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An inviting overture to poet/novelist Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith: A Selection, edited by Hermione Lee. London and Boston: Faber & Faber. 224 pp. $6.95 paper. Stevie Smith was born in 1902 in Hull, England. After school she worked as a secretary and assistant to magazine publishers Newnes and Pearson for 30 years. She lived with her aunt. People who saw the play about her by Hugh Whitemore sometimes think she committed suicide, but she didn't. She did, however, write poetry about death, like Emily Dickinson. She also wrote three novels and over a dozen books of poetry and edited a book of verse for children.

Her poems have found their way into the Oxford anthologies of modern and contemporary verse, among others. Seamus Heaney, Christopher Ricks, and Philip Larkin have essayed to explain why they like her poems. In 1969 she was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. When she died, in 197l, she had loyal readers and fierce defenders.

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This fine selection, edited and with a superb introduction by Hermione Lee for Faber & Faber, makes available to Americans representative pages of prose and verse. Sturdily bound and attractively priced, the book will attract new readers to Stevie Smith. It includes, scattered through the texts, the cunningly naive line drawings, doodles to all appearances, that occupied her left hand over the years.

The drawings build curiosity. So does the funny sound these verses make (she rhymes, for example, woman and human -- and makes a point!). The passages from her novels may remind the reader of Joyce and Beckett as they capture the eddying of consciousness. She begins a piece on George Grosz thus: ``My mind was full of art and I had a nostalgie to be looking at these high-up and elevating canvases and there was especially the one that is called `Haute Ecole.' '' Run-ons, the mix of vulgar (``high-up'') and elevated (``elevating'') diction, frequent borrowings from French, the ardent posture: These are typical. They, too, pique curiosity.

Go any deeper into Stevie Smith, and you may wish you hadn't. She was one on whom the black ox hath trod. There is a finality to her writing that silences all snooty objectors:

There is a face I know too well,

A face I dread to see,

So vain it is, so eloquent

Of all futility. Move over, Emily Dickinson! Not only do these two poets share the hymn form, they share the courage that should go with it.

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Stevie Smith's world was as astringent as that of a 2nd-century Stoic or a 5th-century Christian. A great poet, Stevie Smith is naturally a fierce moralist: ``I love Death,'' she writes, ``because he breaks the human pattern and frees us from pleasures too prolonged as well as from the pains of this world.''

No, Stevie Smith did not fear death. The final clarity of her style makes a mockery of death. Her love of life included an understanding of death. And she was proud. Her great poem of consolation, ``Our Bog is Dood,'' says goodbye to those whose eyes grew wild when she asked them to explain:

Oh sweet it was to leave them then,

And sweeter not to see,

And sweetest of all to walk alone

Beside the encroaching sea,

The sea that soon should drown them all,

That never yet drowned me.

Stevie Smith's writing is a true life-companion, a viaticum, a friend for those who want more out of friendship than compromises. It is, to use her word, ``high up.''

Tom D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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