Violent juxtaposition is vehicle for an indelible metaphor

POET'S CORNER

February 24, 2002|By MICHAEL COLLIER

Aristotle believed metaphor was a "token of genius" because it showed that a poet had "an eye for resemblances." When T.S. Eliot tells us as he does in the opening lines of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" that "the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table," he uses metaphor, simile in particular, to transform forever our experience of the evening. Part of what makes Eliot's simile work is the plausible resemblance between the evening sky and a body lying on a table. Repose is the linkage.

But perhaps what makes the metaphor indelible is the violence of the personification; the evening is sickly, shrouded, awaiting surgery.

Modern poets are often more apt to make metaphors that rely on violent juxtaposition rather than resemblance. In light of this preference Rosanna Warren's exquisite and disturbing poem "Simile" is truly remarkable. For she produces a metaphor, like Eliot's, that fulfills Aristotle's desire for resemblance as well as modern art's demand for violent effects. She does this by using an epic or extended simile, an ancient poetic device that Homer relied on to raise the level of his rhetoric and to monumentalize scenes. Here is the Greek army after a speech by Agamemnon in Book Two of The Iliad: "Being so dismissed, the Argives roared, as when / upon some cape a sea roused by the south wind / roars on a jutting point of rock . . . So the soldiers / got to their feet and scattered to the ships / to send up smoke from campfires . . ."

Epic similes are made up of a vehicle, the figurative image, and the tenor, the literal image. As Homer does in the example cited, Warren uses a vehicle in "Simile": the mother's story about an Olympic ski jumper who, at the moment of his greatest test, is unable to call upon his skill and training to overcome his fear. As readers we don't know exactly where this story is headed. Nevertheless, our empathy for the ski jumper and his terror is easily won, though it leaves us unprepared for the shocking and ironic turn the poem takes. We come to understand that the story about the skier is apocryphal and as such it is the vehicle by which the daughter gains terrifying insight into her mother's predicament.

Few poets writing today manage to write with the classical balance and poise of Warren.

Reading

Rosanna Warren, the author of Each Leaf Shines Separate and Stained Glass, will read Monday, March 4, at 8 p.m. at the Goucher College Alumni House. "Simile" appeared in the April 10, 2000, issue of The New Yorker.

Simile

by Rosanna Warren

As when her friend the crack Austrian skier, in the story

she often told us, had to face

his first Olympic ski jump and, from

the starting ramp over the chute that plunged

so vertiginously its bottom lip

disappeared from view, gazed

on a horizon of Alps that swam and dandled around him

like toy boats in a bathtub, and he could not

for all his iron determination,

training, and courage

ungrip his fingers from the railings of the starting gate, so that

his teammates had to join in prying

up, finger by finger, his hands

to free him, so

facing death, my

mother gripped the bed rails but still

stared straight ahead -- and

who was it, finally,

who loosened

her hands?

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