Thursday, January 06, 2011

`The Liquid of the Long Enchantment'

Butterflies are to January, I suppose, as Christmas is to July – glittering gifts-within-gifts from the opposite pole of the seasons. Butterflies are beautiful, yes, and touching in their evanescence, and their life cycle embodies the promise of metamorphosis, from egg, to larva, to pupa, to adult – a natural emblem of hope, rebirth, even resurrection. In an interview granted in the last year of his life, Nabokov – no symbol-monger – said:

“In certain species -- this is going to be a metaphor -- in certain species, the wings of the pupated butterfly begin to show in exquisite miniature through the wing-cases of the chrysalis a few days before emergence. It is the pathetic sight of an iridescent future transpiring through the shell of the past, something of the kind I experience when dipping into my books written in the twenties.”

In Landscape, Memory & the Poetry of Janet Lewis, a chapbook published in 1995 by Stanford University Libraries and the Department of English at Stanford, Brigitte Carnochan includes a poem by Lewis new to me, not included by R.L. Barth in Selected Poems (2000). “The Insect,” she says, was written Oct. 25, 1994, about two months after the poet’s ninety-fifth birthday (Lewis died at age ninety-nine):

“The power and mystery are there,
Relentless grandeur, as the wet insect
Struggles to rise, to cleanse the jointed foreleg,
Sleek the folded wings.
Bound in the liquid of the long enchantment,
Predestined from the days
When it crawled softly
With its many feet
On twig and stock and clung at last
To wind itself for sleep,
Imprisoned in its destiny, can it
Foresee the sunlit moment,
The lifting air beneath
The rainbowed wings?”

Why “The Insect” rather than “The Butterfly” or “The Moth” (both fit Lewis’ entomology)? Why the abstraction? Would the choice of “Butterfly” sound predictably pretty, too conventional? The title helps distance the poem from our literary expectations and lends it a scientific cast, like a label on a drawing in a biology text. “Sleek” makes a vivid verb. “The liquid of the long enchantment” is at once precise – the contents of a cocoon or chrysalis are, for awhile, undifferentiated mush – and fairy tale-like. The poem moves backward in time, from adult, to pupa, to larva, then forward again to the adult state in the final three lines.

Lewis is to “rainbowed wings” as Nabokov is to “iridescent future transpiring through the shell of the past.” Both were born in 1899.

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