Monday, August 27, 2012

`A Rush of Cochineal'

My first dog I found half-drowned in a winter creek. Now, as though we were adopting a child, we get interviewed and background-checked because the burden is on us to prove we’re worthy of  the dog. Our likely adoptee is Bruno, a five-year-old black lab whose former owner died. His temperament – hippie-mellow, almost inert -- is amenable to ours. We don’t want one of those relentlessly needy, yapping dogs. We sat in the front room with Bruno and the woman from the lab rescue agency (she’s a deputy U.S. attorney), answering questions and watching Bruno watch two squirrels spiraling up and down one of the oaks outside the bay window. His interest never exceeded the observation phase, even when the ruby-throated hummingbird showed up. It fed at the Calliandra californica, called the fairy duster, an airy pink puff of a flower. In flight, the bird was a gray blur. Hovering, it glistened green and red like a Christmas ornament. I love Emily Dickinson’s poem about the hummingbird in which she never identifies her subject by name, as though it were too speedy, too elusive to pin down with a mere word: 

“A Route of Evanescence
With a revolving Wheel--
A Resonance of Emerald--
A Rush of Cochineal;
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head, --
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy Morning's Ride.” 

A hummingbird in flight is less an object than a place or process – “A Route of Evanescence” – and its wings in profile give the impression of rotational energy, like a flywheel (did Dickinson imply the pun?). Her rhyming, as always, is wittily eccentric: “Wheel”/”Cochineal.” One wonders: without “Wheel,” would Dickinson have come up with “Cochineal?” The latter is an insect from which a deep carmine-colored dye is derived, and is also the name of that color. In blander terms, her fourth line reads “A Rush of Red.” The consonance is nice, but “Cochineal” is better. I suspect poems are often driven by the serendipity of rhyme – one of many qualities sacrificed in unrhymed verse. Richard Wilbur put it like this in Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953-1976: 

“…it is precisely in its power to suggest comparisons and connection—unusual ones—to the poet that one of the incidental merits of rhyme may be said to lie…the suggestions of rhyme are so nimble and so many that it is an invaluable means to the discovery of poetic raw material which is, in the very best sense, farfetched.”


Anonymous said...

Good dogs, labs. Because of their mellowness and weight, labradors are often ideal blood donors. Our dog, a dachshund, was diagnosed with severe hemolytic anemia,which required the transfusion of two units of packed red blood cells. One came from a golden retriever and the other from a lab. The transfusions saved his life until appropriate medications could restore his bone marrow's capacity to make red blood cells.


B.R. said...

Thanks for this post, especially the discussion about rhyme - and the wonderful things that can happen when words are "fetched from afar..." (in order to secure a needed rhyme).

Meter also can be a motive in these excursions - Dickinson "needed" 6-8 syllables for her chosen formal structure.