Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
tiger the color of light, brown deer
on the outskirts of night, girl glimpsed
leaning over green balconies of rain,
adolescent incalculable face,
I've forgotten your name, Melusina,
Laura, Isabel, Persephone, Mary,
your face is all the faces and none,
you're a tree and a cloud, all the birds
and a single star, the edge of the sword
and the executioner's bowl of blood,
the ivy that creeps, envelops, uproots
the soul, and severs it from itself,
- Things are coming back to our poor, amnesiac speaker.
- Now he remembers a night filled with tigers and deer, the girl leaning over a balcony through the rain—he still can't remember her face or name though.
- Tough break, buddy.
- In lines 109-110 the list of names takes us through literary girls (except for Isabel—wonder who she is? Maybe she has something to do with Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, because some people say the name comes from Isis—bella in Latin). To find out who they all are, check out the "Allusions" section.
- So we have a list of women who were adored throughout history and in literature, but who also have a strong connection to the earth and nature. The poet addresses her/them in an apostrophe, since he can't really talk to her directly.
- Any one of them will do for the speaker's long-lost love, since he can't remember her name or her face, but certainly remembers her as being cosmically huge—"you are all the hours and none, / you're a tree and a cloud, all the birds / and a single star."
- Things take a dark turn though in line 114 when the images switch from being natural to violent: "the edge of the sword / and the executioner's bowl of blood." Hey, wasn't there something about blood rituals earlier in the poem, like in Lines 41-42?
- The ivy comes back again, too. It seems like it's a bit of a go-between between the natural world (it's a plant) and civilization (it crawls up buildings). This ivy is especially invasive though, as it uproots and severs the soul from itself. Ouch. Itching to know more? Check out our "Symbols" section for the scoop on ivy.
writing of fire on a piece of jade,
crack in the stone, queen of snakes,
column of mist, spring in the rock,
lunar circus, aerie of eagles,
anise-seed, thorn tiny and mortal,
thorn that brings immortal pain,
shepherdess of valleys under the sea,
gatekeeper of the valley of the dead,
liana that drops from the cliffs of vertigo,
tangling vine, poisonous plant,
resurrection flower, grape of life,
lady of the flute and the lightning-flash,
terrace of jasmine, salt in the wound,
branch of roses for the man shot down,
snow in August, gallows' moon,
writing of the sea on basalt rock,
writing of the wind on desert sand,
the sun's last will, pomegranate, wheat,
- Now would be a good time to look up the myth of Persephone, because it looks like the speaker has settled on her, for now, as a way to talk about his beloved.
- This stanza begins and ends with writing, but not the kind you might do in a Word document.
- These are elemental forces writing over other elements—"writing of fire on a piece of jade"; "writing of the sea on basalt rock, / writing of the wind on desert sand"—which takes writing first to a permanent level (if something is set in stone it's pretty much, well, set in stone) and then to a totally ephemeral level (how permanent can writing in the sand be, especially when it's windy out?).
- Next the speaker sets the scene with a list (gotta love the lists) of suggestive images—"crack in the stone, queen of snakes, / column of mist, spring in the rock, / lunar circus, aerie of eagles / anise-seed, thorn tiny and mortal, / thorn that brings immortal pain, / shepherdess of valleys under the sea, / gatekeeper of the valley of the dead [. . .] the sun's last will, pomegranate, wheat."
- In Greece, after a funeral, there's a dish called kolyva that everyone has to eat, because of the story of Persephone, queen of the underworld. It turns out that it's full of anise, pomegranates, and wheat berries (yes, we are going somewhere with this).
- Here's the story: Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, and only allowed to come back to earth if she hadn't eaten anything in the underworld. She got distracted and ate some pomegranate seeds (doh!) and because of those measly seeds had to spend half the year (winter) in Hades. Wheat is one of her symbols, given to humans by her mother, Demeter. (Check out "Allusions" for more on Persephone.)
- But there in the middle we get the ivy back—the "liana" in line 126 is a climbing plant, and it is named over and over again as "tangling vine, poisonous plant, / resurrection flower, grape of life"—do you notice how everything is a play between two forces?
- Hades and earth; winter and summer; poison and resurrection….
- The darker forces seem to win out, as in Line 131 we get "the man shot down" followed in the next line by "snow in August, gallows' moon." These symbols are clearly modern—being shot down and the gallows are contemporary images that stick out in the middle of all the mythological references.
- Whatever it is the speaker is trying to remember, it seems to have a lot of death and violence mixed up in it.