Politics and Society

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Review of “Die Erlkønigin,”-- a poem by Patrick Gillespie

   Up In Vermont, there is a talented poet and amateur, but thorough, literary scholar named Patrick Gillespie, who calls himself Vermont Poet (He is also a blogger – his blog is listed among my favorites). This moniker would be a might presumptuous for most anyone, especially for those who could not say that they have produced at least some fine poems, or at least one great poem of out-standing quality, beauty and charm. This essay is based on the conviction (as I hope to show) that Patrick has earned his self-proclaimed title.

   About a month ago, apropos of nothing, and browsing web-sites I some-times visit, I came upon this post at [poemshape], which is an audio re-cording of Patrick reading his own poem, “Die Erlkønigin,” for public appreciation. [This poem], he said with conviction, was one of the best he has ever written. I listened to the recording and enjoyed it. I read the poem and loved it, and then read the Goethe poem on which it is based - a handy, dual-language link was kindly supplied – and researched the Danish legend (folklore) upon which Goethe had drawn in creating the original, and was fascinated. All the while, the poem was in my head, and in my imagination, and (parts of it, at least) almost on my tongue –and I agreed! It is, certainly, one of the best that he has ever written (Naturally enough but sadly still, I do not feel the same about all the others), as it is also, I believe, one of the best anyone in America has written in many years!

   This is the real deal. This poem succeeds in a way that has not been the providence or the prospect of American poetry for many years. It succeeds in its mythical storytelling, which is both universally appealing, geographically and temporally, and richly suggestive of northern New England with its typically rustic isolation and steadfast endurance of valuable traditions; and it succeeds in linking (almost virtually speaking) to the history of poetry through its obvious (and not-so-obvious) use of  and reference to Herder, Goethe, folk-legend, and a not often employed poetic form -- a form which was used to great effect by poets going back to Browning and, more recently (and significantly, I think) to Robert Frost.

    Formally speaking; Patrick Gillespie’s poem, like the poet, is of a formalist type, of the old school --not the new, i.e. he doesn’t apologize for poetry’s formalisms, as most members of ‘the new school’ do, nor does he believe (as many do) that formalism is merely an ornament, or a sweetener. (More on this in an-other post.) Rather, he (amongst others) believes, as Robert Frost believed and famously said, that writing poetry without consideration to meter and form is “like playing tennis without a net.” (In fact, his website [poemshape] is the very best that I have found for its/his in-depth analysis and discussion of the use, value, variety and strategic importance of poetic forms, historical and modern, on the web.)
   The skillful use of the meter, which underlies an (almost) utterly plain and therefore believable idiom, but which still allows for (indeed, requires!) perfectly placed enjambments (line endings on thematically - and narratively - important words), and calls for the requisite brevity and compactness of expression, is very impressive. Often I felt the experience of reading a line was like that of hearing a musical phrase, which just wanted, of itself, to find its proper stopping point –and did. I barely noticed the pentameter’s iambic thrumming until moments of particular emphasis, when it asserted itself as an intimation of significance. It accented the moment of speech, and elevated it, without stilting it. These are clever, charming and important things to look out for in the poem.
   The 148-line poem, then, is written in the iambic blank verse (pentameter) style most nearly natural to the spoken word, or conversational American idiom. It has the form of a dramatic monologue (i.e. a single speaker’s narrated account of the events and accompanying dialogue) in which an isolated, rural American mother tells the story to an unnamed listener – yes, it is a narrative poem – of her young daughter’s ordeal with a feverish, nightmare vision of ‘the Erlkønigin’ – a figure out of folklore and myth, who treacherously preys on travelers and children - and her daughter’s subsequent, mysterious death –-though this result (i.e. death) is never actually named, or spelled out, as such. (More on that point later.) The account is both matter-of-fact and chilling; the voice both engaging and chilling, and the ending is both surprising and chilling.
   “Chilling” get it? The poem is chilling, and wonderful.
   To better understand why, one needs to know that the poem (“Die Erlkønigin”) is based upon a poem by the great German poet, Johann  Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), which was called “Erlkønig”. Hence, the titular reference. (I am supplying links, firstly because the original and the translation would make this essay a virtual pamphlet, and, secondly, the back-story, though important, is not really essential to understanding Gillespie’s poem.) The difference in titles is a matter of gender. The ‘Erlkønig’, in the German-masculine form, refers to the legendary king of the elves (or of the Alder trees, depending upon the assumed translation history) who preys upon wanderers in the nighttime woods; and “die Erlkønigin”, then, is the feminine version, or ‘the queen.’ The mythical figure is out of Danish folk-lore –which accounts for the nagging doubt and the poignant ambiguity about the translation, alder or elf - and was first introduced to German literature by Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), whose collection of folk tales and mythologies inspired not only Goethe, but also the brothers, Grimm. (Grimm’s fairytales: Remember them?) In this poem, we are venturing into their realm!
   One final tidbit, in the original Danish legend, it was the jealous and vindictive daughter of the ‘Erlkønig,’ who became the murderous predator of wayward travelers! In fact, it was likely in the poem by Herder, who wrote the first German version of the folk-tale, entitled “[Erlkønigs Tochter]” (The Erlking’s Daughter), that Goethe first heard the legend. This should be kept in mind, I think, as we look at and consider Gillespie’s quasi-restorative version of the tale.
    I wanted to treat this narrative poem to elaborate quotation, chiefly because I think it is great reading; it is great poetry. But I also wanted to quote the poem at length to underscore the point, that the meaning (which is, I believe, something that we can achieve, rather than find or assign) of a poem – any poem, but this one most particularly – exists only in its totality, in the particular relations we discover between the various (and variable) facts of the poem, as a whole. No single line, or phrase denotes the whole meaning, nor can any part be self-assuredly an indication of the whole without its context (though sometimes a single line may contain an indispensable clue). This is especially true of Peter Gillespie’s “Die Erlkønigin”, which I think is susceptible of more than one interpretive reading.

   In Gillespie’s poem “Die Erlkønigin” (The Queen of the Alders/Elves) – note the essential ambiguity of the un-translated title! – a rustic mother’s account of the events - of a Saturday night and Sunday morning - begins with her recollection of her (only?) daughter’s mysterious (and “uncaring”?) fixation on a family heirloom:
                           She smiled. Can you imagine? . . . / . . . /
                           I never will forget that day she dropped
                           My mother’s Doccia Plate. I could have cried—
                           I did. A Tulipano. Very rare.                                    [line 6]
which intrusive reminiscence ends with the otherwise commonplace occurrence and observation, (“I was not unkind but firm”). But she says this, not once but twice, with emphasis and with recrimination (“She had so many toys/To play with”). And she pleads with her listener to “understand:
                                               --I was firm. One has to be
                           With children.
                                 On the following morning, Sunday,
                           I called for her and called. She wouldn’t come.
                           . . . / . . . /
                           I found her staring out the bedroom window,
                           Her hair was soaking wet, as were the sheets—       [line 22]

and suddenly her darling girl is in a feverish state, replete with odd, hallucinatory visions of the unnamed but recognizable ‘Erlkønigin’
                          Look, Mother,
                           She said, she’s tapping on the glass. See?
                           She keeps pink ribbons round each finger – nine –
                           A ribbon for each daughter that she has.
                           But see, she has ten fingers, mother, ten,
                           And though I counted all night long, she has
                           Nine ribbons.                                                         [line 30]

   Already, but now more immediately, we are aware that something terribly threatening, indeed, is in the offing. But wait! Does it help at all to know that there were nine muses, also? (They were daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, a female Titan and the personification of Memory in ancient Greek mythology?) Of course; it adds a pinch of something, since we must believe that the poet knows this too, and is taking account of the coincidence! (Numbers in poetry, I think, are never just numbers!) The worried mother assures her feverish child:
                 Dear, that is just the dogwood
And just a branch that scrapes the glass, the ribbons
              Are its blossoms, nothing more.                                [line 33]

   This contested dialogue (the agony) of maternal, plain-speak explanation versus febrile, childish imagination continues as the little girl describes the frightening and vivid vision and the soft entreaties of the ‘Erlkønigin”, only to be corrected, article by article, in all her errors by her practical and punctilious mother.
          My dear, I said, the cape
                             Was nothing but the field, the silver threads
                 The hillside birches and the candles in her hair           [line 60]
   Were stars; and though you thought she stood outside
                             It only was the moon that rose behind
                             The hilltop slowly higher till you thought
                             She must have come to look at you.
                                         But Mother,
                             She said –
                             I interrupted her. It’s time
   And time indeed is short for this little girl. For, at breakfast in the kitchen, where the mother has opened the door to bring in some much needed fresh air to cool the little girl, her daughter pleads
      But, Mother, close the door
Please, she’s whispering and whispering 
                                    To me.
         It is the wind, I said.
                                     But when
She passes by her daughters, they will let
The flowers down they gathered in their tresses
                        And spill their aprons. Mother, see? She takes             [line 90]
   Their flowers and she blows them from her hands
                                Into the door for me.
                      It is the wind,
 I said, the wind; and those are not her daughters
                               But apple trees-- . . ./ . . . /  . . ./ . . ./
 There’s no one here. I told her. No one, Is there?
                               I see, was all she said.
                                                                Of course, I answered.

   Does she see? Or, rather, does she cease to see?
   It is hard not to notice the hectoring tone of the mother’s voice, its cobblestone pragmatism, its unimaginative antipathy (and almost unimaginable lack of sympathy) towards the (poetic?) imagination of her own young girl. Could this, by chance, be the morning-after effect of a lingering resentment over the broken plate --the Tulipano  heirloom? She seems intent on squelching the daughter’s mysterious obsession. But the imaginative fixation is, presumably, the result of fever, isn’t it? So, she seems intent on defeating a fever of the blood with realism and reason. And she might even have thought she’d won, for her daughter
 . . . rubbed her eyes and looked again
                                       And pointed.
There follows a long passage (16 lines) in which the girl displays her submission to her mother’s practical view of things, assuaged as it is by a still projective empathy with the natural world, and with a child’s eye for detail and significance. She identifies the trees as trees, but still with all their (merely) apparent willfulness and poignant bowing before the wind, and she recognizes a flower and she names it, botanically, categorically (as her mother would).
She pointed out the door and to the garden.
                                   It’s called a tulip, Mother, right?
                                                                The flower?                 [line 130]
                                   I asked. Yes – yes dear.
And here the contest ends, the battle of wills is apparently over. The pragmatic Mother Courage has triumphed over the willful imagination of her errant daughter. The poem ends with a profoundly dispassionate, even defensive, and gnomic silence:
           I was gone a moment,
You understand. Just to the cellar—
       I found her sitting in the doorway, knees
                 Drawn up, head resting on her knees, her hands
                          And skirt bunched in her lap.                      [line 136]

   Who is this woman who can describe the sudden death of her own daughter in such blank narration –or is it a death, at all? Is she shocked, or “in shock?” Or is she utterly bereft of emotional resources? (Remember, when the Doccia Plate was broken only the day before, she cried!) Also intriguing is the question, who is she now speaking to? (And, when is now?) From all indications – or the lack thereof – there is no man, husband or father, around at this time of crisis. It would seem that there has never been. (She remarks on her isolation, her self-reliance and the maternal tradition of ‘making do’ in lines 71-77). And what of the foreign-language title, and the Doccia Plate? And especially, what of the puzzling question asked in the opening line: “Can you imagine?”
   These are all interesting questions to ponder, and concern aspects of the poem that must be assimilated, accounted for in some way by us, to achieve its meaning.
     I say this not only because I am an analyst, an exegete, a critic –that is to say a blunderer – who uses his words less skillfully, less artfully, than the poet. Though this is likely so: In fact, I am cramming this poem into ‘ideas’ to the likely detriment of both, but what else can I do? When all you have is a hammer, you’re bound to treat everything else like a nail. (As a carpenter, by trade, I am sure the poet will understand.) Still, however well intentioned, even a well reasoned analysis is a poor substitute for the poem itself. The two approaches do not just achieve meaning differently; they achieve different meanings! Still, as long as we realize that the discursive analysis is just a preparation for an enhanced reading of the poem, and NOT a substitute or a reduction, little harm will be done and maybe some good.  
   To begin the discussion, let’s ask: Why do I say “death” when the poet did not say “death”? Because the title says so, perhaps?  Most important is the intentional titular reference to the Goethe and the Herder poems; in both these poems the encounter with the demon-siren is deadly. In the Goethe poem (“Erlkønig”), a child mysteriously dies in his father’s arms after a fretful horse-ride through the inhabited (enchanted?) forest; in the Herder poem (“Die Erlkønigs Tochter”) – I am currently attempting a translation of this one – it is a bridegroom on the way to his own wedding, who never makes it to the alter. Should we expect anything less in the latest version of the legend? We could! But, if we do, wouldn’t this make the choice of title misleading, at least, and incompetent, at worst? It is never a good idea, I think, to assume the worst until all the other options have been tried.
    Instead, I begin with the assumption of a parallel development of theme, resulting in  death, and ask: what is different in this case?  In this case, the word “death” is not actually used, but only implied. (Maybe because the kind of death implied is still up for grabs!) Can one believe otherwise, given the defensive posture and the remorseful tone of the mother’s narrative? That some kind of death is implied seems unmistakable. The two previous versions of the theme, then, taken together as background, as the supposition of an analogy, and combined with the evidence of the text – the mother’s consistent use of the past tense in her descriptions of, and references to, her daughter throughout the narrative; the unmistakable starkness and morbidity of the poem; and her ominous penultimate expression “I found her sitting in the doorway . . .”:  we can only infer that the fever did, indeed, “run its course” [line 71]. How else can one account for the conventional finality of this expression?  (But we can still wonder, what was this fever?)
    This is where we can see at least two distinct lines or possible ‘levels’ of interpretation emerging, quite apart from – or in addition to - the mostly implicit deference to the folk-legend itself. Since the fever is never actually identified, its degree of danger never fixed, in the poem, this allows us to wonder what its true nature is, and to speculate on what ‘running its course’ might mean. Is there an actual death presented obliquely, or is it something better described figuratively as a kind of death.
   This mother - like her own mother and grandmother, she says - this inheritor of the Doccia Plates of a pragmatic and hard-edged breed never cared to know the nature of the fever –any more than she cared to know the mind of her daughter. (“ . . .You have had a fever, Dear,/And nothing more.” [lines 68-69]) Is this mere ignorance, or callousness?, or is it, as the mother herself suggests, just the way things have always been done, presumably, by necessity? (Notice, the poet makes room for this possibility, too, with references to the impassible roads, and the feast day, Sunday, in lines 73-77!) In any case, the result is the same, however it is understood. If we frame our considerations carefully enough though, we may find our interpretation is open both to choice and to ambiguous satisfaction; i.e. we may find that both options are possible at once.
    According to the legend, the fever accompanies the fear of the encounter with the Erlkønig, or his daughter; here the terrifying feminine figure is of the child’s own imagining –the projection of her own fears (perhaps of her mother’s wrath over the broken plate?) onto the natural scene of her home-life. How often do children project their fears like this, and to what purpose? Recent reading of Piaget reminds me that the little ones have not only a capacity, but also a need, to see themselves projected like this on the things of the world. For them, it is the only mode of understanding or experience – he would say “schema” – possible to them at a certain stage (or age). To attempt to persuade them otherwise is as foolish as asking a color-blind person to look harder this time!  One might win the verbal battle; the child may acquiesce (“I see, was all she said—“ [line 100]), but she will not see, no matter what she says to the contrary.
   And in defeat, she even seems to make a final (passive-aggressive?) recrimination: “It’s called a tulip, Mother, right?” [line 129] She could be saying, Mother, you still have your tulip (Tulipano), if you would only see it! But can one imagine this mother seeing it? I think we can barely imagine this Yankee stalwart imagining anything? (It is important to note, however, that this is only true of this mother, and possibly only at this time, and under these circumstances. Then again, isn’t life – with all its exigencies always lived out in only moments?) In this regard, the poem has its level of realism, based in single observable, but not generalizable personalities. (Not every little girl will likewise break her mother’s favorite plate and smile, after all!) At the level of realism, then, this poem presents two willful souls in pitched battle. The daughter broke her mother’s plate, her prized possession, and “[S]he smiled.” (“Can you imagine?”) And her mother left her feverish daughter by an open door in Autumn.

   What dies in a child when she is browbeaten into submission: Her innocent and confident experience of herself as the world; her innocent experience of the world as an extension of herself? Is it “the child in all of us” that dies, when imagination is supplanted by realism? I identified this earlier as the agony – the dramatic conflict – of the poem. But is it just between this child and this mother? Or should we rather say that this conflict is (also) an eternal conflict between romantic imagination and realistic fact?
   Who is this mother? (Can you imagine her imagining her daughter’s vision?)
   She is not your typical mother, certainly. Her relationship to her daughter seems sorely lacking in empathy, to say nothing of sympathy. She seems too distantly removed, too antithetical, in fact, from childhood’s wonder to grasp that fact that her daughter has created a fearsome vision, not just from out of her own natural surroundings, but also from out of her emotional environment; an environment the mother has co-created! And perhaps her recent disappointment over the broken plate accounts for the inordinate or residual hostility. This might put her somewhere beyond the norm. But then, neither is she so very different from the rest. She bathes her sick child, and remarks wistfully on her beautiful hair (?), and intends to prepare her breakfast, before putting her back to bed –but not before the Doccia Plate has been glued back together! She is certainly not an idealized type, an earth-mother figure, any more than her little girl is an angel; and, perhaps, we should not expect this in a realistic narrative. But then again: Such things do happen.

    In Robert Frost’s poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” (HRW, 1969) another narrative poem – not, however, a monologue – the female character (named Mary!), the wife of a farmer, sympathetically warns her husband of the ‘hired man’s’ pathetic condition and his hopeless fantasy of rejoining the farm hands at mowing time as a useful contributor: if fact, though, he has come ‘home’ only to die:
                                   Surely you wouldn’t grudge the poor old man 
                                   Some humble way to save his self respect.          [lines 49-50]
  This character, Mary, is both a realistic figure and, in parallel, so to speak, an earth-mother figure. In relation to her, Frost writes:
                                   Part of a moon was falling down the west
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw it
                          And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand     [line 106]
Among the harplike morning-glory strings
Taut with the dew from garden-bed to eaves,
As if she played unheard some tenderness
                        That wrought on him beside her in the night.            (Pg. 38)
The images of Lines 105-106 and the plain words used to convey them form too remarkable a parallel inversion to be mere coincidence.* These could be taken as the origin of the echo we hear, inverted as it is, in Gillespie’s poem, lines 134-136:
                                                                    . . . her knees
                                 Drawn up, her head on her knees, her hands
                                 And skirt bundled in her lap.
   When I read these last lines, I was immediately taken by a sense of some echo reverberating among these lines , some memory of the images – at first unrecognized - from the Frost poem. When I looked into it, I was convinced. Something about this obverse relation shouts obvious contrast; intentional contrast. Mind you,  I don’t say that the contrast is necessarily conscious, but that the latter poem’s image seems informed, at least,  by the former. The same kind of echo may have been at work in the poet’s mind when writing these lines, as was at work in my mind when reading them. Frost’s description of Mary presents her as the very imago, the archetype, of the all-encompassing earth-mother, open and attuned to the harmonies of this world and the one just beyond. The little girl, in the latest poem, has been described in just the opposite terms –precisely opposite. Note the insistent enjambments on “knees” and “hands” and the atavistic image of her skirt ‘bundled’ (not spread) in her lap! Hers is a posture of rejection and defeat (death?), just as Mary’s is a posture of acceptance and inclusiveness.
    By contrasting the important final posture of the little girl in Gillespie’s poem with Mary’s in a pivotal moment in the Frost poem, we can better see the mother, as if she were now cast in relief, against the ‘negative space’ of the other characterizations. She has the same flinty pragmatism as Warren, the bitter (once-bitten) husband and farmer, in the Frost poem. She is of a species of dogged, hard-nosed realists, with no temperament or time for foolishness. Like Warren, she is ready to render a fair but ruthless verdict on betrayal.
    It is no surprise that both dramatic poems center on a battle of wills, a reckoning of priorities among principles and exceptions; it is further instructive, I think, that they are both deeply concerned with the presence and power of imagination (Poetry) in human lives (Cf. the legend, and the earlier reference to the nine muses, for examples); nor is it surprising, finally, that both poems are suffused with the atmosphere of death. Something very big is at stake in each. Are such echoes, then, more or less likely?
   I think the case can be made that the poem has meanings on at least these three levels, then: viz.
1) On the magical level of folk-legend,
2) On the realistic level of mother-daughter relational dynamics, and
3) On the philosophical level of the eternal conflict between Imagination and Reason, practical sense and romantic sensibility --call it what you like.

      At the level of symbolic reasoning, the child’s ‘reality’ (her vision) was as real as her mother’s pragmatic assessment of the trees. The imaginative faculty in children, as in adults, is as much a part of the real world as is anything else. The contest of realism versus imagination is not a once in a lifetime event –lest it be fatal. On this level, we might have to say that the mother’s utter lack of sympathy belongs more to the species of thought (pragmatism) than to the individual person who is pragmatic. The antipathy is not necessarily the mother’s personal sin, so much as the natural limitation of the philosophical horse she rides. And yet the contest plays itself out again and again in individual lives, and at certain times of individual lives. They both paid a terrible price for entering the contest.
    The drama is real enough on any level, but what’s more, these levels are here intertwined in a single poem, simultaneously resonant in multiple registers, infusing each other while convincingly depicting a real child, a real mother, and a tragically real dilemma. It is magical, dramatic and chilling, all at once. This is an exceptional feat for even the best.
       He did it!  ' Can you imagine?'

* There are other echoes of Frost, I believe, in this poem; most notably, the imaginative description of the trees by the child, who sees
            The birch trees that looked like silver threads. They are
            So slender, Mother, and so many, they
            Are like a birdcage.

Compare these lines –also by way of contrast! - to the lines and themes of Frost’s “Birches”, and see if you don’t agree. Include the girl’s reference to the “apple trees” which (like those Frosty birches)
           Can almost reach their branches to the ground
           As if they wanted back the flowers they lost—
and you have a virtual trifecta! Or, at least, I think, a compelling case.
Others may find many more, and/or different echoes!

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