February 16, 2012

Death of Pearl Rivers: "gentle poet"

When Eliza Jane Poitevant Holbrook Nicholson died in 1896, her obituary carried her more familiar alternative name first: Pearl Rivers. That pseudonym was affixed to her various journalism pieces, poetry, and other writings. As the New Orleans Picayune noted quite poetically on February 16, 1896 (the day after her death):

Pearl Rivers, the gentle poet, the brilliant journalist, the loving mother, the true and loyal friend has passed beyond our knowledge and our reach over to the other side. Just as the golden sunshine drifted into her window, death kissed her eyelids down, and she fell into that sleep that knows no waking.

The obituary notice went on to describe how this woman who died at age 52 had accomplished so much. Born in Mississippi, she found an early connection to nature (the newspaper called her "a sweet, tender little poet laureate of the woods") and took the name of a local river when she began publishing her poems. It was her poetry that attracted the man who became her first husband, Alva Holbrook, owner of the New Orleans Picayune. She became a writer for that newspaper and, despite some difficulty in their marriage, inherited the publication (and his substantial debt) upon his death in 1876. She married twice more before her own death 20 years later (her third husband died less than two weeks before her).

Pearl Rivers was recognized as a powerful and influential woman, being the only woman who owned a major metropolitan daily newspaper at the time. In their obituary of her, the Picayune referred to her as a queen. The duties and responsibilities of that role is likely what kept her from publishing many books of poems; only one, Lyrics by Pearl Rivers, was published during her lifetime. Most contemporaries praised her as a gentle, pastoral poet. They apparently missed the subtext — surprising because works like "Under the Snow" are hardly subtle:

Deep, deep, deep,
  Quickly, so none should know,
I buried my warm love stealthily
  Under the winter snow.

For you had coldly said,
  Coldly and carelessly,
"Bury your love or let it live,
  It is all the same to me."

I tore it out of my heart!
  I crushed it within my hand!
It cried to you in its agony
  For help, but you came not; and

It struggled within my grasp;
  It fought with my woman's will;
It kneeled to my woman's pride with tears
  Then silent it lay, and still.

I knew that it was not dead,
  But I said: "It soon will die,
Buried under the winter snow,
  Under the winter sky."

I kissed it tenderly,
  Just once, for the long ago;
Then shrouded it with your cold, cold words,
  Colder than all the snow!

Deep, deep, deep,
  Quickly, so none should know,
I buried my warm love stealthily
  Under the winter snow.

Then with my murderous hands
  I raised up the heavy stone
Of Silence over my buried love,
  Lest the world should hear it moan.

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