Single Sex

The Queer Poetics of Cell Biology at Bryn Mawr College, 1905 • @ncecire

We know perfectly well that to inhabit
a shell we must be alone.

— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1958

1. The spinster's shell

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

William Wordsworth

Ernst Haeckel, aestheticized drawings of various sea shells from Kunstformen der Natur

An Octopus

of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat

Marianne Moore, "An Octopus," 1924. Based on materials from Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Image: Map of Mount Rainier from above. Mount Rainier National Park Archives, 1921.

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
        this fiddle.

Marianne Moore, "Poetry," 1924 version.

"The spirit is robust, that of a man with facts and countries to discover..."

"It is the fretting of a wish against wish until the self is drawn, not into a world of air and adventure, but into a narrower self..."

Bryher, review of Moore, Poems, qtd in Harriet Monroe, "A Symposium on Marianne Moore," Poetry, January 1922

Even a gymnast should have grace. If we find ourselves one of an audience in a side-show we prefer to see the well-muscled lady in tights stand on her head smilingly, with a certain nonchalance, rather than grit her teeth, perspire, and make us conscious of her neck muscles. Still, we would rather not see her at all.

Marion Strobel, review of Moore, Poems, qtd in Harriet Monroe, "A Symposium on Marianne Moore," Poetry, January 1922

"Miss Moore's steely and recondite art has long been a rallying-point for the radicals."

"...these cryptic observations..."

Harriet Monroe, "A Symposium on Marianne Moore," Poetry, January 1922

"...sharper than a diamond..."

"...wrought as finely as the old Egyptians wrought figures from an inch-high piece of emerald; but they lack the one experience of life for which life was created."

Bryher, review of Moore, Poems, qtd in Harriet Monroe, "A Symposium on Marianne Moore," Poetry, January 1922

"Unquestionably there is a poet within the hard, deliberately patterned crust..."

"'If the heart be brass...every royal thing will fail.' It is not this reviewer who says that, or invokes for this poet 'grief's lustiness.' May even grief soften a heart of brass?"

Harriet Monroe, "A Symposium on Marianne Moore," Poetry, January 1922

2. Irritation

Irritation is the dysphoric affect least likely to play any significant role in any oppositional praxis or ideological struggle.

Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings, 2005.

Helga Crane was not amused.

Nella Larsen, Quicksand, 1928.

Let us picture a living organism in its most simplified possible form of an undifferentiated vesicle of a substance that is susceptible to stimulation. Then the surface turned toward the external world will from its very situation be differentiated and will serve as an organ for receiving stimuli. Indeed embryology, in its capacity as a recapitulation of developmental history, actually shows us that the central nervous system originates from the ectoderm; the grey matter of the cortex remains a derivative of the primitive superficial layer of the organism, and may have inherited some of its essential properties. It would be easy to suppose, then, that as a result of the ceaseless impact of external stimuli on the surface of the vesicle, its substance to a certain depth may have become permanently modified, so that excitatory processes run a different course in it from what they run in the deeper layers. A crust would thus be formed which would at last have been so thoroughly ‘baked through’ by stimulation that it would present the most favourable possible conditions for the reception of stimuli and become incapable of any further modification.

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920.

For the living organism protection against stimuli is almost a more important task than reception of stimuli.

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920.

3. Bryn Mawr

leaf from Marianne Moore's 1908 lecture notes

Facsimile page from Marianne Moore's biology lecture notebook, 1908. Rosenbach Museum and Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, MM VII: 05: 04, Lecture Notebook 1251/24, l. 37.

Left to right: Edmund Beecher Wilson (PhD Johns Hopkins, 1881), Thomas Hunt Morgan (PhD Johns Hopkins, 1890), Nettie Maria Stevens (PhD Bryn Mawr 1903).

Grace Kellen is in Biology but she doesn’t know me. She is very attractive[,] much more so than [her sister] Ruth.

Marianne Moore to John Warner Moore and Mary Warner Moore, October 1905. Marianne Moore VI: 11b: 09, Rosenbach Museum and Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

4. The shell

I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.

Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother's children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.

Song of Solomon 1:5–6 (King James Version).

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

William Blake, "The Little Black Boy."

What signals this experience? His black skin. Or so his mother tells him. He has experienced, intensely on his skin, the burning rays of God’s own love. He’s burned black. And so his blackened skin is the sign of “bearing” God, which of course requires (and also fashions) strength.

Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, 2009.

I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father’s knee.

William Blake, "The Little Black Boy."

Cottolene trade card depicting a happy black girl in a cotton field

Cottolene trade card, 1890s.
This image is one of Robin Bernstein's key examples in Racial Innocence (2011): the girl, bareheaded in the cotton field, is depicted as happy, at home, and impervious to the sun's heat.

If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process:

     — primarily, economic;
     — subsequently, the internalization—or, better, the epidermalization—of this inferiority.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, trans. Markmann, 1952/1967.

[Larsen] summon[s] the superficial affect of irritation to explicitly counteract the problematic notion of the racialized self as a container 'filled' by well as to counteract the rhetoric of 'deepness' Helga appeals to thereafter in efforts to assert her racial specificity.

Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings, 2005.


How do you plan the shape of your stanzas? I am thinking of the poems, usually syllabic, which employ a repeated stanza form. Do you ever experiment with shapes before you write, by drawing lines on a page?


Never, I never “plan” a stanza. Words cluster like chromosomes, determining the procedure.

Donald Hall, “Marianne Moore, The Art of Poetry No. 4,” Paris Review, Summer-Fall 1961.

the spiked hand
that has an affection for one
and proves it to the bone.

Marianne Moore, “Marriage,” 1924.

Reacting against the constitutionalist tendency of the late nineteenth century, Freud insisted that the individual factor be taken into account through psychoanalysis. He substituted for a phylogenetic theory the ontogenetic perspective. It will be seen that the black man's alienation is not an individual question. Beside phylogeny and ontogeny stands sociogeny.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, trans. Markmann, 1952/1967.

If external action is effete
      and rhyme is outmoded,
          I shall revert to you,
     Habakkuk, as on a recent occasion I was goaded
               into doing by XY, who was speaking of unrhymed
This man said—I think that I repeat
     his identical words:
          'Hebrew poetry is
prose with a sort of heightened consciousness.' Ecstasy
               the occasion and expediency determines the form.

Marianne Moore, "The Past is the Present," 1915.

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