Because I Have Not Existed

The Collected Works of Kathleen Tankersley Young reintroduces an enigmatic poet at the center of American Modernism.
Collage featuring a framed oval portrait of Kathleen Tankersley Young, a bunch of dried flowers, a watermark in the shape of Mexico, and three blue circles.

Kathleen Tankersley married Henry Coulter Young on February 1, 1921, two hours after her mother, Mary Tankersley, passed away. According to a widely syndicated news bulletin, Mary’s dying wish was that her 18-year-old daughter go through with the long-postponed nuptials. The pastor who married the young couple officiated at Mary’s funeral the next day. It almost seems as though this squib of publicity was another of Kathleen’s many fictions; perhaps Mary Tankersley’s dying wish was the first glimmer of the future poet’s wild, self-mythologizing imagination. Kathleen Young’s own voice didn’t emerge, however, until 1926, five years later, when she published her first poem in the Houston Post-Dispatch. In the intervening period, everyone else around her died. Her father, Henry Martin Tankersley, was killed in an accident in 1924: the Fort-Worth Star Telegram reported that he was “thrown beneath the wheels of a wagon when mules he was driving ran away.” Less than a year later, in February 1925, her young husband died of tuberculosis. Within a decade, Young herself was dead, officially from suicide.

It’s hard to know how much these losses gave rise to the persistent depression, anhedonia, and obsession with death that haunt her work. No doubt her grief was exacerbated by the poor health that afflicted her for at least the last five years of her life. Her intermittent illnesses—potentially lung and nerve conditions and a stomach hemorrhage likely brought on by heavy drinking—sometimes left her incapacitated and unable to work. Death, which had been so close to her, was always nearing, and she despaired that she “could not possibly hope to live to create the things that were gnawing at her mind.” Yet, although many of her letters describe her health problems, none of her surviving correspondence (all of it dated after 1928) ever alludes to her life before 1926. There is a certain kind of pain that, for a certain kind of person, finds expression only in art.

So it was that between 1926 and 1933, loss became the void into which Young wrote her poetry and herself into the world. Absence is both the material of her verse and the condition that makes her ardent commitment to that verse possible: without a husband or an immediate family, she could travel around the country as she pleased. She moved often between New York, Texas, and, later, Mexico and Panama. In her attachments, the widowed Young was keen to preserve her autonomy; she seemed pleased, when she married again in 1929, that her union—performed in Mexico—wasn’t “quite legal” but just official enough that “no one will dare say so to our faces when we come back.” Within days of her wedding, she was already planning what she’d do “if it doesnt [sic] stick”; even while her dress was being made, she mused about possibly getting a divorce. She didn’t need one, however, because Air Force Lieutenant David Jerome Ellinger was told before their wedding that his wife would need half of each year to herself. It’s unclear whether it was only during those six months that Young continued her numerous love affairs with both men and women.

Of course, it’s possible that she would have won her freedom and restless peregrination for herself in spite of her family even had they lived. However, early losses also—and perhaps more importantly—gave Young a kind of clean slate, a tabula rasa primed for her to reinvent (or, more often, obscure) herself. Young often refused to provide biographical information to the magazines that published her; when she entered her second marriage, she implored a friend: “PLEASE do not breathe it to a soul … I dont [sic] want anyone to know it who knows me through my writing.” She lied about her birthplace (citing Cincinnati and New York instead of rural West Texas), her education (Columbia, Harvard, the University of Texas at Austin, none of which she seems to have attended), and possibly even the existence of Eric Naul, the coeditor with whom she supposedly founded the Modern Editions Press. Editors and scholars have found no trace of Naul. In fact, Young was so adept at obscuring her identity that her first posthumous publication, more than 50 years after her death, was in an anthology of women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She had published an erotic poem addressed to a Black man in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, and although Young is not the only white poet to have been featured in the magazine, scholarly encounters with that poem and its placement presumably informed other readings of the blackness and darkness that appears throughout her poetry, most likely as a metaphor for depression. Census records from both sides of Young’s family suggest that she was and would have understood herself to be white.

Young delighted in her own self-making. In one letter, she glories over the “many stories that are being circulated around the village,” imagining how one of her lovers “would have been shocked clear through if he had realized the depth or truth of any of them.” These flights of fancy masked, perhaps, how difficult carrying the weight of her past must have been: “Say it is easy,” she wrote to a friend in a vulnerable moment, “turn yourself about … go here and there: its [sic] simple to kill a self … a dozen selves … but they follow and stand at my shadow and are my shadow and have something to do with what I am doing.” Only writing and seeing her work published, she explained, “relieves the pressure of futility from my mind.”

Yet she also knew, though rarely admitted, that the rootlessness that enabled her to seek inspiration and space for her writing might also hamper her chances of literary immortality. She diagnosed the problem in her first book:

When I die I shall not have died
Because I have not existed
In your mind perhaps, within the minds of others,
I have moved and been consumed by movement

She was right: for nearly 90 years, her poetry was virtually unread, tucked away in little magazines and fragile pamphlets that slept mostly undisturbed on the shelves of rare-book libraries. She had “moved and been consumed by movement.” A new book, The Collected Works of Kathleen Tankersley Young (Sublunary Editions, 2022), gathers her up and fixes her in place. Edited by Erik La Prade and Joshua Rothes, The Collected Works assembles most of her extant writing, including the three books she published in her lifetime: Ten Poems (1930), The Dark Land (1932), and The Pepper Trees (1932). The collection also features all of Young’s periodical poetry and a strong selection of unpublished verse. Although Young sometimes despaired of her work ever being read—“Why are these things written no on[e] sees them … they rot away and tarnish in silence”—she was also resolutely focused on the work itself, on reading, writing, and placing her poems wherever she could, no matter how esoteric the magazine. “I don’t write for fame (such as it is) or to impress Gertrude Stein,” Young wrote to her publisher friends. “By god I sing for the joy of singing … and let it be printed where it will.”


In English-language poetry, the wind is traditionally a figure representing the poet’s inspiration; air—or rather, breath—makes the metaphor of the word’s etymology literal, a breathing-in. Ethereal, free, invisible, and inexplicable, the wind comes and goes and moves whomever it pleases. Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Shelley often imagined a poet as a kind of instrument whose sympathetic strings vibrated under the wind’s influence, all of them moved, in Coleridge’s words, by “one intellectual breeze.” In Young’s poetry, the wind may carry these connotations but is additionally a metaphor for her restlessness. In the second poem of Ten Poems (the poems are numbered but mostly untitled), “the wind” travels from the cold North to the tropical South, from the top of the poem to its close; the wind holds the poem together even as it emphasizes the distance between the poem’s you and its I. Shelley imagines the west wind connecting the vast reaches of the globe, giving the poet a voice that transcends borders and speaks in universal terms. Young’s wind, however, belongs to no one and only heightens the speaker’s sense of alienation, confusion, and negation:

Orchids         orchids         are as nothing
Now that you are walking through the snowfall winds
Walking through the blue froststreets
Dreaming of fires, dreaming of sleep:
Orchids         orchids         are as nothing
When you never come:
But the streams keep flowing, and the rain,
Over the jungle trees tangled with heavy moon:
Orchids are as nothing,
And the wind from the northern countries, tempered by water,
Tempered by tropic land,
Is not your wind, this wind tearing the orchids,
Tangling their heads:
My sleep is not a thick sleep,
But a waking, and a knowing,
A confusion of sleep, orchids, I: all nothing
Dead in the thick shell of oblivion.

Everything in this poem is disconnected—physically (the speaker and her addressee), logically (effect separated from cause), even grammatically (the winding syntax splitting subject from verb, verb from object). Part of the satisfaction of the poem is the way Young, near the close, brings together its two prevailing but uncoordinated images, and the way the diminishment of the orchids is tied to the destructive power of the wind. Young exceeds her resolution, however, so this brief moment of contact gives way to “oblivion,” a much deeper isolation from sense and contact, a final (in both senses of the word) turn to the alienation that is the poem’s mode and theme. Much of Young’s poetry, especially Ten Poems, speaks to this sense of estrangement, exploring a rupture between the speaker and her environment, and by implication, between the speaker and the intertwined personal and cultural histories one can have when rooted in a place.

However, the way Young holds this poem of disconnection together also exemplifies what is perhaps her greatest gift as a poet: her mastery of repetition and variation. “Orchids” shows what she could do even within a relatively tight space. As the poem progresses, the refrain begins to dissolve; the incantation readers have come to expect—“Orchids       orchids           are as nothing”—is reduced: the phrase becomes fleeter, without repetition, without dramatic spacing. Then at last the verb falls away, and like the flowers themselves, the words wind up tangled in the poem’s final lines. Part of Young’s genius is the way she crafts this tangle: the refrain can be a structuring device, like the skeleton of a poem, repeated at regular intervals, but it can also be a circulatory system, with arteries, vessels, and capillaries all distributing some vital substance through the body of the work. Many of her best poems are a master class in this use of form, in what happens to the refrain under the influence of literary modernism. Sometimes Young dissolves the phrase into its component words, scattering them throughout the poem, only to have them join up again later, with a slight difference. In other poems that rely less on a full refrain as a structuring device, the scaffolding turns out to be a dense network of repeated words: color words, nouns, adjectives. In the work of Gertrude Stein, whom Young admired, repetition is an investigation into and an enrichment of the language itself; in Young’s work, by contrast, memory and experience are probed and reexamined, with their cyclicity and volatility the central problem of the poem, forming an unstable core on which the lyric self trembles over nonexistence—or at least incoherence.

It is hard to replicate with excerpts just how intricately these reexaminations are crafted because their effect is produced over time, as the lines are refracted across the poem, resonating differently in each new context. In “Preface to a Letter” and “Chronicle,” the slippage that occurs from one refrain to the next—differences in lineation or a substituted adjective—suggests that the problem is always one of differentiation, an attempt to pin down and ground experience in its specificity so being and non-being, the past and the present, and the different objects of a dull world can be rendered distinct. In “Preface,” the problem is particularly feminine, tied to a cycle of maturation and erasure. The speaker’s first of three reminiscences focuses on her childhood, on the models of femininity she took in—girls “carrying roses / … to the woman / Whose hair flamed crimson,” the Virgin Mary, and her mother:

Later I am consumed
With piano practice in the evening,
Lighting a candle above me on the piano,
Thinking of the Virgin Mary,
While mother weeps (I do not understand)
For the notes dropping
From my thin hands that shall be taught
To wear bright rings,
To carry roses to flaming women:
She weeps softly, and the notes go on dropping,
I, saying, Ave Maria, Hail Mary, Blessed are thou,
To the end.

In the poem’s refrain, the speaker hears pianos played out of windows: first “the pianos begin / […] / To give forth mundane notes,” then they “shed their pallid untimed notes,” and finally we catch them “tossing their brittle notes.” Mundane, pallid untimed, or brittle; given, shed, or tossed—the notes are destined for obscurity as are the hands taught to wear rings, which leave “no prints” on the objects they have touched. Written as an address—each refrain begins with the vocative “Beloved”—there is something of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock in this poem of artistic anxiety, built on the observation of insignificant, fleeting detail, of the emptiness of the private self trained for a certain kind of semi-public domestic existence. Yet when Prufrock hears “the music from a farther room,” it is part of a scene of tedious repetition from which he longs to escape; he laments, in his own shifting refrain, that he has “known them all already, known them all”: he has known the eyes, the arms, “the voices dying with a dying fall”—one woman is much the same as the next. Young’s speaker hears the music and fears that her voice may be just another that Prufrock will not care to hear or remember, trapped in the same sad refrain. The irony of Young’s poem, and Eliot’s, is that the music of this restricted, repetitive existence is what gives the poem its haunting beauty. Young understood, as Eliot perhaps resisted understanding, the sustaining link between her own sadness and her art. “I am in love with blackness and intricate dark growing things,” she once wrote to a friend. “I am in love with brilliancy that comes forth from blackness … and blackness and depth ...”

Young has other styles and other sounds. The Collected Works provides a record of her experimentation, which is more a story of exploration than evolution, a display of her expanding and rotating formal repertoire. In the section of uncollected magazine verse, which is arranged chronologically, Cummings-esque pages in all lowercase give way to rhyme and majusculation. It is a study in the difference that tone and form can make to see “Spring Poem” (Blues, April 1929) next to “Poem” (Scepter, April 1929). The first reads:

in the old man’s mouth a   s e e d   had grown
and in the cold darkness the roots went downward in his soft brain:
nothing ever flowered but it all died very sweetly:
and there were     n e v e r      any lilylike children
to pull a pale flower from the old man’s head:
the spring came and the      s e e d     was there
and it all rotted     v e r y
                                          sweet l y

The second begins:

The wise are those who die,
Whose bones are thrust
Between the roots, to lie
Thickly sweet in dust;

Both are poems about a flower growing out of a corpse, but the former ironizes everything that the latter affirms: the elegiac compensation of the cycle of death and rebirth, of spring and the seasons, of any kind of futurity, reproductive or literary. “Spring Poem” highlights the truth and decadence that the other poem obscures: it is not the compensatory flowering, which never happens, but the dying itself that gives aesthetic pleasure. Both poems are about skeletons, but one reads like a morbidly comic X-ray of the other.

Eliot and Cummings are among the most obvious of Young’s influences, but her letters detail the wide variety of her reading. In her spare time, she “stud[ied] every minute,” taking in the “modern” poets and “the classics,” meeting as many of her idols as she could and improving her French so she could read Mallarmé, Gide, and Proust. “Study JOYCE,” she advised a friend whom she wanted to modernize, “read Stein but not too much … dont [sic] take her seriously ... read MACLEISH ... read Cummings ... read Williams.” She also networked prodigiously, both on her own behalf and on behalf of Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms, started by her friend and fellow Southerner Charles Henri Ford, which she helped edit. Due as much to coincidence as to the talent and entrepreneurship of its editors, the short-lived Blues was an important little magazine for the American avant-garde, whose earlier stalwarts, The Little Review and The Dial, were folding just as Blues appeared. Young’s contribution to the success of Blues has been largely overlooked, but her editorial work was passionate and tireless: first from New York and then from Texas, she helped Ford—who still lived with his parents in Mississippi—get publicity; solicit contributions, sometimes from heavy-hitters such as William Carlos Williams, whom she considered a friend; and acquire sometimes quite influential stockists locally (in New York and Texas) and abroad (in London and Paris) to carry the magazine. She also, perhaps less helpfully, took it upon herself to occasionally barrage Ford with criticism; of the second issue, for example, she wrote plainly that “I looked at BLUES as if I had walked in to a store and bought it for 35¢ with its 24 pages … and took it home to read. I would have been disgusted ... theres [sic] so much in it that is tripe ... and its [sic] so small ... Parker Tyler [a Blues co-editor and contributor] has an image but it has the measles ... maybe when older they will vanish like any childish disease.” One cannot blame Ford if he occasionally had to be reminded that this criticism did not invite reciprocation: “LISTEN CHARLES,” she snapped in one letter, “don’t ever write me a letter full of DONTS as to my work.” Though her correspondence with Ford could run hot, it came from a place of affection and mentorship, and Ford’s appreciation of Young’s sometimes prickly care is evidenced by the fact that he dedicated The Young and Evil (1933), a novel he co-wrote with Tyler, to her. It is sometimes hard to believe how much of this—her reading, soliciting, networking, and opining—Young did from a distance, from Texas and Panama. Later, she did the same for her Modern Editions Press, a pamphlet series that published Dudley Fitts, Kay Boyle, Lincoln Kirstein, and Paul Bowles, among others.

Poetry was the most important part of Young’s life, as she repeatedly told friends, but it was still only a part of the literary imprint she hoped to make, so seeing some of the material traces of her other activities printed in the 14 illustrative plates included in The Collected Works is heartening. These pages offer glimpses of Young’s life through ephemera: photos of her, her school, her relatives, and her friends; news clippings from some of her major life events, personal and professional; a few letters between her and Ford, demonstrating the varied tones of their correspondence; and covers of the magazines that featured her work and the pamphlets she published. These are, with the exception of Young’s letters, the exterior traces of the guarded interior life that her poems perhaps express; they are the public mediations of a life lived mostly in the margins of the literary world.

Young took in the influences of New York, London, and Paris from afar, working consciously to keep the sway of other writers in check. These writers no doubt inspired Young as she broke the pentameter, to use Ezra Pound’s phrase, and broke taboo, too, writing explicitly and sometimes provocatively about sex and sexuality. Consider, for example, this steamy couplet from “Lines to a Young Priest”: “His beauty’s not for me, / His dark-robed mystery.” More grimly comic is “Fragment,” a necessary complement and quite likely a response to Ernest Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Published in transition, the same expatriate magazine that featured Hemingway’s “Hills” in 1927, “Fragment” treats its taboo subject—abortion—in nearly an antithetical fashion. It replaces Hemingway’s terse sentences with a riotous stream-of-consciousness, his suggestive solemnity with bitter, explicit irreverence:

Helen who walks blondly like a queen over the slight sunshine over all the things that are newly quickened holding little syllables of delight between her blond lips. They had said : NO no other way : you see how the river comes : it is clotted with Spring rains : you see how the winds come. And all the feet go on pacing and the feet go on. And walking with all the dark ones SHE the blond queen tipping little feet and tripping little blond feet over the dark pavement wearing new panties with lacettes and bowettes and all the little ettes that fill the hearts of all the little blond queens who walk over the black April pavements while the Spring means the mountains coming down and the usual crop of abortions. What are aesthetics? But she couldn’t say because the mountains were so near and dark […]

“What are aesthetics and what are aesthetics?” the piece asks again halfway down the page, and one answer it might offer is that whatever aesthetics are, men have for too long determined the definition, and men, for too long, have corralled the awful power of women to destroy and create. Kant’s beautiful and his sublime are both here in Young’s story—lacettes and bowettes and mountains disintegrating beneath the spring rains—and both are in their own way awfully, terrifyingly feminine.

“Fragment” can also be read as a story about the work of remembering and forgetting, no doubt a poignant topic for Young, who understood all too well the relation, and in some ways even the sameness, of the two. The composition ends with the protagonist’s last attempt to repress her traumatic memories by pivoting, somewhat dizzily, to fantasy:

Helen walks like a queen when her throat is choked with the somewhat doubtful tears about how he has done her oh so cruelly and how the family watch her and the baby’s last cold who has a coat altogether too beautiful to wear, why then the doubtful tears and the sunshine and the blue eyes all will melt and she will see the most beautiful man in a well cut English suit. Oh in the thick moonlight she will not hear the steady ticking beyond all this but it WILL be very sweet and VERY oh so very excitingly new […]

Here may be another answer to Young’s question: what is aesthetics but a process of sublimation, an aid to the work of forgetting? In “Fragment,” forgetting is not the obliteration of memory but the leaching of traumatic memory into other objects: the “mountains coming down,” the “clotted” river, “the dead laurels lying whitely dead.” It is strange to think of a prose poem about abortion as an ars poetica, and it is equally true that many poems, at bottom, are about the writing of poetry, but this piece flags itself for readers in a singular way. In all these displacements, Young buried one more: the speaker remembers “her mother’s screechy voice screaming kathleen while the mountains moved darkly.” In Young’s eight years as a writer, it was the only time she wrote her own name.

Originally Published: June 20th, 2022

Michelle A. Taylor is the Joanna Randall-MacIver Junior Research Fellow at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Her writing has appeared in The Point, The Fence, and The New Yorker.