“A Crooked Slice of Bread”: Mary Devenport O’Neill’s Dream Poems

Modernism and psychoanalysis were part of the same cultural evolution which provoked profound changes in literature and society in the early years of the twentieth century.  In 1929, when Mary Devenport O’Neill published Prometheus and Other Poems, many modernist literary narratives were influenced by revelations of psychoanalysis. Her poetry often responded to Freudian thought as well as recent and contemporary European art and music, consciously challenging the dominant aesthetic of Irish poetry. Aware of her own internal censors who suppress narratives of passion and emotion, Devenport uses innovative poetic forms to express dissent from repressive constructions of feminine subjectivity. Modernist poetry often used the vocabulary of psychoanalysis and, according to Jane Dowson, this development registered “the widespread reading of the newly translated psychology among intellectuals” (174). Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was translated into English in 1913 and Carl Jung’s The Theory of Psychoanalysis was published in 1912. Many tropes and subjects important to modernism are also those of psychoanalysis – “decentring the subject, crises in narratives of the self, biological and scientific knowledge, classicism, sexuality, [and] embodiment” (Valentine 31).

In Prometheus, Devenport includes a section entitled “Dream Poems” which she introduces with the qualification that the poems “have no symbolic meaning except in so far as dreams may be in themselves symbolic” (47). Her ideas about the creative unconscious are revealed in these poems through a subversive message to the reader. According to Rainer Emig, modernist texts and psychoanalytic treatment assume the same “initial position” as both require the act of perception and interpretation to take place before they achieve any significance (135). Literary interpretation is based on the premise that the “text does not stand for itself, but instead that ‘underneath’ it lurks something the text represents and hides at the same time” (135). Thematically, the dream poems respond to literary and cultural hierarchical systems, interrogating social structures which imposed regulations on women. In Irish 1920s nationalist culture, women’s creativity, although accepted and encouraged on one level, was also treated as second-rate. The “Dream Poems” emphasise Devenport’s unease about exclusion from the world of art because of gender and also anxiety about embodiment, sexuality and fertility.

Jung and Freud used dream imagery in psychoanalysis but they used the term “symbol” differently: Freud assigned fixed meanings to dream images while Jung used a method of “amplification by archetypal parallels” (Mattoon 98). Without oversimplifying the complexities of psychoanalysis by assigning specific Freudian or Jungian meanings, this discussion reveals Devenport’s range of techniques for establishing her distinctive – and distinctively feminine – perspective in response to the male-centred omniscient lyric viewpoints prevalent in Romanticism and Revival poetry as well as in some articulations of modernism.

In “The Crooked Slice of Bread” the dreamer views the female body, and female creativity, within constraints imposed by early twentieth-century society. This frames a discussion about religion and female sexuality, debating the difficulties of conforming to rigours which Irish society imposed on the female body.

A convent parlour with a floor
Of shining boards and a glass garden door,
A wide ring of slippery chairs,
Saints on the wall – a young saint with a skull,
An old saint thin with prayers –
Sea-shells upon mats of coloured wool;

An oval table set with bread
And wine the colour of foxglove
And little vases,
Such as children dress their altars with in May;
In these I poured the wine,
But why did he who got the first vase shove
His vase away?
I stopped pouring the wine;
And then as if a rain-cloud spoke he said,
‘You’ve given me a crooked slice of bread.’

I turned and found a loaf so stale and dried
‘Twas hard as sandstone, and a knife
As thin and waving as a blade of grass;
And then while centuries seemed to pass
All things had faded but the task I tried.
Do I in some less palpable life
That slides along one side of this
(Using the force and strength I miss
In this life here) work hard instead
To cut that straight smooth even slice of bread? (57)

A religious institution establishes the narrative in the first stanza, introducing a discussion about religion and sexuality: a communal space, the scrubbed cleanliness of a convent parlour, and an opening to nature as a place of fertility represented by a glass garden door. This scene would have been familiar to Devenport who lived in the Dominican Convent in Eccles Street, Dublin during her early adult life. Freud proposes that “separate portions of a house may stand for separate portions of the body” but each dreamer has personal symbolism therefore the scene may have had specific meaning for the dreamer alone (156-157). The image of “Saints on the wall- a young saint with a skull, /An old saint thin with prayers“ uses the skull of vanitas allegorical still-life where it acts as a reminder of the “transience of human life” while “thin with prayers” recalls chaste, religious abstinence (Lucie-Smith 223). Two unusual combinations of objects appear, these are perhaps a known place or an image from childhood, starting with: “A wide ring of slippery chairs, “conjuring up the uncomfortable proposition of not being able to sit securely yet being surrounded, and a school class-room with natural objects placed on something crafted and home-made: “Sea-shells upon mats of coloured wool.”

Symbols of the blood and body of Christ, Holy Communion, “An oval table set with bread/and wine,” are linked with spring as well as with sacrifice, evoked by “altars . . . in May” (57). Devenport’s imagery employs the poisonous purple hedgerow plant, foxglove, to describe the wine’s colour and this is poured into “little vases” on the altar (57). The vase may symbolise the female as container and the foxglove, female genitalia, when the dreamer remembers “In these I poured the wine” (57). The word ‘foxglove’ reveals deeper meaning as the fox is known for its cunning, and a glove covers the hand. So the foxglove may also represent something surreptitious or underhand. This reflects Freud’s theory that a dreamer’s intention is often revealed through “the way multiple uses are made of a single word” (Walker 110).

After establishing the poem’s iconography in the first stanza, the poem shifts to an active persona who uses the lyrical ‘I.’ This speaker makes an offering of blood, symbolised by the wine, and then questions its rejection, because the male persona has shoved the vase away. The phrase “first vase” suggests that this was the first contribution of many or that there were other people who expected to receive this gift (57). The male persona’s refusal of the wine may be linked to the idea of the foxglove being poisonous or the dreamer’s negative self-valuation. Valentine proposes that modernist writing is “essentially concerned with sexuality and sexual politics” and the speaker appears to offer the female body, and perhaps a body of creative work, as a gift to the male (48). This is bestowed in a religious sense, symbolised by a strong sense of the Eucharist in Holy Communion, by pouring the blood into a vase and giving it to the male persona, only to have it rejected. This gift could also represent female creative contribution to the world of art rejected because its femininity was poisonous.

The male persona talks “as if a rain cloud spoke” repeating and emphasising the title of the poem: “You’ve given me a crooked slice of bread,” and in the already established iconography of the poem, this bread is the body of the dreamer and perhaps the body of work proffered to the male literary establishment. When the vase is rejected, the dreamer “stop[s] pouring the wine.” Here, the subject shifts to the “crooked bread” which remains the theme for the remainder of the poem. The dreamer describes that she found “a loaf so stale and dried/’Twas hard as sandstone, and a knife/As thin and waving as a blade of grass.” The dreamer has been provided with an inadequate piece of equipment with which to cut an appropriate straight slice of bread to offer the male persona. The thin, trembling knife may be a phallic symbol which the speaker lacks, being a woman. The dream then narrows to this scene when the dreamer recounts that “while centuries seemed to pass/All things had faded but the task I tried,” because she is attempting to make the body of work or her body — symbolised by bread — acceptable to the male persona (57). In the final stanza, the speaker, now awake and reflecting on the dream, asks whether ”in some less palpable life” she is able to perform in a more acceptable way in order to cut “that straight smooth even slice of bread” (57). The adjectives “smooth and even” which are used to describe the slice of bread could also describe an artwork. This poem can be interpreted as an expression of female physical inadequacy regarding female fertility and as a female artist’s anxiety about offering her female body of work to the male-dominated world of art.

Devenport’s “Dream Poems” respond to expectations created by a male-centred literary canon which often designated the work of a female poet as second-rate. “The Crooked Slice of Bread” plays out Devenport’s anxieties about perceived deficiencies in her own fulfilment of assigned gender roles. Gendered binaries caused conflict for women writing within a system which positioned them as emotional against rationality, perceived as masculine. Devenport’s powerful “Dream Poems” express the struggle and sense of difficulty experienced by a woman poet determined to achieve a creative voice. The poem invites a review of its themes and symbols on this basis, but it remains purposely indeterminate in concord with the unconscious it paradoxically reveals and hides.

Works Cited

Devenport O’Neill, Mary. Prometheus and Other Poems. London: Jonathan Cape, 1929. Print.

Dowson, Jane. Women, Modernism and British Poetry, 1910-1939: Resisting Femininity. Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate, 2002. Print.

Emig, Rainer. Modernism in Poetry: Motivations, Structures, and Limits. Studies in Twentieth-century Literature. London: Longman, 1995. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. London: Allen & Unwin, 1954. Print.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984. Print.

Mattoon, Mary Ann. Understanding Dreams. Rev. ed. Dallas: Spring, 1984. Print.

Valentine, Kylie. Psychoanalysis, Psychiatry and Modernist Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Walker, John A. “Dream-Work and Art-Work.” Leonardo 16, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 109–114. Print.