Monday, May 21, 2012
Of Poetry and Epigraphs, Part 2
I'm finally getting around to completing the epigraph analysis that I began in a previous post. Before I begin, let me say that I've now been able to insert the missing Robert Graves in Volume One, so anybody who reads it in any format from here on in will have the epigraphs the way they are supposed to be. And all formats are now available -- see the sidebar for information. Note particularly the two-volume bargain you can get at Barnes & Noble if you want the print edition.
Part One of this post covered mostly the initial section of "The Speaking of the Dead." In Part Two, the tone continues to shift and becomes more ominous. We are no longer dealing with mundane life on Earth, we are dealing with things that happen in mysterious outer space. So we get a new metaphor: the sea. As Griffen himself says at one point: “The sea – interstellar space … When have they not both been dangerous?” So the first chapter begins with "The Boatman is out crossing the wild sea at night" from Tagore's "Fruit-Gathering." I might note that as Part Two begins, Kaitrin and Griffen are still in the courting stage and she asks him to read poetry to her. Several poems are included in the text and these not only contribute to the courtship, they also bear a relationship to later events and to character development. The sea metaphor is reinforced in the first chapter when Prf. A'a'ma bursts out with Wordsworth's sonnet "Where lies the land to which yon ship must go?"
The sea metaphor persists as the relationship of Kaitrin and Griffen continues to adjust itself, again with a certain ominous implication, first in lines from Tagore's "On the Seashore":
They build their houses with sand, and
they play with empty shells. With withered
leaves they weave their boats and
smilingly float them on the vast deep.
Children have their play on the seashore of worlds.
This suggests a fragility and an innocent obliviousness in the relationship the couple is building and reinforces the "space equals sea" metaphor. As they weave their plans, they float them on the "vast deep" of the future. Additionally, the denizens of this space ship are on the verge of a shore -- the sandy beach that is an unknown alien world. So this quotation perfectly fits the status of the plot at that point.
The sea metaphor picks up again with an even more ominous twist in the quotation from Dylan Thomas (in Thomas the sea often symbolizes death, eternity, the afterlife, the vastness of time ... ):
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Finally we get the last two lines from Tagore's "On the Seashore: "The sea plays with children, / And pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach." Here we again see th sea-beach that is the alien planet, but its welcome has become a gleaming of pale teeth within its smile. Just what does this alien landfall have in store?
This chapter (Chapter 11) was originally the final chapter of Part Two, but I moved three chapters from Part Three back to Part Two in order to bring in more of the termites, give a better cliffhanger, and to shorten the second volume slightly. Hence, in Chapter 14 a new metaphor is introduced, one which will be pervasive throughout Volume Two: the dark bird. Reflecting Kwi'ga'ga'tei's final prophecy, we get a collection of portents from Shakespeare's MacBeth, ending with "The obscure bird / clamored the livelong night."
Dark birds and night birds -- ravens, crows, owls, etc. -- can symbolize death, otherworldliness, mysteries and magic (but also wisdom and intelligence). We will see the dark bird again in two of the three quotations from Dylan Thomas' "Especially When the October Wind ... " that are used on the chapters of Volume Two where Kaitrin and Kwi'ga'ga'tei are learning to communicate. (That poem is one of my favorites of all times! It's about how the poet produces his own word-art and also about his sense of his own mortality.)
The first quotation ends with the line "By the sea's side hear the dark-vowelled bird" (the final line of the poem). What a wonderful, densely packed, meaty image that is! We get the sea -- always suggestive of eternity, and in our case of the void of space -- blending into the dark bird (other lines read: "By the sea's side, hearing the noise of birds, / Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks ... "). Here it is the speech of the bird that is dark; the poet hears the bird of death calling in his own poetry. The poem is basically pentameter (five feet to the line, with a lot of metrical variation), but the rhythm of this line shifts suddenly; it's loaded with heavy syllables (I would scan it as tetrameter, as follows): "By the SEA'S | SIDE HEAR | the DARK | VOWELLED BIRD -- we have anapest, spondee, iamb, spondee. I'm sure some of you poetry scholars out there might argue with my scansion, but the point is that the heaviness and the stretch of the syllables emphasizes the darkness and the ominous weightiness of what is happening.
I will stop here because I don't want to reveal anything about Volume Two that you shouldn't know at this point. Suffice it to say that the dark bird metaphor persists throughout the rest of the book, although the ominous suggestiveness of the epigraphs changes to a more intimate and personal tone in Part Four. Later on, after people have had a chance to read the whole of "The Termite Queen," I may return to this topic and discuss more of the epigraphs in the second volume. I hope this little essay will encourage people to examine the application of the epigraphs and perhaps even stimulate some interest in poetry in people who have had no such interest previously. Poetry is truly an amazing art form.