We're going to have to trust our translator a little bit on this one, because the poem as it is in English surely sounds different than it did in French. For example, the title of the poem in French—"Chauffage Central"—really rolls off the tongue in a way that "Central Heating" just… doesn't.
Yet there's still plenty of sound to savor when you read this poem aloud. How about some assonance for starters? There are so many long I sounds here in the words "light," and "strike," and "wide" and "I." This uplifting, long I carries us through the word "light," which is a hopeful, central metaphor in a poem that's often quite sorrowful.
We've also got lots of examples of alliteration in the poem. Check out lines 23-25, where the P sound is repeated in "perfect purity," the C sound repeated in "copper" and "conducts," and the S sound repeated in "sun" and "same substance." These words, paired by their beginning sounds, seem to reflect the pairing of the speaker and his beloved in the poem. Perhaps, as these sounds subtly suggest, there's hope after all.
Another interesting aspect of the sound of this poem is how the line length shakes things up. Try reading the short lines aloud. They should come out slowly, almost choppily, which makes sense since they all stand out as part of the speaker's break with reality. It's the longer lines, like the second line and the last line, that draw us in to the speaker, providing us with details. But we don't get bogged down by these lines. Their length seems to draw us on and give us a rhythmic, sonic momentum as we get excited to read to the end of them.
All in all, though the speaker's views of the world and his romantic life seem to be shaken, the poem's sounds seem relatively harmonious. In this subtle way, Reverdy seems to suggest that there's still hope in the face of the bleak view that the speaker seems to have adopted.
This poem's title ties the whole poem together with a metaphor. The poem explores different ways to view the heart and body as powered by a metaphorical central heating system. The system is kicking into gear as we start with a light, and a woman stretching out like a flare. Then we move to find out that central heating in our speaker's body is not working as it should—he feels as if there has been a breakdown.
This breakdown causes him to doubt the reality of the world, but he comes back to the title idea when he talks about the force that provides central heating for the universe—the sun. He accesses the sun by thinking about his lover's heart, showing that possibly our speaker's love for this woman is his central heating, the force that's keeping him running, despite all of his doubts.
We don't have a simple extended metaphor in this poem. It's not as if each separate part of the heating system is analogized to a different aspect of the love affair. It's more interesting than that. There are gaps, questions, things that don't quite fit into the metaphor. But that's the surrealist side of our speaker, forcing our minds to leap across gaps in logic, even though we're not quite sure we can. Then, after we've succeeded in landing safely, we're forever changed on the other side of the crevice.
And if you wanted to take this title to Big Picture-ville, you could ask, in reading this poem, what kind of central heating do we have as humans? What is the power that keeps our hearts pumping blood, our stomachs digesting, our temperatures at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit? Science, theology, and philosophy present many ways to answer this question, a question that is not answered definitively in this poem, but at which our speaker takes a good stab.
While we know that Reverdy was in Paris when he wrote this poem, it seems that the setting of this poem, for the most part, is inside the mind of our speaker. We jump around, following his eyes and his mind from image to image, even if those eyes are going down the wrong road. (Eyeballs behind the wheel of a car –now there's an image for you.)
Essentially, the speaker is trying to construct a setting at the same time that we are. Just what is real? What is artificial? What is memory and what is happening now? We never get the scoop. Instead, we get the speaker going back and forth between image, metaphor, and (seemingly) tangible detail. Frustratingly, he never seems to come to any conclusion.
So what can we say for certain? If we had to give Regis our final answer, it would be that this setting can best be described as… love. The connection between two people—the speaker and the beloved here—is what sets off all these questions pinging around his head and throughout the poem. Love both occasions the questions and suggests varying answers. Have you ever felt that disorienting influence of love before? If not, you will one day, and then you'll be sharing the same setting as this poem's.
We don't hear too much about the speaker in this poem, so it's up to us to leap from what we read in the poem to a picture of who we think is talking to us. Ready to jump?
First up, an assumption: we assume that our speaker is a fella. That's only because Reverdy in real life was a fella, and this speaker seems to be hung up on a loved one, who we're also assuming is a woman. Now, we know what assuming can do to the best of us, but really nailing down the whys and wherefores of this hot (or occasionally warm) affair is a bit beside the point. What is important about our speaker is the way his thought process operates in the poem. Specifically, we see a person in love trying to come to grips with the reality of his emotions.
Now, that might sound weird. Shouldn't you be happy if you're in love? Well, that really depends on the situation. Sure, it's all high-fives and lollipops for some, but for others being in love represents a real vulnerability. Think about it: when you are totally in love, you're basically putting your happiness in the hands of someone else. It's as if you've become totally dependent on them for everything: happiness, meaning, warmth. And is that a good thing?
Again, there are no easy answers here. It's important to realize that our speaker never comes to any hard and fast conclusions. Instead, we get the inner workings of mind that is questioning. Is this love that the speaker is feeling even real? Could it just be an impulse? What might "real love" even be, after all? Is there artificial love? Our speaker is pushing these questions to their very extreme: What is love? What is warmth? What is reality? What in the Sam Hill is life, for cryin' out loud? Those are a few of the big, BIG questions that plague our speaker, so forgive him if he's a bit out of sorts for these few lines, would you?
This is not a simple poem. You'll need some serious concentration when you read it, and it's probably not going to come through clearly in just one read. It jumps from image to image, and has a lot of metaphors coming into play. They do come together in a coherent whole by the end of the poem, though. The view is worth the effort. So, lace up your good boots and get ready for a difficult, but exhilarating, hike.
Reverdy was one of the major players in the rise of Surrealism, a literary and artistic movement that stressed the importance of dreamlike, surprising imagery. Surrealism attempted to connect the subconscious and conscious worlds, breaking down traditional logic in an attempt to establish a new, more breathtaking logic—the logic of dreams and images and wonders. An effect of the surrealist aspects of Reverdy's poems is to, well, leave his readers a little breathless after they've run along behind Reverdy's wandering mind, leaping from image to image.
In "Central Heating," we see Surrealism when we imagine the heart as part of a Central Heating system, when we're left guessing where exactly the poem is taking place and who exactly it's talking about, and when we think about someone's heart being made out of the same stuff as the sun. If you think about this poem like a mathematician or a lawyer, it's not going to make very much sense. It's illogical, and the pieces don't always fit together. But let your mind be free and open to marvels and magic, and the poem will have an effect that is beyond logical analysis.
The poem has no set rhyme or rhythm scheme. That means that Reverdy was free to do what he liked with the form of the poem.
That doesn't mean, however, that it's arranged helter-skelter on the page. If you look (or read aloud) carefully, you'll find that the varying line lengths have quite an effect. Just take a look at, for example, the first two lines of the first and third stanzas. The pattern here is that one small line, for example "A tiny light," is followed by one much longer line, such as "You see a tiny light coming down landing on your stomach and lighting you up." This has the effect of building the tension and rhythm of the poem—if we were reading this poem aloud, we'd read the short line very slowly, and then speed up to roll with the momentum of the second line.
This short-to-long form is somewhat repeated in the three stanzas. We get two short stanzas, followed by a longer stanza 3. The first two stanzas set us up for the flowing explosion of the third.
It's almost as if we're dealing with a heating system at the beginning of winter. It sputters into life, falters, sputters into life again, and then turns on full blast when we hit the third and last stanza.
There is an extended metaphor running through this poem, linking a central heating system to the human body and heart. As we read, we explore the different things that may give us humans the energy to keep our bodies and minds warm and healthy: a woman's touch, a memory, love, the sun. Yet, in the face of this metaphor, the speaker doubts the reality of the very world he explores. The force behind his heating mystifies him as he ventures to find out what it is. (And do you think he's getting warmer? Sorry, we couldn't help ourselves there.)
Along with the idea of heat, we get light in this poem. Like Starsky and Hutch, heat and light are two things that just go together. Think of fire, for example. While a central heating system doesn't necessarily go along with light, there's a lot of imagery and symbolism dealing with light in the poem. The typical metaphor meaning of "light" in a phrase like "I see the light!" paints light as a symbol for knowledge and revelation. Think, as you read the poem, what these revelations and knowledge might be.
Throughout the poem, we hear about various parts of the human body. From the heart to the eyes to the feet, there are several body parts involved here. Don't worry, though, these aren't gross, or mushy at all—instead, they're connected to the themes of the poem and… well, flesh them out (sorry). Through the different parts of the human body, we are connected with the ideas about love and existence that show up throughout the poem.
There's nothing explicit in this poem, but there's definitely a love affair happening. Sure, it may not be red hot, but there's definitely warmth here, and the suggestion of lust.