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This report is taken from PN Review 224, Volume 41 Number 6, July - August 2015.

Le Douanier Rousseau Doris Lessing
I found this poem among Doris Lessing’s typescripts at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, in the folder for an unperformed play called ‘Johnny’s Luck’, which was labelled ‘very early’. Although Lessing was celebrated primarily for her fiction, she placed a number of poems in magazines in the 1940s, before she was a published novelist. This poem (reproduced by permission of the Harry Ransom Center and the Estate of Doris Lessing) shows a characteristic preoccupation with how the artist’s vision can be reconciled with being both the ‘warm examiner’ and ‘patient prisoner’ of  everyday life.

What brilliant yellow tigers in the plain daylight!
He saw them, he, the little customs clerk?
And palely naked ladies on wild beds of bark?
And ominous dark castles visioned at midnight?

Exotic birds, and glossy monkeys, spiky plants?
No, not he: no startled travellers
Opened their trunks to find, more queer and marvellous
Than all that they had seen, the ghost of a romance

Escaping in a whiff of scent, or steamy dream
Of some imagined jungle, bred in his brain
While he worked in decent black, to ease the strain
Of counting the hours and documents, long ream on ream.

Turn the page and see the Sunday family
Taking the air, posed neatly one by one;
Or the fourteen polished soldiers leaning on their gun;
Or, each leaf outlined, the homely country ...

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