It’s difficult to talk about what one is trying to do in a poem and offer some clues to the reader for possible interpretation that will, hopefully, add to rather than detract from their enjoyment. What I am going to do is give the reader a guided tour through some of the poems in Zero Gravity, starting with the poem ” Whole” which is the very first poem in the collection, though it was written in the late 90s.
This is a published poem (published in Carapace in the late 1990s). The title would seem initially to be quite apt given that I quote the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope in the epigraph before the actual poem. His “Essay on Criticism” defends the neoclassical view of poetry in which their is meant to be felicitatious harmony between sound and sense (in other words, form and content). I use his idea of the alexandrine to make this point, but also to turn Pope’s couplet on its head, pointing to the way in which a poem comes alive magically at that point where it most exceeds its meaning. So, the epigraph is there somewhat under false pretences– but also there because I love Pope’s elegant wit (my Ph D was on eighteenth-century satire). At first it seems to be there to introduce the idea that a poems have unity (by following established “rules” or by being true to their organic nature). But the image of the snake in Pope’s couplet becomes a figure of excess: in his poem it represents the unwieldy Alexandrine, a line with a “superfluous” extra foot (in Pope’s view) and in mine, something subversive, unexpected, and transformative –the lethal embodiment of metaphor. At the heart of the poem is the image of the cobra — the writer’s arm having become a cobra– in magical defiance of the semiotic principle of the arbitrariness of the sign (Saussure’s signifier) this will lead us into that revolution in thought that culminates in
postmodernism and post-structuralism, whose critique of the idea that the sign captures the essence of what it signifies is echoed yet also ridiculed in the poem (a postmodern writer can have his cake and eat it in this regard). The snake/ cobra is an image in the poem that implies creativity (and perhaps a violent kind of creativity) and death. The title of the poem seemed appropriate initially, then entirely out of place with the invoking of semiotic theory (plurality of meaning over unity) then to suggest the homonym “hole” with the (somewhat existential) presenting of the idea of death, and then completing a full circle by suggesting that death : us what is “whole”, because death is the key to poetry itself.
A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.
Alexander Pope: An Essay on Criticism
There is nothing treeish about the word tree.
Nothing fruity about the word fruit.
And nothing serpentine about
the word snake
whose mental concept has
already wrapped itself
around my arm
whose hooded head is raised,
about to strike at, then
swallow my pen
There is nothing worth bracketing about the word being.
Nor any point putting scare quotes around what foreshadows death.