Tag Archives: Hamlet

Tuesday Poem: “Container” by Fiona Apple

I’m the editor at the Tuesday Poetry blog this week. Join us in the comments and discussion. You can read this same post — and many other poems and commentary — over there.

Fiona Apple - Container

“Container” by Fiona Apple

I was screaming into the canyon
At the moment of my death.
The echo I created
Outlasted my last breath.

My voice it made an avalanche
And buried a man I never knew.
And when he died his widowed bride
Met your daddy and they made you.

I have only one thing to do and that’s
To be the wave that I am and then
Sink back into the ocean.

Sink back into the o-
Sink back into the ocean.
Sink back into the o-
Sink back into the ocean.

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
“Speak, speak, I charge thee, speak” — this is Horatio, in Hamlet, imploring the ghost of Hamlet’s father not just to make some noise, to simply howl or to growl say (which would be astonishing enough), but rather to speak, to say something intelligible. More than any apparition, it’s words that bring a ghost to life.

And yet, Hamlet’s father aside, they rarely make good orators, these clumsy, techno-challenged spectres and their speech impediments; rapping on tables, sending codes through flashlights and will-‘o-the-wisps, playing alphabet games on ouija boards, making reverse recordings of their glossolalia on old LPs. But how else should it be? Speaking in tongues, or through mediums, offers a solution for those without tongues or bodies of their own. Divested of form, of density, what larynx can produce a voice? What brain suggests a syntax to the whims of the dead?

With her song “Container,” Fiona Apple produces the voice of a ghost — brilliantly, beautifully, but most importantly, poetically. Through lyrics, through words. It’s a wave, that voice. It rises and recedes, rages and calms. Apple starts with a tremor in her tone. Note the metrical structure here, the eerie, plaintive trimeter of the first quatrain — with its trochaic howling words, “SCREAMINGing,” “CANyon,” “MOment.” Then she belts the “echo” like no other singer, in no other song. The line becomes pure sound, pure mantra. The avalanche, meanwhile, seems completely out of place for an ocean-born ghost, but that’s the thing: This is a ghost voice. A vibration. It ripples and tsunamis through space, from sea to shining snow-top. There’s a oneness here, between language and sound, poet and phantom.

The first quatrain swells and solidifies into the event-driven physicality of the second, which is sturdy iambic tetrameter, reenforced with the “died”/“bride” girders of internal rhyme. Note the echo-effect of line five, with its ricocheting ictus in the canyon of iambs — my VOICE, it MADE, an AVaLANCH. Apple bounces back and forth. The literary device here — “My voice, it made,” “my abc, it xyz’d” — is called dislocation,* whereby the pronoun emphasises the noun by echoing it.

And it’s the echo, the ripple, the great wave of sound that becomes physical and powerful; that causes the avalanche, that causes the death of a stranger and a child to be born. The reference to “daddy” is intimate, child-friendly. “Containers,” I should point out, is the opening theme song of a TV series called “The Affair,” which just finished its first season on Showtime. The song lends the show a haunting artistic key with which “The Affair” never quite harmonises. Not for lack of trying. One of the show’s two main characters, Alison, insists that her dead son is still present in the world. “He’s watching us,” she says. “He’s caring for us every day.” If this is true — and at one point, yes, as Alison attempts to drown herself in the ocean, we hear the voice of a little boy shouting from the shore — if true, it’s definitely not something we want a main character to tell us.


Rather, we need to hear the ghost-voice for ourselves — which brings us back to Apple’s poem. We’re now at the third stanza, a tercet, in which the first two lines, still holding the dimensions of the previous stanza, start to tremble and collapse:

I have only one thing to do and that’s
To be the wave that I am and then

This is pure abstraction, pure searching, wavy, echolocation. It’s barely English. The five-lettered “thing” is the longest of the 18 words that flail about and say nothing. Beautiful, poetic ghost-speak. There’s a very soft, ghostly, syllabic rhyme in the enjambment — “and that’s” / “and then” — which Apple deftly stresses through the rhythm and tone of her voice, before the whole thing slams into the spondee of the original trimeter: “SINK BACK into the Ocean.” From the howling trochees of “SCREAMing,” “MOment,” “CANyon” we end with another, softer, more surrendering and mournful one: “Ocean.”

One of the most beautiful themes in poetry (which circles just beyond the black hole tug of a trope) is that of the passively almighty. The powerfully weak. The noisy unnoticed. A kind of stop-motion perspective in which things that appear silent and still and locked in eternity — the ocean, the dead, the ancient rocks of Australia (see that greatest of ghost stories, Picnic at Hanging Rock) — can rise up, knock us over, overwhelm our world with their substance. Apple’s poem contains that kind of substance. It dislocates our sense of control over our lives; and makes us stop and listen in wonder.
____
Zireaux’s most recent novel is A Charlatan’s Orbit, which is available on Kindle and in paperback at Amazon.

* Dupriez, B. and Halsall, A.W., A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z, University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, October 30, 1991; and later referenced in Huddleston, R. and Pullum G, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge University Press, April 15, 2002.

More Tuesday Poems at Tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com.

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Land! O Promised Land! — Stanzas 138 to 143

Astronaut Michael Collins on June 19, 1969 – his footwear  not included in the photograph. ‘O lonely Collins, if ever  we meet / I promise to sing an Ode to your feet.’

Astronaut Michael Collins on June 19, 1969 – his footwear not included in the photograph. ‘O lonely Collins, if ever we meet / I promise to sing an Ode to your feet.’

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Second

138.

Then why? To palpate pebbles?79 What dust
was felt by Armstrong’s foot enwrapped
in pressured Teflon and metal-strapped?80
And yet we make a Federal fuss
for Buzz and Neil – while Mike,81 adrift
that day, on solitary shift,
revolving round the moon for eight
and twenty hours, would palpitate
a solitude which few could bear (he
might have there out-traveled Peary!82).
O lonely Collins, if ever we meet
I promise to sing an Ode to your feet!

139.

Then why? I ask you. Why this urge
to claim things first? What makes us seek this
vital bounty, this title, ‘Uniqueness’,
when it, from us, is bound to diverge?
I used to admire those brilliant bards
who once found paying creditors hard.
Lord Byron, who owned the ancient East;
and Coleridge, from whom all oceans are leased.
I used to think – had I some song
divined within me, how loud and long
I’d sing it! But then I learned: A purse is
what builds a lasting empire – not verses.

140.

But let me continue – lest I fail
to build at all! There was a sudden,
bone-shaking jolt, a final thud in
all that ocean-whipping gale.
Then all was still. The engine slain.
A hesitant applause of rain
rose up against our bug-eyed window.
A foggy mist had settled in though
– or no, the weather wasn’t clogged
as such; the inside glass was fogged;
so I didn’t know what was around it
until dear Nutmeg said, ‘We found it’.

'...and from a figure freshly laid / upon the water, like Hamlet’s maid.'  Painting by British artist Sir John Everett Millais, completed between 1851-52

'...a figure freshly laid / upon the water, like Hamlet’s maid.' Painting by British artist Sir John Everett Millais, completed between 1851-52.

141.

Slowly, salaciously, the clouds
slipped off my island. My vision
cleared, and with a growing precision
the traits with which she was endowed
(and which had been a haunting riddle
for days) appeared. Her naked middle,
where Meg in desperation landed,
was perfectly smooth, a sand-patch branded
only by the fanning ruts
created by our landing struts;
and rows of freckles running cross:
The footprints of that albatross.

142.

I saw the rocks, a peppered white,
where I had docked three nights before.
They spread along the south-west shore
as locks, or garlands, once bound tight
but loosened by the surf – as if
their mass were soft and gently adrift
and from a figure freshly laid
upon the water, like Hamlet’s maid.
Above, two clouds had come disjoined.
The sun slipped through, a slot en-coined
with yellow token. We’d hit the jackpot.
I seized my camera, took a snapshot.

143.

Land! O promised land! A Zion
of designs my own! A place
of dignified and leisured grace,
a land for me to live and die on!
A rock I found amidst a sea
of wandering dreams – or it found me –
a Hermitage to live withdrawn;
my private summer Yiheyuan.83
A solid place in pitching life.
A refuge from one’s bitching wife!
An ocean gem, a rich and free-land;
my country home, my
New New Zealand!


79 Palpating the pebbles most likely refers to Vladimir Nabokov’s famous quote about walking on the moon: ‘Treading the soil of the moon, palpating its pebbles, tasting the panic and splendor of the event, feeling in the pit of one’s stomach the separation from terra…these form the most romantic sensation an explorer has ever known.’
80 The lunar boot was actually an overshoe that the Apollo lunar explorer slipped on over the pressure boot of the spacesuit. The outer layer of the lunar boot was made from metal-woven fabric, except for the ribbed silicone rubber sole. The boot’s inner layers were made from Teflon-coated glass-fiber cloth followed by 25 alternating layers of Kapton film and glass-fiber cloth to form an efficient, lightweight thermal insulation.
81 Astronaut Michael Collins (born 1930) commanded the module pilot, Columbia, for Apollo 11, the 1969 American space mission which landed the first humans on the moon. He circled the moon for 28 hours as Buzz Aldrin (born 1930) and Neil Armstrong (born 1930) descended to the moon, walked on its surface, and then returned to the Columbia.
82 Robert Edwin Peary (1856–1920) was the first person to reach the geographic north pole, a claim now treated with some skepticism. Perhaps his greatest legacy is the designing of the ‘Peary System’, a method by which support teams deposited supply caches along the route in the arctic.
83 A palace in Beijing, China, known as the Summer Palace, and which literally means, ‘Garden of Health and Harmony’.


__________

 

Read from the beginning of Res Publica | Listen to the audio version (read by Stuart Devenie) | Buy a signed copy of the book

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Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom, Riverhead Books, 1999, 745 pages

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom

The further one ventures out of this world and into the Shakespearean universe, the more one feels the inadequacy of certain cerebral equipage.  Your most insulated jackets, your thickest snow boots won’t shield you from the icy temperatures of Macbeth.  No sunscreen, of even the highest SPF, can block the searing sun of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  There’s no oxygen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or maybe there’s too much oxygen— and what’s that strange gas everyone seems to be breathing in Twelfth Night?  Gravity exists, of course, a severe and fundamental gravity in King Lear and Hamlet, but it torques and twists and transmutes the world like nothing we’re accustomed to.

One requires, alas, no less than the literary equivalent of NASA to design a proper suit, one which can hold up in the watery, or windy, or sometimes fiery — but always extreme, always shifting and temporally unusual  – conditions one finds in a work by William Shakespeare.

If anyone would know how such a suit should be designed it’s Harold Bloom, one of the most accomplished and important literary scientists of all time (right up there with his cross-epochal lover and soul-mate, Dr. Johnson). But in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom approaches the greatest of all writers – “greatest” being a superlative which one can safely and liberally employ (as Bloom does, exuberantly, in a variety of ways) when writing about Shakespeare — from a different, or rather reverse and astonishing angle.

Each of us, Bloom insists, or at least anyone who can engage in a discussion of Shakespeare, is a creation of Shakespeare.  That is, our very sense of self and nature, the way we reason and behave, is nothing less than our evolutionary adaptation to Shakespeare’s art.  We’ve been living and breathing and surviving in the strange and alien-seeming substance of Shakespeare from the moment of our self-awareness.  “I do not know if God created Shakespeare,” writes Bloom, “but I know that Shakespeare created us, to an altogether startling degree.”

This heady argument – and yes, for Bloom it’s an “argument” – appears to arise more out of distress than pleasure.  Bloom has a bone, a skull you might say, to pick with Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists (“the usual suspects,” he quips) who misinterpret and travesty Shakespeare’s plays and ultimately produce what Bloom, quite wonderfully, calls “ideological jamborees.”  One can’t help cheering Bloom on here, although sometimes we see Bloom as a courageous David, other times as Ali the boxing champion, other times it’s Bloom the pit-bull in a dogfight, a crowd of academics carousing around the bloody spectacle.

Bloom acknowledges early in his book that critics of Shakespeare, writing what they see in Shakespeare’s mirror, tell us more about themselves than about Shakespeare’s work.  Bloom, we quickly learn, is a “devout Falstaffian.”  Shakespeare, he writes, invented Harold Bloom as a parody of Falstaff.  There is, indeed, a Falstaffian fleshiness to Bloom’s book, the inflated theatricality, the bombast and self-indulgence, the stylistic rotundity – folds of repetitive flabbiness hanging over his belt – and (perhaps most of all) a sense of youthfulness in old age not unlike Falstaff’s.  And yet Falstaff would never write a book like this one.

Bloom understands the Shakespearean illusion.  We think we see in Hamlet what everyone else sees, but it’s the reflection of our inner selves we’re witnessing.  And Bloom also knows, brilliantly, that the image of himself which he sees reflected in Shakespeare’s mirror is not what we see in Bloom.  Falstaff and Hamlet are Bloom’s favourite characters because they display a passionate charisma mixed with what he calls “inwardness” (a type of self-consciousness, self-reflection, self-revisionism).  On Bloom’s stage, where the main players include Nietzsche, Dr. Johnson, Montaigne, Chaucer, Cervantes, Beckett and a kind of Shylockian Freud , with minor parts given to Hegel, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Wilde, Spinoza, Anthony Burgess, Eliot, Hart Crane and countless others, Bloom is his own favourite character.

Bloom, too, displays charisma and inwardness; and he knows that what he writes is both insightful and fleeting, precise and prolix, enthusiastic, laborious, accurate and yet never quite right.  At times it’s difficult to take anything Bloom says seriously, such a believer is Bloom in revisionism. A Whitehouse Secretary, a Scott McClellan type of literary scholarship. And much of what Blooms says — especially about how poets operate — is simply wrong, but being wrong, in Bloom’s production, is a temporary affair.  Give it time.  Wrongs will right themselves eventually.

Bloom as Falstaff?  But also Cleopatra, it seems to me, with her “longing for a lost sublime,” and I hate to say it (this will hurt Bloom terribly), Henry V, because Bloom finds his strongest inspiration when fighting an enemy. Hamlet was an expert swordsman, easily defeating Laertes in their duel, but his most powerful weapon, like Falstaff’s, was his wit, coupled with his air of indifference (or “disinterestedness,” to use Bloom’s term).  Bloom is massive and lovable, sensitive, beautiful, brave and thrilling, profoundly alive, a miracle of nature, soaring loftily, jubilantly in the raging slipstream of Shakespearean studies; but he isn’t witty.

Wit is the interpretation of words “out of frame” (to use Hamlet’s metaphor).  It is to literature what a trick of light, or a piece of camouflage, or a reflection in a window, is to a painting.  The word is not what we first think; the little shadow reveals itself to be a blackbird; the woman’s silky-seeming veil is made of alabaster; and the woman is really a man.  Anne Salmond, in her wonderful book on Captain Cook, informs us that some of the island men mistook a few members of Cook’s crew for ladies and excitedly pursued them into the foliage for coupling, only to find themselves the butts, so to speak, of a Shakespearean charade, a wonderful play of cultural wit.

Hamlet was a cannibal (Gloucester his supper); and he was Captain Cook, too.  The Maori, who always paddled their canoes while sitting forward, believed the approaching British sailors, who paddled toward shore in a backward manner, were a convoy of faceless goblins.  Hamlet-the-Maori traded feathers for a mirror and admired his clear reflection in the smooth device.  Hamlet-the-ship’s captain awarded human dignity to the natives who ate his friends.  Hamlet was a conquistador and a slave, a native and a foreigner, a feminist, a Marxist, a multiculturalist and, at the same time, he was Bloom the “Brontosaurus Bardolator” (as Bloom urbanely, unpoetically calls himself).  He is a member of the human species, but from another country, an undiscovered country – or rather, a country discovered and observed, but beyond our comprehension, beyond our control.

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