that some fifty years ago, she abruptly ceased to write poetry and retired to a Cracker house in a Florida orange grove.
I was surprised by this news. I believed I had come to live in South Florida through a lack of choice. Here was someone who had voluntarily turned her back on the world – and, I imagined, a more interesting world than the one I had left – for the heat and mosquitoes and hurricanes of Florida. Reading the obit, I think I actually made a loud, disbelieving noise. And I thought, “Half a century in a Florida orange grove!”
First, I was amazed that the poet had lived so long, after the accident in London when she was a young woman. Still, anyone determined enough to throw herself out of a window to win an argument must be determined enough to live on. “Defenestration,” she later called it, turning it into a philosophical stance.
Second, I was surprised that a renowned poet whose name was familiar to me had settled not so very far from the sandy little Florida fishing town where I had come to live with the feeling of being isolated and cut off from the world of publishing that I had experienced in the years I spent in New York City. I now lived in exile, and thought I lived there alone. But the Cracker house that had sheltered the reclusive poet was less than a hundred miles from where I sat reading. And a hundred miles is no distance on I-95.
I suddenly felt I had to see that house. It came to me in the form of obsession.
I have always been fascinated by obsession, by people who are obsessed. There is some clarity, however unreasonable, about knowing exactly what it is you want and then wanting it singlemindedly to the exclusion of everything else.
I never wanted to be obsessed, you understand, merely to observe the compulsion in others. In fact, I had lived most of my life without once being subjected to obsession, until I read the Guardian and the barb of involuntary desire reached out and hooked me. And then all I wanted was to visit a particular house. I didn’t want to live in it or to buy it or even necessarily to enter it. I just wanted to look at it.
A Cracker house – the hand-built wooden house of early rural Florida – is simple in shape, the proportions are pleasing, the materials modest, generally pine logs or planking with a tin roof and a broad, shady porch to ward off the Florida sun. The examples that are left can be found moldering into extinction on leafy hammocks off dirt roads. They give a peculiar pleasure to an eye tired of contemporary Florida – trailers, cement block houses, developments. Already, as I read her obituary, I was imagining Laura Riding’s house. According to the Guardian, in some years the rows of citrus grew right up to the front steps.
What I knew about her life came mostly from the autobiographical writings of the Bloomsbury group and other writers of the 1920s and ’30s. Lucky for us that they were such gossips, right? I knew she had lived on a houseboat in London, in a handmade house in Mallorca, and in a chateau in France. How did she find the coastal fruit-packing village of Wabasso? How did she find her Cracker house?
I mentioned that I was surprised to learn that Laura Riding had lived into the 1990s. I remembered reading that in London in 1929 during an argument with Robert Graves involving his wife Nancy and the young man who made up their foursome, their four-member “marriage,” to carry her point she had thrown herself from a window. Or as Laura put it, “I left the room. By the window, of course.”
Graves, racing down the stairs to reach her, told himself before he arrived at the next landing that she could not have survived the fall. Unwilling to live without her, he opened a window overlooking the stone basement where her body lay and flung himself out after her.
He was not seriously hurt; Laura broke her back so critically that she was not expected to live.
I recalled, too, the extraordinary portrait of her by John Aldridge, an artist she was rumored to love. In the painting, Laura gazes straight out from the canvas, conveying in a look everything that was attributed to her: power, intellect, will, and a lack of charm and humor. Graves, on the contrary, whom she dominated completely during those years, possessed an abundance of charm; in his letters to friends and family, the warmth rises from the page. Graves was willingly in thrall. He allowed her to edit his writings – even to the point of telling him what was worth writing about and what was not – and to decide where he lived and who his friends were to be. Laura, he said, “made things happen” by the “strong pulling force of her bladed mind.”
Laura Riding went into exile twice in her life: first, when she left the United States, where she had been a student at Cornell and a sometime member of The Fugitives, the Nashville literary group that formed around Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, to live as an expatriate in Europe, where she was one of a circle of writers who invented 20th-century literature. From 1927 to 1939 she lived with Robert Graves in England and in a village on Mallorca, writing poetry and criticism and engaging with him in a famous literary partnership. Whenever they needed money Graves would come through with a bestseller – “Goodbye to All That” and “I, Claudius.” Laura was scornful of these efforts. “Anyone can write a popular book,” she said. But when she sat down to do it, she failed.
Just before Laura’s 38th birthday, Time magazine reviewed eleven contemporary poets, naming Laura Riding and Rainer Maria Rilke as the only true poets on the list. The reviewer was Schuyler Jackson, a writer and farmer (and poetry editor of Time), who lived with his wife and four children on a farm near New Hope, Pennsylvania. A series of decisions, letters, friends in common and the situation in Europe led Laura and Robert to leave for America to visit friends and meet Schuyler Jackson. For Mrs. Jackson, Riding must have seemed the houseguest from hell.
As if it was fated, Laura and Schuyler fell in love. Robert was not given the news gently. Laura summoned him to her bedroom in the guest wing of the farmhouse. Robert opened the door to find her in bed with Schuyler.
In her second exile, Laura turned her back on poetry and came to live with Schuyler Jackson, whom she married, in the small Florida town of Wabasso – not even a town, a rural hamlet, a crossroads, not found on the Rand-McNally road map. It was less than a hundred miles away from my house just south of West Palm Beach. They called the house, which had been built around 1910, The Place. I wanted to see that house. I wanted to see the house she had found.
It was not that I loved her poetry. I found it brittle and abstract. I like a bloodier kind of poetry. Although sometimes I found in her work a foreshadowing of women poets whom I do like: for example, her cool detached look at her body in “Body’s Head” reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s equally cool self-regard in the line: “What a thrill–/My thumb instead of an onion.”
I called the small newspaper in nearby Sebastian and requested a copy of the obit that had appeared two weeks earlier. There was information on Riding’s activities on behalf of the Pelican Island Audubon Society but nothing that told me where to find the house.
I called the reporter who wrote the column and asked her about the house. Yes, she knew where the house was, but she was reluctant to tell me, as the house was empty and she felt a certain responsibility.
“Tell me, if I were to drive up on my own and look for it, would I find it?” I asked
“I don’t think you would,” she replied. “It’s almost impossible to find even when you know where it is.” She offered to give me the name of Riding’s lawyer who was the executor of her estate.
When I reached Riding’s lawyer, I couldn‘t think of an excuse for my request. But when I told him that I was a writer, that I was familiar with Riding’s work, and that I felt that I had to see her house, he made it easy for me.
“Of course you want to see it, my dear,” he said without surprise. He sounded somehow Dickensian, as if he were wearing a waistcoat. “Everyone who sees it falls under its spell. But her literary executor and biographer will allow no one to see the house. It is too fragile now that Laura is gone. It must not become public. It must be protected.”
I ground my teeth in frustration, but then obsession made me cunning. “I know a writer who is compiling a book on Florida writers. I’m not sure he is aware that Laura Riding lived here. May I give him your number?”
“That would be quite all right.”
I sent the writer my material – the obit from the Guardian, the obit in the Sebastian Press-Journal, a Xerox of the remarkable Aldridge portrait. “All I ask,” I told him, “is that if you’re allowed to go up to see the house you take me along.”
A few weeks later I ran into the writer at a book party and repeated my request:
“Just pick me up on the way – I can be ready in a minute.”
His book was published later that year, and as his articles on Laura Riding began to appear it became apparent that he had made his pilgrimage without me.
Then it came to my attention – I can’t remember if I read it or if someone told me – that the house was to be given to the Environmental Learning Center in Sebastian and moved east of U.S.1, over to the watered, manicured and developed side of the Intercoastal. If I was going to see the house in its natural setting – in its original clearing surrounded by citrus groves – it would have to be soon.
Eventually I found myself talking to a young librarian at the small library in the town next to Wabasso. I had called, I said, to ask what materials the library had on Laura Riding. We chatted for a while, and then the librarian asked, “Have you read ‘Robert Graves: The Years with Laura’?” By the way she asked, I knew it was a test.
Obsession teaches strategy. The book she referred to was a tell-all by Graves’s nephew. “I couldn’t put it down!” I exclaimed. She sighed. Soon I was jotting down directions.
“Watch for an overgrown lane with a mailbox,” she finished. “There’s a migrant worker’s house facing the road, but that’s not it. The lane goes back along an old fence. You’ll think there’s nothing there, that the lane has ended, but keep going. You’ll suddenly come into a clearing – and another world.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling I had been given not only the house but the key as
well. “Thank you so much.”
I drove up the coast on a brilliant day. Luckily the librarian had mentioned the large citrus packing plant – it was the only landmark around, and impossible to miss. As a grove owner, Laura must have sold her oranges, grapefruit and tangerines to this plant.
I found the lane and followed it, coming out into a wide bowl of weedy grass. The house was in front of my eyes. I knew it. I recognized it. It was as good as I dreamed it would be.
The wood frame house was white with a faded green trim around the windows and at the roofline. The roof itself was red, the paint fading. The house was set in a grove of shortleaf pines, taller than the roof. The clearing was huge and peaceful, the wall that protected it from the outside world an impenetrable tangle of scrub oak, Australian pine and palm.
I walked around the house slowly, taking my time, my camera hanging from my neck. There was an outdoor open shed where someone painted – jars of dried paint were still standing. It was Laura, of course. I had read that she sometimes put down her writing and took up her sketch pad and pencil. There was the skeleton of an old outhouse. At the back of the house, traditionally, a kitchen had been added. Thinking of the building and restoration Laura did on Mallorca with Robert Graves, I wondered if she designed the kitchen herself. It was set on blocks and attached by a door to the main house at such an angle that it had windows on all four sides to catch any breeze. The air even moved under the kitchen, to take away the heat of cooking.
I had no desire to enter the house, but finding the screen door unlatched, I walked onto the front porch and sat down in a rustic armchair made of bent saplings. There was a round table, also handmade, and other chairs. Laura must have sat here in the evenings, sometimes with Jackson, sometimes with guests, watching the light under the pine trees fade when the winter solstice brought early darkness. Was she amazed – I’m always amazed – at the wintry darkness coming on such balmy air? It struck me then that at the time I left Manhattan with my children to come and live in Florida, there was already a nuclear power station on this coast – and at that time Laura was still lighting the wick of a kerosene lamp for light. Not until the last five years of her life had she allowed electricity into the house.
She is published now in a way that eluded her in life. Her early poems, long thought lost, are now in print, and two of her books are being reissued. One biography has come out in London, another is soon to appear in America. The New York Review of Books has reassessed her poetry. The New York Times reviewed several related books under the heading “Laura Riding Roughshod.” And in 1996 Cornell University had a major exhibition and symposium on her work. The obscure work and the obscure life were becoming known.
Robert Graves said of Riding, “She is a great natural fact like fire or trees, and either one appreciates her or one doesn’t but it is quite useless trying to argue that she
should be other than she is.”
I sat on her porch until I was satisfied with sitting, sated with the house. I wanted to see it and now I had. It was the place, I saw, of the final settling down of an intransigent character of extraordinary gifts and energy. A settling down without mess or tragedy. The thing that one hopes for.
Before I left, I walked up to the side of the house and looked into Laura’s bedroom. It was small and spare. There was a narrow cot, neatly made. Nothing had been disturbed. On her bedside table there was a box of tissues, a flashlight, a bottle of hand lotion, a reading lamp, a stack of books.
So ordinary, and yet I was gratified by the sight. These are the things I keep on my bedside table. No matter how far we go, the stuff of life surrounds and comforts us. I raised my camera. The house was mine.