Kitty’s p-k on Toni Morrison and “Recitatif”:
In water-heavy nights behind grandmother’s porch
We knelt in the tickling grasses and whispered:
Linda’s face hung before us, pale as a pecan,
And it grew wise as she said:
“A boy’s lips are soft,
As soft as baby’s skin.”
The air closed over her words.
A firefly whirred near my ear, and in the distance
I could hear streetlamps ping
Into miniature suns
Against a feathery sky.
On snow-flurried days behind the school
We leaned against the frozen swings and gabbed:
Allie poised before us, her neck masked by a hickey,
” A boy’s lips are soft, As soft as a baby’s skin.”
The air closed over her words.
A cold wind scraped my cheeks, and in the distance
I could hear the lunch bell of The High School ping.
Adolescence is a human experience. Though the possible settings and durations are infinite, the emotions are shared. I interpreted Rita Dove’s “Adolescence–I” as her own flashback. Crouched in the field of her Grandmother’s Ohio home, childhood began to escape her.
I did not grow up in Ohio, I had never seen a firefly until my first year at Uva. Still, I know this story. I remember Allie proudly tugging at the collar of her parka to reveal that hickey. The swings seemed to begin to creek and buckle under our weight that day. No longer did we race undirected, undeterred by those Buffalo winters, over and under the wooden bridge and tire stacks of recess. We instead stood huddled together, quenching each others curious minds with anything stolen, overheard, or explicit.
I peered over the couch while my older sister screened The OC. Leah got a Myspace. Kayla snagged her Mom’s Cosmo. Allie has a hickey.
It was the start of a new race, towards adulthood. A prize that doesn’t glimmer just as sweetly as we had thought it would.
“As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises” (Ashbery 524).
As Parmigianino did it, the left hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises.
In the deformation I simply substituted “right” to “left.” For it is not Parmigianino’s right hand in the forefront of the painting, but his left. By claiming the hand to be the right hand, Ashbery employs several layers of perception and a metaphysical mode is implied. First, Parmigianino observes himself in the mirror. With his left arm against the glass, and reflected directly in front of itself, the Painter begins his work. The painting locks Parmigianino’s image in a way that is perverse. Looking at oneself in a mirror is an experience of the individual. By painting this image, a second observer is struck, much like how Vasari observed, “Pope Clement and his court were “stupefied”” (524). Without knowledge of the painting being a mirror-study, the painting should appear as an ordinary portrait with the painted right hand opposite of the observer’s left, and left from the right. But this is not actually the case.
Ashbery observes Parmaginino as appearing “glazed, embalmed,” historically immortal within the painting. But that’s just it, he is inside the painting, trapped as an image in that convex mirror. That convex mirror that is perpetually ballooning outwards with Parmaginino’s true self. “That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept In suspension, unable to advance much farther Than your look as it intercepts the picture” (524).
As the second observer, Ashbery cannot see Parmigianino as Parmigianino saw himself. “Words are only speculation,” the footnotes cite speculation as originating from the latin for mirror, it is important to also recognize speculation as a theory formed without true knowledge (525). Ashbery makes aware the fact that his experience with the painting is relative, and thus limited. This Kantian notion is dually enforced by the following imagery of the hand, “One would like to stick one’s hand Out of the globe, but its dimension, What carries it, will not allow it. No doubt it is this, not the reflex To hide something, which makes the hand loom large As it retreats slightly” (525 ). Illustrated here is the effort and failure of Parmigianino to transcend. Painting himself in a mirror study was an attempt to observe on different levels.
By asserting that the hand in the foreground of the painting was the right arm, Ashbury prompts us to recognize these layers of observation. By reading his poem, we are the third observer. No one observer knows the truth of the other, it is all speculation.
The first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s work, The Invisible Man, concludes with a night terror. The narrator envisions attending a circus with his late grandfather, a man whose last words seem to haunt and entangle the larger moments in his young life. “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (Ellison 1211).
It is not long after, when we find the narrator, penned in the lion’s mouth, fighting to keep balance on the beast’s turbulent tongue. He scrambles to stay clear from the throat, while assuring the passage of the opposing combatants to the belly. He fights the good fight, and the clowns roar with applause. The clowns here are the wealthy white men, who dizzily clamor about the Battle Royal with wide wet grins, stretched across their faces. The narrator is conducted as an act in the circus, as are his fellow black schoolmates and the blonde. The roles of these characters as circus spectacles are dually recognized by the narrator. He describes one of the combatants as, “glistening with sweat like a black circus seal” (1220), and the hair of the dancing blonde as, “yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll” (1213).
The theme of circus is one that stirs visuals of rings and movement; Of Circus wagons, hopping from town-to-town to captivate demanding audiences with performances of only slight variation. A circus route is one that the narrator is on. He Naïvely looks from a pit at a crowd of clowns, performing as told, blindly anticipating only calculated rewards. This circuital element is best illustrated in the closing nightmare scene, which reads,
That night I dreamed I was at a circus with him and that he refused to laugh at the clowns no matter what they did. Then later he told me to open my brief case and read what was inside and I did, finding an official envelope stamped with the state seal; and inside the envelope I found another and another, endlessly, and I thought I would fall of weariness. “Them’s years,” he said. “Now open that one.” And I did and in it I found an engraved document containing a short message in letters of gold. “Read it,” my grandfather said. “Out loud!”
“To Whom It May Concern,” I intoned. “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.” (Ellison 1221)
The excerpt eerily describes the narrator’s endless procurement of envelopes from the briefcase he was rewarded for his speech at the battle royal. Just like scarves from the sleeve of a clown, the stream of envelopes is endless and distracting. Upon the presentation of the calf-skinned briefcase, The School Superintendent orates the following, “He makes a good speech and someday he’ll lead his people in the proper paths. And I don’t have to tell you that that is important in these days and times. This is a good, smart boy, and so to encourage him in the right direction, in the name of the Board of Education I wish to present him a prize in the form of this…” (1220). The prize briefcase represents the limiting path of social responsibility. Its contents, remains a series of envelopes and permissions designed to distract and occupy the recipient until their exhaustion.
Additionally, the circuital element becomes relevant when the narrator takes a service elevator with his classmates to the battle royal. As the elevator descends, the narrator notices how, “warmly lighted floors flashed past the elevator” (1212). These warm and inviting glimpses of the floors highlight the narrator’s anticipation of arrival at the event floor. Just as the envelopes pour from the briefcase like scarves, the floors flicker past him. Instead of stepping off the elevator shaft or refusing the briefcase case he continues on to the Battle Royal. Ellison represents social responsibility as something insidious. The more powerful party will act as a parasite. Slowly, the demands of that party will lick the life from the host overtime.
Part way into the battle, the narrator begins to question his path.
“A lucky blow to his chin and I had him going too –– until I heard a loud voice yell, “I got my money on the big boy.” Hearing this, I almost dropped my guard. I was confused: Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment for humility, for nonresistance? A blow to my head as I danced about sent my right eye popping like a jack-in-the-box and settled my dilemma” (Ellison 1216).
Here the narrator comes to realize that in the realm of social responsibility, his role would be to take the hit from “the big boy”. He is then blindsided, both by the blow of a fist to his crown and his new found will for resistance. From this turning point Elliot begins to unravel the narrators ground. In proceeding scenes the narrator reacts with surprise to his own actions. For instance, his attempt to pull one of the wealthy clowns to the electric rug, “I feared the rug more than I did the drunk, so I held on, surprising myself for a moment by trying to topple him upon the rug. It was such an enormous idea that I found myself actually carrying it out” (1218). This slip of the narrator’s practiced “humility” can similarly be observed when he delivers his long awaited speech. In his committed preparation for the event, he could not have foreseen the occasion as it came to be. Barely conscious and choking on blood, he took the stage. The narrator reflects, “I closed my ears and swallowed my blood until I was nauseated. The speech seemed a hundred times as long as before, but I could not leave out a single word. All had to be said, each memorized nuance considered and rendered. Nor was that all” (1219). And it certainly wasn’t all, because then amongst the shouts and pain the narrator found himself to be choking down something besides the blood from his fresh wounds. As he tripped over the so practiced phrase of “Social Responsibility,” the word “Equality” slipped right out. Oozing out of his subconscious with the blood that drooled from his lips.
The concluding nightmare scene confirms that the narrator’s view of social responsibility has been jolted. In this conflict he gains sight of the circular path where he’s expected to remain. Around and around he’ll go, his grandfather’s laugh trailing him all the way.
Welty illustrates the crass environment of Leota’s parlor stall. Oafishly, Leota encourages Mrs. Fletcher to treat herself with a view of the Traveling Freak Show’s Siamese twins. The bodies of which, are assumably bobbing in a jar of formaldehyde, poised on some staged shelf for added attraction. The conversation is hauntingly evoked by the confirmation of Mrs. Fletcher’s own pregnancy. “They was about this long – pardon – must of been full time,” she notes, “Kinda pathetic.”
Welty winks at the reality of the reader’s higher intellect, as well as her own. The “pathetic” pickled twins are paralleled with Leota’s pickling of Mrs. Fletchers hair, while pinning on her own person, a badge for being worldly; or knowing the in’s and outs of the town freak show. Welty provides additional nudges throughout the text through means of similar moral deficiency and Mississippi twang.
The scene comes across as common, or everyday, but simultaneously the portrayal of the characters leaves them somewhat un-relatable. While Mrs. Fletcher and Leota are the main characters, they aren’t necessarily the focus. In this scene and in the bulk of the narrative, the focus is instead on the business of alternative characters. This angle supplies more logistical information on Mrs. Pike or even “Billy Boy,” but allows only the moral compass of Mrs. Fletcher and Mrs.Pike to be seen through an un-skewed lens.