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Open Canon: Aline Murray Kilmer
by Janna Grace. A century after the publication of her first volume, Aline Murray Kilmer’s brief Wikipedia page introduces her with the fact that “today, her work is largely forgotten.”
In 1919, one year after the end of World War I, and a year before women were granted the right to vote in the United States, 31-year-old Aline Murray Kilmer published her debut poetry collection, Candles that Burn. The collection was well-received and displayed the author’s keen sense that though gendered roles and dualities governed her life, neither negated nor subsumed nuance. While some of her early poems seem simplistic or verge on melodrama, closer analysis reveals striking complexities. While many of her lauded contemporaries approached issues like patriotism or love with a fierce one-sidedness and lack of depth, Kilmer’s poetry reveled in ambiguity; she thrilled in dichotomy. And though some argued that her small success was linked to her famous poet husband and his death in World War I, formal reviews of her work applauded her lyrical style and sardonic observations. In the concluding poem of Candles that Burn entitled “My Mother,” the speaker catches glimpses of her mother and grandmother reflected in her bedroom mirror throughout the day, yet it is what she sees at night that haunts the final line. When the tired parent rises to feed her baby this time, she is met instead with her dead child’s face peering out from the glass. This moment encapsulates a running theme in many of Kilmer’s works: the loss of legacy. Her child would never grow to one day reflect Kilmer, just as her poetry might fail to make a mark in the world. Looking back on her life, she had good reason to feel this way, even with a string of early successes.
Though she was arguably more talented than her famous and much-anthologized husband Joyce Kilmer, little remains beyond her poetry to gain insight into Kilmer’s life and feelings. Born into a literary family in 1888, Kilmer sold her first poem at the age of eleven to St. Nicholas magazine. By her mid-twenties, her poetry had been published in numerous well-regarded sources, including Harper’s, The Smart Set, and Good Housekeeping. And though she had established herself in the literary world before Candles that Burn’s debut, by the time of its publication, she was better known as Joyce Kilmer’s widow. What is known of Kilmer’s biography though reveals a string of calamities that became a springboard for her creativity. Two years before the publication of Candles that Burn, Kilmer’s fourth child, Rose, died from complications due to polio. Twelve days later, Kilmer gave birth to her fifth. She was 29 years old, and the year was 1917. America had declared war on Germany, and a month after their daughter’s death, Kilmer’s husband chose to leave a successful literary career to enlist with the 165th Infantry Regiment. Less than a year after Joyce set foot in France, Kilmer was a widow, and her four surviving children were fatherless.
Maybe partially due to this turn of events, Kilmer’s poetry explores an unusual tension regarding romantic love, lust, and betrayal that mirrors modern sensibilities. In her second collection, Vigils, she analyzes the uneven levels of affection inevitable in most relationships, and laments, seemingly in reference to her husband, Joyce, her inability to return the depth of his passion. She expresses guilt that she didn’t love him enough when he was alive, wonders if his death is a sort of punishment for her failings, and wishes that she had loved him as deeply as he had loved her. Though she repeatedly chastises herself for not cherishing him, in “Perversity” she acknowledges it simply wasn’t in her to do so. Intrigued by this pattern of loving those who do not love her, she concludes: “Only the God who made my wild heart knows/ Why this should be.” Kilmer then warns or perhaps teases those who adore her: “I’ll keep your love alive and wondering/ until you die.” In “Shards” Kilmer hints at indiscretion and, for the time, a shameful inability to commit, while in “Honey Witch” she admits that though she has played the part of a princess, she hides in towers and behind masks. She wonders if she is haunted, knows she is flawed, and admits that her “goodness was all lies.” Finally, she ends the collection with an early rejection of the male gaze when she decides not to love at all.
Kilmer’s work also veered from the mainstream with her transparent depiction of motherhood. She presents the role of caretaker as a blessing filled with annoyances and chides herself for not being more grateful for her surviving children. Kilmer challenges the concept of “mother” as both an expanding and retracting phenomenon and assesses the difficulties of parenthood with refreshing and scathing honesty. In “The Mother’s Helper” Kilmer examines the loss of identity as well as the monotony inherent in parenting. She begins with generic observations of how wonderful her children are as a set-up for the main point: her wish to surrender to her own desires. As she fulfills her domestic duties, she says:
But still every night as I sit at my sewing,
My mind turned adrift on its own pleasures going,
Underneath my wild thoughts is a steady prayer flowing:
St. Brigid, please keep
My babies asleep!
Kilmer went on to release three more poetry volumes, a collection of personal essays, and two children's books, and participated in lecture tours to support her family. She became the vice president of the Catholic Poetry Society of America, moved in literary circles, and enjoyed twenty-year friendships and correspondences with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sara Teasdale and grammarian Eleanor Gould Packard. Throughout the 1920s, Kilmer was the subject of positive media mentions and reviews, and though she did not publish any collections after 1929, she received an impressive obituary in The New York Times when she died in 1941.
Kilmer’s poetry examined traditionally gendered “women’s issues,” and often found them unpalatable. She challenged conventions of her time and sometimes bordered on the irreverent, but somehow avoided scrutiny. This may have been because she dampened her message with religion and gaiety, or perhaps, like other women writers at the time, her observations were overlooked. One media reference offers a glimpse of the attitude even the most talented women writers faced in her era: Kilmer was included in Hemingway's misogynistic “satirical imitation of T.S. Eliot[’s],” work entitled "The Lady Poets with Footnotes." This short piece disparaged her skills, alongside other greats like Teasdale and Pulitzer-Prize winning writers Edna St. Vincent Millay and Zoë Akins. A quick perusal of her body of work, relevant over a century later, puts this characterization to rest.
Dedication to her craft reveals an evolution in skill from one collection to the next that complemented Aline Murray Kilmer’s deepening exploration and understanding of the human experience. When Freud’s theories were just appearing, she showed an uncanny ability to interrogate the subconscious and at times even skirted anti-patriotic stances. The futility and tragedy of war had destroyed her family, and unlike her husband and contemporaries, Kilmer refused to embrace the illusion of glory. The irony remains that the fate of Kilmer’s nuanced contributions to the literary canon mirrors that of her daughter’s ghostly visage in the looking glass. Both were luminous, both were fleeting. One could argue that this is because she was a woman or that many of the themes she portrayed were more traditionally gendered, but whatever the reason, and as is often the case in her writings, she seemed wryly aware of her poetry’s fate. Although today many of her poems can be found on the internet, Kilmer’s contribution has been ignored by scholars, and none of her books remain in print. A century after the publication of her first volume, Aline Murray Kilmer’s brief Wikipedia page introduces her with the fact that “today, her work is largely forgotten.”