September 2011 Discussion Guide

Lucifer, labor, and lying

The literal and the metaphorical in the September issue of Poetry.

Lucifer, labor, and lying

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The September 2011 issue of Poetry is niftily shifty. A metaphor becomes literal, but only for a while; a word invokes one of its meanings, and then disturbingly hints at another; someone named Lucy turns out to sport a goatee. Whenever a poem springs such a surprise, we must adjust our perspective on the work, as though tinkering with the lens cap of a camera.

Take the beginning of Mary Ruefle’s “White Buttons”:

            Having been blown away
            by a book
            I am in the gutter
            at the end of  the street

Ruefle’s breezy first two lines prepare us to read “blown away” as a metaphor, but her clarification “in the gutter” suggests that the speaker’s flight was somehow literal. But “in the gutter” is often a metaphor too. But “at the end of the street” seems to literalize the gutter metaphor by granting it a real-world location. What’s the purpose of this rhetorical flip-flopping? Does Ruefle hope to make readers feel just as “blown away”—as surprised, or as stunned—as her speaker?

Ruefle’s “Women in Labor” produces a similar disorientation, but by different means. The poem begins: “Women who lie alone at midnight / because there is no one else to lie to.” In the first line, “lie” seems to refer to the physical act, but the second clarifies that it also means “deceive.” Perhaps Ruefle had in mind the first stanza of Philip Larkin’s “Talking in Bed”:

            Talking in bed ought to be easiest, 
            Lying together there goes back so far, 
            An emblem of two people being honest. 

The “two people” are not merely lying with one another; they are also enacting an “emblem of two people being honest”—that is, lying to one another. For Larkin and Ruefle alike, the capacity of “lie” to mislead—to promise one meaning only to provide another—mirrors their poems’ concerns. If words themselves are two-faced, how can we trust what a lover tells us? (For more on the imperfections of love, see Robin Robertson’s lusty romp “Under Beinn Ruadhainn,” whose speaker conducts an affair with a recent widow, “gilping into her / whenever I could.”)

Of all the poems in this issue, Robert Wrigley’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” may be the most, well, wriggly. The first line alone subverts our expectations: “Lucy Doolin, first day on the job, stroked his goatee.” Then he

            … informed the seven of us in his charge
            his name was short for Lucifer, and that his father, a man
            he never knew, had been possessed,
            as his mother had told him, of  both an odd sense of  humor
            and a deep and immitigable bitterness.

Just as Ruefle and Larkin play on the dual meaning of “lie,” so does Wrigley manipulate the significations of “possessed.” We might imagine that, given Lucifer’s diabolical associations, his father had been “possessed” by a she-devil of some sort. But Wrigley means “possessed” in its most mundane sense: “owned.” What’s the effect of this verbal bait-and-switch? Why might Wrigley want us to believe he’s speaking in a magical register, only to yank us back to realism?

Wrigley’s poem offers another sort of surprise—one drawn from recognition of the poem’s patterns. “Oho!” we think, noticing that the name of Lucy’s comrade Stump rhymes with “dump,” where the latter (alas) lives. And “oho!” again, as we remark on the similarity between Lucy’s name and that of a cat, Lucky. When Lucifer dies with his arms out, Jesus Christ-style, he recalls an earlier reference to his brother, who was—naturally—named Jesus Christ, and was “born dead.” These jolts result not from change but from an unexpected consistency. As you catch glimpses of the poem’s motifs, does the work come to feel more capricious, or more predictable—or both?

The wriggly nature of Wrigley’s names elevates the end of his poem to a high ambiguity. When Lucifer sticks out his arms in the manner of “Jesus Christ,” is he imitating the son of God, or his tiny brother? When Stump tells the court that “Lucifer—Mr. Doolin, as the court insisted—had told him” to shoot Lucy, does “Lucifer” refer to Lucy or the devil? Just as shifts between literal and metaphorical modes, and between alternate definitions, can send us skidding toward unanticipated spheres of meaning, so do these loaded names. What are their innuendos? Is it possible that the poem’s setting—a dump where seven boys toil, employed by the fickle Lucifer—is, in fact, hell, guarded by the actual devil? Could it also be a mundane worksite? What would it mean for Wrigley’s multiple implications to coexist? And is all this shiftiness exhilarating or overwhelming?

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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