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  • Nancy Cunard: Perfect Stranger by Jane Marcus
  • Jane Dowson
NANCY CUNARD: PERFECT STRANGER, by Jane Marcus. Edited with an introduction and afterword by Jean Mills. Clemson, SC: Clemson University Press, 2020. 256 pp. $120.00 hardback.

In the—sadly now posthumous—words of Jane Marcus, "This book is part of the effort to rethink the radical, the modern, and race in the context of primitivism" (p. 90). To this end, she poses the central question of why Nancy Cunard (1896-1965) withdrew

from the world of high modernism and its little magazines, where she had established herself as a poet, publisher, and editor, for the more exciting world of political activism, polemical poetry, pan-African struggles and Black freedom struggles everywhere, and Surrealism.

(p. 13)

Through her extensive and meticulous analyses, she proves the answer lies in Cunard's deep-rooted anger against injustice. It was this righteous anger that propelled Cunard away from her country, coterie, and creativity towards active politics and polemical reporting.

The stance of the titular "perfect stranger" coheres the five parts, although each of the eleven chapters stands alone as a foray into an aspect of Cunard's work as it interweaves with a multiplicity of other figures, movements, and art forms. For example, in the sixth chapter, "Closet Autobiography: Bones and Stones," Marcus investigates the notion that Cunard's memoirs of Norman Douglas (1954) and George Moore (1956) are coded autobiographies. The persona of the "perfect stranger" thus manifests in various masks and means of chosen liminality, from Cunard's geographical expatriation in France to her artistic asylum in Black culture. The phrase originates in her poem "In Answer to a Reproof" (1919):

                                I the perfect stranger,Outcast and outlaw from the rules of life,True to one law alone, a personal logicThat will not blend with anything, nor bowDown to the general rules.

(p. 71)

The iambic pentameter here mediates a dynamic between regularity and rebellion in which Cunard's "glorious discontent" consists (p. 71). Significantly, Outlaws (1921) was the name of her first poetry publication, and in her long poem Parallax (1925), the poet became the "vagrant" (p. 262).

In part one, "Outlaws: The Making of the Woman Poet as Perfect Stranger," Marcus exposes how Cunard and others were relegated to the outfields of literary practices. These include critical "reproofs" and betrayals by her male contemporaries, who were often friends and colleagues. One day T. S. Eliot is dancing with her and on another mocking her in the satirical Fresca sequence that Pound cut from The Waste Land (1922). [End Page 412] Edgell Rickword, a lover and collaborator, slyly demolished her poetry in an anonymous review. Although undeterred from relationships with men, Cunard frequently found, as Marcus observes, an emotional home in friendships with women, including the lesbian couples Janet Flanner and Solita Solano, and Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland.

As "perfect stranger," Cunard formed a productive solidarity with Black men. Most significant was Henry Crowder, her African American jazz musician lover of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Through her Hours Press in Paris, she published a compilation of modernist poems specially written for his musical compositions in an extraordinary but overlooked pamphlet Henry-Music (1930). Cunard's more notorious pamphlet Black Man and White Ladyship (1931) was a fierce defense of interracial relationships in a racist climate in which a color bar thwarted Cunard and Crowder's dream of traveling to Africa together. Her Negro: An Anthology (1934) was an alternative voyage to the country and a political gesture of solidarity with African peoples globally.

Cunard's Negro is the exemplary precedent for Marcus's ambition to "rethink . . . race in the context of primitivism" (p. 90). Funded by successfully suing British newspapers for their racist libel and slander, Cunard produced this massive collective compendium that stands as a secular Bible of African culture, revolution, and artistic achievement. It bore a textual signature in the poem by Langston Hughes, "I, Too" (1925), which resonates with a popular contemporary hashtag. However, Cunard models an anger where race is more at stake than gender and that prefers fact to feelings for its "personal logic." Over the next three...