by Shelley Wong (Originally published in Crazyhorse; reprinted in the 2017 Pushcart Anthology)
Soon, the sea. On the city corner,
a tree asserts I am every
shade of pink. Like the inside.
Dresses as transparent
as watercolor. Doors flung open
to receive gold arrows.
(stringing the strings)
Skirts flare into bells. Hair
Once, a stop sign
before the water. Once, he traced
the arch of her foot. Girls pack
in butterscotch leather trunks.
The sea rushes
from the lighthouse. What bloom
says no? Her hand
petaling open. What you
would do for a pied-a-terre
with tall windows and flower boxes.
A head full of leaves.
Too many bows to tie
and what of them? Pluck
the bestsellers. Sandal
ready. A pointed foot,
pointed feet. Come out, come out,
ripest peach, offwhite leader.
On the archipelago, you are
almost new. Don't turn back:
the girls are walking again. They soak
in their many perfumes.
(strings up) Soon, the island.
In my last post, I lamented that: 1) contemporary poetry might be too difficult to be socially useful; 2) I myself, although I'm probably more qualified to read poetry than the average citizen, find a lot of contemporary poetry in leading journals too dense to make sense of; 3) There isn't really a community online dedicated to discussion of contemporary poetry that provides support to those trying to decipher poems, which itself seems like a pretty good indication that the poetry community (if there even is one) doesn't even care if it isn't socially useful.
I then assigned myself the duty of parsing a poem I find difficult but intriguing. I guess I should confess that although I might, on paper, be qualified to interpret poetry, I'm not really that good at it. A lot of times, I don't get what songs are talking about, and I have to go online for help. I then read explanations that make me go, "Oh, of course. I should have gotten that." So I know I'm going to miss some obvious things in this poem. But I'll do my best. Here we go. If I can make something out of this, poetry might still have a place in American letters. If I can't, poetry dies for all Western civilization from this moment on. No pressure.
Section One: Headed to the beach?
Working hypothesis: This is a poem that presents and then subverts common feelings associated with spring, especially sexual excitement, by re-casting it in a dark light.
Exegesis: Immediately, I have to start guessing. "Soon the sea." Like a lot of this poem, this line has a few possible meanings. First, in line with this being a "forecast," it can be meant to look forward, possibly to a spring break vacation. But I take it a little more literally, like we are traveling through a cityscape, on the way to the ocean. While traveling, we see a tree that advertises its pinkness, its colors symbolizing newness, but also sexually suggestive. The images continue, images of openness, both sexual and literal: transparent dresses, doors flung open (to receive phallic arrows), flaring skirts. wild hair. We then hit a stop sign on our journey, and the symbols of openness temporarily stop.
In passing, I note that the parenthetical (stringing the strings) could be the stringing of a bow meant to fire gold arrows, but there might be an allusion going on here. Wong has also written a "Fall Forecast." One wonders if there are also summer and winter forecasts somewhere out there. Is this a sly reference to Vivaldi's Four Seasons? Maybe not, but either way, feel free to play the music as you read.
Section Two: from stop sign to self-justification
I have to admit, I can't make much of "Once, he traced the arch of her foot." I feel this might be another allusion I don't get. In any event, we have stepped back from the movement toward the sea, and are now thinking of things in a more general sense. Without understanding any possible allusion, I take this as a recollection of either an artist drawing a woman's foot or a man tenderly--one assumes--running his finger along a foot, perhaps as a form of foreplay or just wooing. The sea rushes from the lighthouse--well, obviously, water retreats, but is it possible that the strong, sexual force of the sea retreats from the light? Is this why girls pack their "illuminations," the things that throw light upon them (maybe what they were learning in school before spring break), away in leather trunks?
Rather than resist the sexual force with her own mind, the female engages in self-justification of the act. "What bloom says no?" (the woman here being equated, nearly, with the pink tree.) Her hand doesn't just open, it "petals" open. She wishes for a tiny home in the city where she can engage in sexual promiscuity with her beloved, one that has high windows covered by flower boxes so that nobody can see in--that is, so her actions cannot be illuminated.
Now fully identifying with the budding flora of the spring, the woman questions what, with her head full of leaves, the point of all her buttons is. That is, why not open up?
Section Three: fuck it, I'm going to the beach
She decides she will not fight the sexual force of the sea. Instead, she will "pluck" a few brainless novels, put a sandal on her foot--no, feet (a play on the foot of the poem, but also recalling the arch of the foot that the man once caressed).
Section Four: What's the male version of a Siren? Whatever it is, it's calling to her
Some male voice now calls to her (or is this more self-justifying self-talk?) "Come out, come out." The imagery is now changed from pink buds and leaves to raw, sexual fruit. Whoever is doing the convincing here, the argument is that "on the archipelago," that is, leading off into the sea, she is "almost new." It's meant in a positive light, but there is, of course, the corollary that "almost new" is "partly no longer new."
But the girls are walking again--maybe we've been traveling in a pack of girls to the sea the whole time? They are drenched in perfume. Here, (strings up) could mean that the Vivaldian orchestra is done playing (or about to play, following the conductor's command); it could mean that the arrows are about to be fired; or, it could also be a play on the string bikinis the girls wear on the way to the beach. In any event, the island is coming, and that means diving into the sea.
I see this whole poem as an acerbic commentary on what most people view with nostalgia as a key part of warmer weather--what, in college, we sometimes dubbed "sperm term." Warmer weather brings rising libidos. Rather than seeing spring break as a fun diversion, the narrator sees it as a time when women give away their newness, their springtime beauty, to put away all the illumination they might have picked up in college to be lured away by a sexual force they are unable to resist, a force that nonetheless ruins them in some sense. They sell their beauty and newness too cheaply, not wanting to think about what they are doing.
It's not unlike William Blake's "Infant Sorrow," from Songs of Innocent and Experience, in which all the usual sentimental hogwash about babies, including sweet cooing and good smells and laughter, is all subverted by experience: "My mother groaned, my father wept/Into the dangerous world I leapt."
I feel about 80% certainty that I'm somewhere in the right ball park with this exegesis. Is this enough for poetry to survive as a viable artistic form, capable of moving people and changing hearts and minds? Have I saved poetry by figuring out a random poem I decided to try to figure out? Who knows? Nobody is going to find this post, because it's about poetry. So I'll never know if my reading has any merit.