Saturday, May 12, 2012

Of Poetry and Epigraphs, Part 1

       As I've been formatting the text of "The Termite Queen: Volume Two: The Wound That Has No Healing," I've been thinking about the epigraphs and wondering whether the people who have read Volume One have been paying them the attention they deserve. I did a post called "The Use of Epigraphs in Literature" way back on 11/20/2011 but I want to elaborate a bit more as to how the reader ought to approach those little chapter adornments. Their symbolic value becomes increasingly important as we move into Volume Two.
       "The Termite Queen" is really all one novel (just too long, unfortunately, to publish in one volume).  Therefore, it was constructed to have four sections:
Part One: Earth: Inception
Part Two: Space: Consummation
Part Three: 2 Giotta 17A: Dissolution
Part Four: Earth: Absolution
As you can see, the effect is circular -- we begin and end on Earth, bookending a voyage  into space and a period of adventure on an alien planet. 
      I should begin by mentioning the overall epigraph for Volume One.  Did you even notice it was there?  It consists of the opening lines of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan":
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ...
       Could there be a better description of the termite fortress and its environs?  I must confess that I actually modeled the arrangement of the fortress on the description in this poem!  There is a hint of irony here: one does not usually associate termites with a dreamy romantic "pleasure dome," but such a perspective enlarges the scope.  And then the second volume begins with the four concluding lines of "Kubla Khan" (if I had published the book all in one volume, I would have added those lines to the above): "Weave a circle round him thrice / And close your eyes with holy dread / For he on honeydew hath fed / And drunk the milk of paradise."  And that I will not comment on at this point.
       Part One is just what it says:  Inception.  Everything begins here; the premises are set up, the motivations delineated (or intimated), the characters introduced.  Therefore, the epigraphs aren't quite as complexly symbolic as in later sections. 
       We have those pertaining to the dying termite Ti'shra, taken in mock heroic fashion from Milton's "Samson Agonistes."  This is carried over into Part Two, when we glimpse the conclusion of Ti'shra's story, so a total of four chapters use epigraphs from "Samson." 
       Six chapters in Part One and two in Part Two utilize quotations from William Congreve's comedy of manners "The Way of the World," which eerily mirrors the progression of the romance between Kaitrin Oliva and Griffen Gwidian.  But then the nature of the relationship changes; it's no longer a comedy as much as a mystery.  What really is going on here?  We know what Kaitrin is thinking because she is the POV character throughout all of Volume One, but we begin to realize that we have no idea what is going on in Griffen's head.  The tone begins to shift in the concluding chapter of Part One, where the epigraph is Thomas Randolph's "A Devout Lover."  We remain in the same period as Congreve (early 17th century) but here we envision sexual love as having a mysterious spiritual significance.  Perhaps this prefigures something to come.  Who can say at that point?
       As for the rest of the chapters of Part One, Tennyson's "The Eagle" serves nicely to introduce Prf. A'a'ma, the avian extraterrestrial, who "clasps the crag with crooked hands ... in lonely lands ... " (in this case the perching bar on a terrestrial train, a whimsical application).  "Hamlet" furnishes a reference to the speaking of ghosts, as it will again in the second volume.   When we glimpse the culture of the Te Quornaz (the lemur people), who have something of a classical-style culture, with "Roman" villas, vinyards, local overlords, we see them dancing and cavorting in the guise of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit?  What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels?  What wild ecstasy?" 
       The two chapters where Kaitrin is solving the puzzle of the termite language draw on Biblical references that seem to me to need little explanation: "In the beginning was the Word" (Kaitrin couldn't solve the puzzle without the creative impulse of "real" words) and then when she presents her ultimate solution: "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" (at that point Ti'shra becomes real -- is brought to life through the medium of language).  Similarly, the quotation from Robert Graves' "The Song of Blodeuwedd" (unfortunately omitted by necessity in the ebooks purchased by some of you) reflects not only Kaitrin's and Gwidian's discussion of the Mabinogion myths in that chapter -- it also shows the human Gwidian's growing effect on Kaitrin: "I was spellbound by Gwydion ...  " (he is bringing her to sensual life).
       When we first meet the members of the expedition, who are from all the intelligent species that make up the Confederation of Four Planets, we get "Alice in Wonderland":  the dance of whitings, snails, and porpoises, lobsters and turtles, reflecting the diversity of the lifeforms present in the room.  And finally, in the chapter where we get a glimpse of an actual termite queen, endlessly producing life in the darkness, we get another Robert Graves quotation (again, missing in the ebooks to this point), this time from his wonderful work "The Greek Myths," depicting the Orphic view of the creation of the universe -- "a goddess ... was courted by the Wind ... and laid a silver egg in the womb of darkness."  This links the actual termite queen to  the ominous thing we have only glimpsed to that point: the Shshi's Great Creatrix, The Highest-Mother-Who-Has-No-Name.  What is a termite queen, anyway?  A symbol of the endlessly creative female principle!   What else could it be?
       I'll suspend this discussion at this point and continue with another post on this topic over the next couple of days.

Added later: If you enjoy this post, see Poetry and Epigraphs, Part 2.


  1. I've just read your two posts about Epigraphs and must say I can't wait to read The Termite Queen. Poetry of Tagore had a special place for me in my youth and then later on when I accompanied a singer who sang music set to his verse. It's so nice to encounter another author who appreciates poetry to the extent you do. Carole Mertz

    1. Wonderful, Carole! I 'm so happy to finally find somebody who appreciates the epigraphs, because I worked really hard to discover exactly the right passage that reflected the meaning of the chapter. I think most people just ignore chapter epigraphs, but they can add real depth and richness to the story if people will really think about them. I discovered Tagore back in the 1970s and read a lot of his poetry and some of his prose and his plays.