June 2014 Discussion Guide

Metaphor as Mental Force

Denial and Survival in the June 2014 Poetry

Metaphor as Mental Force

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In TJ Jarrett’s “At the Repast,” a prose poem from the June 2014 Poetry, a character folds napkins into the shape of birds only to immediately burn them. “Years later when I asked her what she meant, she couldn’t remember,” Jarrett writes.  “The worst has already happened, she said. What good is metaphor to us now?”

What good is metaphor after the worst has happened? In “Gilding the Lily,” Lisa Ampleman describes a cancer patient who uses the literary technique as a psychological shield:

To keep anxiety at bay, my friend called chemo dragonfly love. Those insects—christened, in places, the devil’s darning needles—hover as they contort their joined bodies into a heart, the male with pincers. Finger cutter, horse killer, ear stick, eye pisser. Look closely at the eyes of a female darner and you may well see dark puncture marks.

In this self-protective lexicon, everything goes by another name, and those other names have alternatives too—chemo is “dragonfly love,” and a dragonfly is a “finger cutter, horse killer, ear stick, eye pisser,” and a “darner.” These monikers guide our minds far from medicine; instead, we envision animals, body parts, and knitting needles. The insects, we learn, join their bodies into the shape of a heart, a metaphor for love. This welter of competing images accomplishes what chemo is supposed to: it reduces cancer to insignificance.

Ampleman lists label after label: nausea is “erotica,” tumors are “friends.” And death is

the world of 10,000 things: the dragon courting its damsel, catheter tubing in the wastebin, video of a toddler biting his brother, pas de deux, full-sugar ice cream, Crimson Queen, Trumpeter, Red Knockout, Tuscany Superb ... I knew her as Rose Shapiro. At the funeral I learned she was born Passalacqua: to cross the river, to pass a glass of water.

Only at the poem’s end do we learn that the speaker’s friend was named Rose—hence the lists of rose varietals that themselves serve as wistful metaphors. “Crimson Queen,” “Trumpeter,” “Red Knockout,” and “Tuscany Superb” all exude triumph, even as the human Rose succumbs to her illness.

Like her namesake flower, Rose has more than one appellation. And her original name, “Passalacqua,” has more than one meaning: “to cross a river” (which brings to mind the river Styx, over which Charon ferried the souls of the dead in Greek mythology), and the more anodyne “to pass a glass of water.” Here language seems to act as a shield for the speaker, too: rather than dwelling on death, she attends, as Rose did, to names, and sails from a darker translation of “Passalacqua” to a lighter one.

Why might metaphorical thinking help “keep anxiety at bay” during desperate times? For one, it replaces an unpleasant reality with a more palatable one: it’s far easier to think about dragonflies than chemotherapy. Additionally, in the face of death’s annihilation, metaphors are generative, permitting a blossoming of possibilities, until our world becomes one “10,000 things” (dragonflies are like knives and knitting needles and…). And just as we feel we are losing control, metaphors enable us to exert a kind of power, to describe our situations according to whatever connections our minds make. Has metaphorical thinking ever helped you through a dark moment? Does it strike you as a license for denial, for avoiding a difficult truth—or as a tool to help you understand such a truth? Or might it serve as both?

In “Compost,” Dan Chelotti, too, explores the connections among metaphor, mental states, and decay. The speaker’s daughter glimpses a dying snake, “Belly up and still nerve-twitching / The ghost of some passing / Bicycle or horse”:

                             Pretty, Selma said.
Yes, I said. And underneath my yes
Another yes, the yes to my body,
Just beginning to show signs

Of slack, and another, my grasping
In the dark for affirming flesh
That in turn says yes, yes
Let’s rot together but not until
We’ve drained what sap
Is left in these trees.
Do you want some eggs, my love?

I have a new way of preparing them.
And look, look outside,
I think this weather
Has the chance of holding.

The speaker says “yes” to the beauty of the snake’s deterioration (“there’s magic in decay,” Chelotti writes elsewhere), and “yes” to his own decline. Yet metaphor complicates this apparent acceptance. He compares himself and his lover to “trees,” which flow with sap on a seasonal basis—in contrast to humans, whose “sap” dries out only once.

The language in the final sentence reflects this ambiguity: the speaker predicts continuity, yet he merely “thinks” the weather “has the chance” of holding. Meteorologists of the human condition can’t know much about future weather, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to describe it, in whatever terms we can, until metaphors are no good to us anymore—until, that is, “the worst has…happened,” and we can’t speak at all.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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