Nora May French, 1906
NORA MAY FRENCH
Nora May French was born in 1881 and if
mood-stabilizing prescriptives had been available back then
she might not have died quite so soon thereafter, in 1907. And even without them
she might have lived past age 27 if those latter-day Victorian
Romantics she consorted with—George Sterling and the San Francisco
Bohemians—had not been so eager to glorify the idea of suicide, and
to keep the option close at hand. Nora May French became the first
among them to crack open her vial and taste the essence of bitter
Though French is now associated with early 20th
century artistic circles in Carmel and San Francisco, the arts
community in the Arroyo Seco area, now Northeast L.A., embraced her
first, and it’s here she published her earliest poems. French moved
from her native New York to Southern California and soon joined the
Arroyo Seco literary gatherings held at El Alisal. Her work
appeared in Out West, in its day an important publication for
national political commentary and Western arts and culture. Mary
Austin, an occasional participant in the El Alisal
activities, declared that she knew of two women whose talent equaled
Jack London’s: Nora May French and, of course, Austin herself.
Had French carried on another dozen years or so
she might have caught that gusty Trade Wind from the literary
end of the Modernist movement, with its injunctions Make it new!
and Go in fear of abstractions. Even so, her small body
of work has not aged as badly as the offerings from other more
celebrated poets of her day. Some unaccountable melancholy laces
nearly all her poems, and its very frailty seems to erect an
invisible barrier against false sentimentality, preciousness, and
inflated grandiose gestures. — S. Lummis
Low-arched above me, as I moved, the hollowed air was clear;
Beyond was whiteness, dim and strange, and spectral shapes drew near.
Upon the little shore of brown that touched the misty sea,
Upon the shadowy borderland one paused and looked at me,
Then hurried on with greeting smile and sudden vivid face!
A friend had started into life within my magic space.
Into the world of ghosts again I watched him fade away—
First black he was, then dim he was, then merged in formless gray.
—Los Angeles, October 1903 (first published in Land of
Ave Atque Vale
It gathers where the moody sky is bending,
It stirs the air along familiar ways—
A sigh for strange things forever ending,
For beauty shrinking in thee alien days.
Now nothing is the same; old visions move me:
I wander silent through the waning land,
And find for youth and little leaves to love me
The old, old lichen crumbling in my hand.
What shifting films of distance fold you, blind
The windy eve of dreams, I cannot tell.
I know they grope through some strange mist to find you,
My hands that give you Greeting and Farewell.
Because my love has wave and foam for speech,
And never words, and yearns as water grieves,
with white arms curving on a listless beach,
And murmurs inarticulate as leaves—
I am become beloved of the night—
Her huge sea-lands ineffable and far
Hold crouched and splendid Sorrow, eyed with light,
And Pain who beads his forehead with a star.
California Poetry from the Gold Rush
to the Present, Heyday Books)