Thursday, February 4, 2016

Close reading: Needless Alexandrines

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, illumination on parchment, French, late 12th century. Wikimedia Commons.
I've never noticed this before, but apparently National Review runs a poem from time to time, mostly in the monastery garden behind the broken glass–topped old stones of the paywall I suppose, but sometimes it winds up visible to the profane in The Corner, where I noticed one today. The rubric is edited by Kathryn Jean Lopez, obviously, and I like to think of her, slightly envious of us atheists and Marxists and abortion supporters with our Katha Pollitt, explicitly looking for a figure of equivalent charisma on the right, a poetess of stature but also of more decorous opinions, preferably scanning and rhyming and staying away from some of these detestable innovations that have been brought on the scene by young whippersnappers like Miss Millay and Mr. cummings, not that there's anything wrong with being modern up to a point or even a little racy once in a while, but you'll never get to "Tears, idle tears" that way, will you?

Anyway, today's offering, by Jennifer Reeser, is a part-Petrarchan sonnet in its rhyme scheme, with a half-breed octave (half Italian, abba, and half Sicilian, abab), and the totally unexpected meter of iambic hexameter (not actual wounded-snake Alexandrines, which demand a caesura after the sixth syllable, but six-footers all the same, which is a pretty limp meter in English), and the poet handles them with a good deal of confidence and adequate syllable-counting, though to my ear she lands some of the stresses in pretty awkward places. Explaining it, on the other hand, is not that easy. Imma just go ahead and lay it out with some helpful interpretive glosses.

By Jennifer Reeser — February 3, 2016
aPerhaps because it spotted her the taxi fare?

bA tantalizing ambiguity leaves it unclear whether this is a covering for a camel, i.e., some kind of saddle blanket perhaps, or from a camel, whether knitted like a camel's-hair cardigan, say, or flayed like the camel-skin cloak worn by St. John the Baptist in the desert where he lived on locusts and honey, a theme that may or may not recur later on in this densely allusive text. Either way, it might be to the camel itself that the poet feels indebted, for supplying her with warmth on this poignant occasion, as the sheep supplied the baby Jesus ("'I,' said the sheep, with pearly horn,/'I gave Him my wool for a blanket warm'"), but I don't think that's what the words say. Maybe it's just camel color, which "makes everything look more expensive" according to WhoWhatWear, and could be filling that role here as well. I mean, as Freud said, sometimes a Cigar is just a men's cologne, right? And then again sometimes it is a racehorse.

cHers and that of the "you" to whom the poem is addressed (not Jesus, for sure, or she would have capitalized the You, as in her "In Remembrance", fully quoted here), who seem to have been a couple at some point following the camel-warmed occasion of that first date.

dA daring slip into political incorrectness!

eOriental Mist is yet another racehorse, a five-year-old Irish-bred gray gelding with a win and five shows in his 33-race record. The phrase might also refer, among other things, to a hand-rolling cigarette tobacco from the Karelia firm, or a courier service in Subing Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia with no Yelp reviews as yet, but I don't think we need to follow that up.

fA little product placement, the perfume introduced by the Yves Saint Laurent firm in 1977, to considerable protest from both anti–drug addiction and Asian interests, the former having an understandable prejudice against any gesture toward making opium fashionable, the latter objecting to that same Orientalist (or Oriental-mist) picture of the languid, drugged, fragrant, infinitely compliant Asian subject as a desirable object for sale, evoking the particular erotic atmosphere of the white man giddy but rape-inclined among the dark-hued beauties of a sultry tropical den.

gThat sudden lurch into the present tense signaling that, um, something has begun to happen; or locating the poet's point of view at some date beyond the opening moment, when the flask has been used up in parallel, perhaps, to some larger loss.

hRight; at first I read this as referring to some new character called Slide, who pushed the drawer in, but this is not the case; the narrator who has taken the vial out of the drawer sees that there's nothing left, and then drops it, presumably not back in the drawer, since it's empty and not worth saving, but into the wastebasket or onto the floor (you don't "drop" a glass object in a drawer anyway, that's just weird), and then pushes the drawer shut, or "pushes shut the drawer" if you prefer, which as long as we're not speaking German I don't.

iBut it turns out that she doesn't need any more Opium anyhow because the scent is permanent?

jPhrase that has been used to describe Molly Bloom, Clément Rousseau's 1923 design for the Seagull table lamp, and a gentleman's scent Djenne, from Parfumerie Générale, which
conjures up the scents and atmosphere of the eternal deserts and green oases of Northern Africa and the ancient eponymous trading city of Dhjenne.  Those of you who enjoyed Pierre Guillaume's breathtaking Bois Blond will be more than enthusiastic about this new release: ripe corn fields beneath a scorching sun emanate a cereal richness enhanced by bitter cocoa, myrrh and mint, enveloped in notes of soft leather and the hot bitter sand.
kNo offense but I think you want "which".

lSome of the Opium bass (or base) notes, according to the Wikipedia rundown, alongside sandalwood, cedarwood, amber, incense, and patchouli, but I think the particular juxtaposition of musk and myrrh is meant to capture some deep dichotomy between the sensuous, heavy, smell of the male in rut and the spiritual, light essence of the gifts brought to the Christ child. Why it should do that remains to be seen.

mWait, what store?

nThis is where the iambics really fall apart: "adjústing thé fine máyhem óf"... But the meaning, too, appears to be disintegrating into some fine mayhem of its own.

oNot a doughnut. I'm not at all comfortable with the idea that her hair is fine but also likely to kill somebody, but I think we need to move on.

pIt's the perfume store! This is a poem about Jennifer going to the mall! Apparently the Opium on her wrist isn't in fact evermore but has to be replaced. I am disappoint.

qMore product placement. Saliferous meaning presumably "salt-bearing", as coniferous is used of trees that bear cones. Research suggests a reference to Dune, by Dior, said to have a marine tang which will not do in the present quest, whether because of the camel indebtedness or some other, darker exigency. I do like the idea of a personified perfume striding up the beach with fistfuls of gris de Guérande which it might suddenly fling in the beloved's face.

q"Remindful", worst, most Edwardian word in the poem, though "saliferous" is a close second.

sThe top notes of Opium according to my sources, though they also include mandarin orange and bay leaf. The limited view Reeser gives us really makes it sound like some narrowly focused curry powder.

tSaint-Laurent = St. Lawrence of Rome, one of the Seven Deacons of the Eternal City martyred in the persecutions of Emperor Valerian in 258? Is the celebrated couturier Yves St-Laurent in his aspect as maker of scents being transmuted into this solemn figure of the earliest church after whom his fathers were named? Because wouldn't you know it, in the course of the unspeakable sufferings of this deacon, the latter was cruelly barbecued

The Messenger of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Volume 34, 1899.
and yet "his countenance shone with marvelous light, he seemed transfigured into an angel, and from his broiled flesh there exhaled a delicious fragrance".

uThe lover for whom she is preparing to smell right is a farmer, or some kind of outdoor scientist or anthropologist, or possibly dead (if the field is what Italians call the campo santo).

vOr, OMG, he is dead, possibly toasted like St. Lawrence, and she's conjuring him alive, like a zombie, with her myrrh and musk and bizarre rituals! Kathryn Jean, this woman is creeping me out!

I consulted a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry, if anybody's worried about that. No copyright law was injured in the production of this post.

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