Tuesday, September 17, 2013

`Things That Sweetness Cannot Be Without'

Iago’s metaphorical and duplicitous tour-de-force of gardening and passion in Othello (Act I, Scene 3): 

“Virtue! a fig! 'tis in ourselves that we are thus
or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which
our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant
nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up
thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or
distract it with many, either to have it sterile
with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the
power and corrigible authority of this lies in our
wills. If the balance of our lives had not one
scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the
blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us
to most preposterous conclusions: but we have
reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal
stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this that
you call love to be a sect or scion.” 

At times, divorced from story and theme, language in Shakespeare grows vividly autonomous. It takes center stage, as in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where there’s little else to hold our attention. In Othello, metaphor and meaning merge: “Supply it with one gender of herbs.” Iago’s speech came to mind as I was rereading Hapax (2006), A.E. Stallings’ second collection. She devotes poems to two of the plants Iago harvests in his garden of metaphor. Here is “Thyme,” about the most punningly irresistible of herbs: 

“I have some if it still,
We gathered on the hill,
In an empty glass, the bunch of wild thyme, 

“Faded now, and dried,
But in which yet abide
Some purple, a smell of summer in its prime, 

“When we stopped the car
Bought honey in a jar
At a roadside stand. It makes me think about 

“The theft of bloom, the sting,
A swiftness on the wing,
Things that sweetness cannot be without.” 

What starts as little more than a clever conceit turns inspired in the final stanza: no pleasure without pain, no gain without loss. Sweetness, too, is bitter. Thyme on a hill shows up in another poem from Hapax,“Minutes”: “Some are selling packets of paper tissues, / Some sell thyme they found growing wild on hillsides. / Some will offer shreds of accordion music, / Sad and nostalgic.” The other Shakespearean plant nurtured by Stallings is “Nettles." It too comes together in the final stanza: 

like hate or love, barb by barb,
grown from noun to verb.” 

Stallings is playfully adept at rhyme. Whitney Balliett dubbed jazz “the sound of surprise,” a useful way to think of rhyming in the hands of a gifted poet. Stallings concludes her brief prose seminar on rhyme, “Presto Manifesto!,” like this: “See also: chime, climb, clime, crime, dime, grime, I’m, lime, mime, paradigm, pantomime, prime, rime, slime, sublime, thyme, Time.” Read with a little sympathetic imagination, that too is a poem. 

[About the pleasurable primacy of Shakespeare’s language, Nabokov has John Shade say in Pale Fire, with its title borrowed from Timon of Athens: “First of all, dismiss ideas, and social background, and train the freshman to shiver, to get drunk on the poetry of Hamlet or Lear, to read with his spine and not with his skull.” Kinbote asks: “You appreciate particularly the purple passages?" Shade replies: “Yes, my dear Charles, I roll upon them as a grateful mongrel on a spot of turf fouled by a Great Dane.”]

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