Apr 26, 2012

Here are some thoughts about Josephine Jacobsen’s “In a Motel in Troy, N.Y.”  without reference to Zeus as a swan raping the human Leda (and Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan”). Do you agree that the poem has plenty to offer without framing it in the Zeus-Leda story?
Also, I want to stay on the subject of poems that first and foremost examine things carefully and imaginatively, whatever else they might do.  Maybe this is just another take on the Imagist or Symbolist Movements, but let’s forget about labels and simply realize how important it is to notice what things a poem focuses on, as well as the way those things emerge through the filter of the poets’ minds, whether it’s Digges, Sexton, or Josephine Jacobsen.
In “A Motel in Troy, N.Y.” Jacobsen initially seems intent on accurate observation alone. The opening image of shadows on a cribbage game has some evocative or symbolic possibilities, but I hear it as primarily concerned with precision in setting the scene. “We are playing cribbage in a motel room, when a swan walks up to the window.”

There are minor grammatical issues that are a miniature of the poem’s overall movement.  In “waddles rocking” Jacobsen could have said “rockingly,” but that grammatical correctness and clarity would have been all wrong. “Waddles rocking” is a little off in the jarring way a swan’s gait is off—awkward, comic, and in a way, childlike.

That sentence is immediately followed by the poem’s closure, which is technically a sentence fragment. The verb phrase “Sets sail” has no subject. It could easily and naturally have been introduced by a comma instead of a period, and thus been added to the previous sentence with no grammatical puzzle. Jacobsen’s choice, however, leaner and more efficient, thus adding a bit of action to a quiet scene.

Notice too that the final stanza opens in the passive voice. That’s not an issue of grammar, but style; as such, might have upset Strunk and White. Yet there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the right choice. The central thing in the scene, the experience, is shifting from the swan to the larger landscape and its “shadowy girl.”  The swan has been the focus of our attention; that’s changing as the distance and the girl do the acting, pulling the swan into themselves.

This is not a scientific, logical, measurable event; it’s dreamy, irrational, impressionistic, and fits nicely into the softer passive voice. Distance and the shadowy girl are too far away and too amorphous to be clear, defined doers of an action. Also, the transfer of power to them, from the swan, is too gradual to be captured by a strong action verb, with all its vulgar, jagged suddenness.  The swan, girl, and distance blend; it’s not a zigzag or slashing motion. Action verbs can jerk, while this is delicate stuff, a merge without a clear tipping point. In fact, the absence of a tipping point is the point. It is too lovely and mysterious, too spiritual perhaps, to follow rules of rhetoric created by humans (like rules for cribbage?), though the experience is all about the human perception process.
The poem began with shadows falling on a human game, cribbage, which includes a wooden board with holes to receive small sticks for keeping score. Doesn’t that predict the process of the whole poem? A small, mathematical, rational human activity—a game—occurs on something like a platform behind the motel’s floor-to-ceiling glass. The motel room is a kind of theater, staging an entirely human event, full of measured choices and movements. The shadow that falls on that game is very different:  amorphous, fuzzy, soft, dreamy, lazy, irrational, beyond human control. The shadow is also a darkness, or dusk, compared to the spotlight created by the huge window.

In short, the poem’s opening sentence, which seems merely correct and careful in setting the scene, is a miniature of the entire poem.  The swan, traditionally considered graceful and beautiful, is “huge.”  Maybe we take some comfort in its “cumulus-cloud body,” but we’re no sooner comforted than we discover the bird’s “thunder-cloud dirty neck.” Its eyes are “inky.” They are set in a “painted face/coral and black”—a noir carnival face for scaring children? Or a garish Hamburg whore? Those are the eyes that “stare at our lives,” and they sit atop a neck that’s satanically strong and snake-like. 

For now, the only detail that might have a positive connotation is the “coral” bill, and even with coral it’s only the color that might please, for it will also cut you. The swan is mostly menace, maybe nightmare.

It also reveals some moderately comic features—“yellow webs//splayed” and the aforementioned waddle—that might soften its scariness. But add to that what is perhaps the poem’s most remarkable image of all:  “the heavy/feathered dazzle.”  The swan might be scary, but it’s also dazzling. It’s important for us to be willing to say it’s all of these, another mix and mingle:  scary, funny, dazzling. It’s too remarkable to be confined to one effect. All the humans can do is stare.  

Soon the bird retreats, first in comic awkwardness, but quickly morphing into the romantic vision we’d always attributed to it, a creature associated with the far “tip/ of the blue pond,” and a bird that “Sets sail/in one pure motion.” The swan is to be received by two characters—not the distance of scientific, prosaic perspective, but simply “distance,” which is awfully close to personification. The female is not a woman, but a “shadowy girl,” who, like distance, has entered the poem as if by magic, as if inhabiting some fantastic realm “across the water.”

So much for cribbage and other measurable, measuring concerns. In some aesthetically sterile motel room, a human speaker is transported from rationality to romance by an animal that is all at once nightmare, comedy, and spirit-beauty.  With the speaker, we arrive for a moment in some unlikely fairyland by unhurriedly, open-mindedly observing a familiar creature as it becomes a shape-shifter. It lives somewhere beyond grammar, calculation, and everyday, working class, and maybe forgettable Troy, New York.




Anonymous said...

I stand by my interpretation.

RuneE said...

Oh, well - I'll have to stick with admiring you birds. Once again :-)

Banjo52 said...

AH, I don't think that puts us at odds, does it?

Rune, that's fine with me. I approach poetry in other languages with reluctance and skepticism--you have to trust both the poet and the translator, and I'm not qualified.
To try all alone to approach poetry in another language--I've played at it with Spanish, then I see what the qualified translator's done with the poem, and I hide under the bed for a week. You're infinitely better at English than I am at Spanish, but . . . let's just say I appreciate your visits.

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