Monday, September 30, 2013

ModPo 2013 #22 Raging Against The Metaphor: On Williams' "Portrait of a Lady"

Image from

William Carlos Williams, "Portrait of a Lady" (first published in the Dial, August 1920)

Your thighs are appletrees 
whose blossoms touch the sky. 
Which sky? The sky where Watteau hung 
a lady's slipper. Your knees 
are a southern breeze -- or 
a gust of snow. Agh! what 
sort of man was Fragonard? 
-- As if that answered 
anything. -- Ah, yes. Below 
the knees, since the tune 
drops that way, it is 
one of those white summer days, 
the tall grass of your ankles 
flickers upon the shore -- 
Which shore? -- 
the sand clings to my lips -- 
Which shore? Agh, petals maybe. How 
should I know? 
Which shore? Which shore? 
-- the petals from some hidden appletree -- Which shore? 
I said petals from an appletree. 

I really like this poem. Could it be a feminist poem? Maybe. I can definitely hear a voice protesting against a portrait being painted. It's really silly: on the one hand, there is a speaker comparing the object's thighs to appletrees, clearly hinting at "blossoms in the heavens" (could it be a peek up her skirt?), on the other hand there is another voice that refuses to be reduced into metaphors. One could easily suspect that the other voice is the voice of the "object." While one speaker has moved on to petals, abandoning the sand and shore metaphors, the other voice is repeating (one suspects, angrily) the question: which shore? Which (f***ing) shore? 

I like how Williams has left the process in, signalling the end of the metaphor (well, not the end, maybe the obsoleteness of the metaphor). Clearly it is not enough anymore to say "your breasts are twin fawns." Metaphors are powerfully loaded and assuming. The second speaker in the poem calls attention to these assumptions: "Don't take this in lock, stock and barrel. Do not be reduced. Question these questionable metaphors!"

In the end, though, I remember that even if we rage against the inadequacies of is the reality in which we find ourselves. There is no reality for us human beings unless they are in language. It is how we operate. I appreciate Williams pointing at the boundaries. However, I remember that the boundary is not a boundary without a body supporting the edges. The self-awareness in Williams' poem is refreshing and I appreciate it against a backdrop of a rich history of poetry. 

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