Portrait in Georgia
by Jean Toomer
Lines 1-3 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
coiled like a lyncher's rope,
- Wow, just drop us right into the middle of things why don't you, speaker?
- Although, to be fair, we could turn to the title for some info on why the speaker is suddenly talking about braided hair. We know this is a "Portrait in Georgia," so maybe he's just painting a portrait of a person using words. And that person has braided hair.
- Their hair is the color of chestnut (a shiny, deep brown), but the image works on two levels--not only is her hair chestnut, but it's braided. And wouldn't you know, a chestnut tree's bark looks kind of braided.
- But then we get a whole other layer added to the image: the hair is also "coiled" like rope. And not just any rope—a lyncher's rope.
- Well this just took a turn for the disturbing. Lynching is a method of torture or execution by which a person is slowly strangled, often to death, when they are hung from a rope.
- And in the South, lynchings of African Americans were a common occurrence, both before and after the Civil War. Lynching frequently occurred by hanging someone from a tree branch, and it was often done at the hands of angry mobs—outside of any sort of legal system whatsoever.
- Wait a second. How did we get from someone's beautiful chestnut hair… to lynching? Eerie, right? That's the masterful Jean Toomer at work. All he does is give us a series of images, and we're forced to squish together something beautiful (the hair) and something awful (lynching) in our minds. Those surprising—and alarming—connections are what this poem's all about.
- "Fagots" are bundles of sticks that are usually wrapped in twine or rope. These bundles are used to start fires very quickly, or, if it's a bundle of herbs, it can be used to season stuff.
- So once again, we've got multiple levels of meaning going on here. And we're about to add another one: the word "fagot" can also be a metonym for death by burning.
- What's that got to do with anything? Well, many lynchings in the South also involved setting the victim on fire—sometimes while they were still alive.
- So in this line, someone's eyes (we don't know whose) are being compared to fire (and death by that fire) using a metaphor.
- We know what you're thinking: what metaphor? Well, see that em dash? In this line, that acts like a verb. So you might imagine this line to say "Eyes are fagots."
- Which raises the question—why doesn't the line say that? A little something called compression, that's why. Just look at how Toomer managed to squish so many layers of meaning in the first two lines. That's exactly what he's doing here, too. By eliminating the verb, Toomer's getting right to the heart of the matter, and cutting through all the excess.