Monday, February 22, 2016

Since the dredging of my archives for scurrilous matter is the theme of Freedom to Read Week this year, I thought I might republish a piece I wrote for Arc Poetry Magazine back in 2008. Enjoy, muck misers (and others).

Eskimo Nell: ‘Anon’ takes on Robert Service

Long before literacy was common and print was mechanized, ballads were composed, recited and passed down the generations. Thanks to collectors such as Francis Child, some of these folk ballads, such as “Barbara Allen” and “Sir Patrick Spens” have entered the canon of English literature, even if there is some debate over which version is best. (98 variants of “Barbara Allen” were recorded in Virginia alone.)

In the 17th Centurythe so-called broadside ballad, often humorous and satirical, circulated as a sort of proto-newspaper. Because of its folk origins and populist topicality, the ballad was not seen by many “serious” (viz. educated and well-heeled) poets as a meet vessel for poetry—not, that is, until its literary revival in Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

Since then, a number of poets have used the ballad form quite memorably, including Kipling, Poe, Alfred Noyes and of course Robert Service, particularly in his most famous poems “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” If these latter-day ballads have not ramified in the manner of the old poems, it’s because they were published on paper, so more-or-less authoritative versions have precluded the piecemeal mutation once the norm

But the anonymous ballad didn’t die in the 20th Century. Just as Service drew on the rich tradition of oral balladry for his tales of “strange things done in the midnight sun,” so did the creator(s) of the pornographic satire “Eskimo Nell” draw on Service. Appropriately enough, I first read “Eskimo Nell” in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, in my copy of The Faber Book of Blue Verse—and would occasionally, after a few glasses of illicit liquor, treat friends to a reading of it.

My own poems have, at times, been accused of being indecorously crude in their language and subjects. I’ve had reading hosts advise me to “choose more audience-appropriate work next time”; high-school teachers have asked me to avoid “the f-bomb” when reading to their classes; a CBC radio host once edited out of an interview my reading of a poem about finding two dogs in flagrante delicto. I have a serious soft-spot for raunch and I’m none too fond of taboo. Finding “Eskimo Nell” brought great joy to my heart.

I later learned that the version in my Faber anthology was not the only one out there. One version of Nell’s opening goes:

When a man grows old and his balls grow cold and the end of his nob turns blue,
When it’s bent in the middle like a one-string fiddle, he can tell a tale or two.

So find me a seat and buy me a drink, and a tale to you I’ll tell,
Of Dead-Eye Dick and Mexico Pete, and the gentle Eskimo Nell.

Just like the old oral ballads, however, this is far from the only extant version. The days of a purely oral literature are long gone, but the advent of the Internet in some ways parallels the pluralistic authorship of pre-literate cultures. Here’s another version of Nell’s opening:

When a man grows old, and his balls grow cold,
And the tip of his prick turns blue,
Far from a life of Yukon strife,
He can tell you a tale or two.

So pull up a chair, and stand me a drink,
And a tale to you I will tell,
About Dead-Eye Dick and Mexican Pete,
And a harlot named Eskimo Nell.

I like some parts of each version better. The original and evocative simile “Bent in the middle like a one-string fiddle” is infinitely superior to the rather banal “Far from a life of Yukon strife,” but “a harlot named Eskimo Nell” seems far more apposite than the (perhaps ironic) “gentle Eskimo Nell.”
Here’s another variant:

When men grow old and their balls get cold and the tips of their knobs turn blue,
Looking back on life, 'midst struggle and strife, they could tell you a tale or two. 
So buy me a drink and I will think and a tale to you I'll tell
Of Dead-Eye Dick and his muscular prick and a whore named Eskimo Nell.

Here, the sidekick Mexican (or Mexico, in some versions) Pete disappears, upstaged—like most other men—by his partner’s membrum virile.
Then there’s this “composite version” edited by some guy online who thinks he knows better (he really just makes a mash of things):

Now way out west where the very best and worst live side by side,
I’ve a tale to tell of Eskimo Nell and the men and women who died.

Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, since no one actually dies in the poem—though there are reports of petits-morts…

The real ballad of Eskimo Nell cannot be said to exist, as such. There are unsubstantiated rumours that Nell was written by a young Noel Coward, but the earliest known print record of it is from a songbook published by South African university students in the 1940s. The poem as a whole varies considerably in length and detail from one version to the next. Were the origins of “Dan McGrew” more obscure, it’s easy to imagine it morphing into a similar multitude of near-copies. But if “Dan McGrew” can’t be re-written, it can certainly be written back at. Many have dismissed “Eskimo Nell” as disgusting doggerel, tittilatingly funny at best, offensively sexist and racist at worst. Others see it as being more subtly subversive, and I’m inclined to agree. This is a far more complex poem than, say, “There once was a man from Nantucket.”

Whereas Service’s tall tales feature the exploits—and exploitations—of rugged white men in the vast feminine wilds of the Yukon, the eponymous heroine of “Eskimo Nell”—a native female voice markedly absent in Service’s boreal ballads—literally, and effortlessly, unmans what anthologist Tom Atkinson calls “two of the most machismo characters in all of literature”:

But Dead-Eye Dick would not come quick; he meant to conserve his power,
When in the mind he’d grind and grind for more than a couple of hours.

She lay for a while with a subtle smile while the grip of her cunt grew keener,
Then giving a sigh she sucked him dry with the ease of a vacuum cleaner.

She performed this feat in a way so neat as to set at complete defiance
The primary cause and the basic laws that govern sexual science.

Granted, this is far from a radically feminist scenario, but Nell’s gifts verbal as well as sexual, as she zings Mexico Pete thus:

“When next, my friend, you two intend to sally forth for fun,
Get Dead-Eye Dick a sugar stick, and buy yourself a bun.”

The suggestion of the pathetically phallic (“sugar stick”) and yonic (“bun”) imagery of those lines is that Dick and Pete would be better off fucking each other than taking on a real pro like Nell (a neat underscoring of the homoerotic tensions latent in Service’s work). And the anonymous authorship lets us imagine a woman writing this riposte to Service’s testosterone-laden gold-rush epics. In this version of the poem, as in many others, Nell has the last word. Of course, with an anonymous ballad, the last word is never really written.

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