Her Modesty

March 3, 2012

Just as ice fears its fate in icicles,
The songs you hear could be a winter’s hymn,
As when a frost tiara recycles
A whoring snow into betrothal’s whim.
Or as lice fear their frigid race with frost,
And songs of life might be the skin we glance
At when the diadem procures at cost
Both whore and bride at brothel’s sufferance.
How little races matter. Up ahead
The king takes little heed that we paid twice
For lies that neither cause the bride to wed
Nor whore to bed—the king whose spies entice
This willful whore-as-sonnet to conclude…
Just don’t ask her how, sir. That’s very rude.

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9 Responses to “Her Modesty”

  1. Anna Mark Says:

    I just thought I’d mention that I read, “Helen” written by Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century. Here’s the line he concludes with in his poem about the face that launched a thousand ships: And none but thou shall be my paramour!

  2. extrasimile Says:

    Yes, indeed, Anna. The blog is a wonderful space. I’ve just been teaching my students a little bit about Socrates…I wonder what he would have made of it.

  3. Anna Mark Says:

    I come to this blog not just for the good poetry, but also because I enjoy the conversations that your replies hold. The Wallace Stevens, the philosophical ideas and discussions…these are so important. And the glimpses I get into other people’s lives (Thomas’s cancer…I had no idea). This is a meaningful place for me to come and read. This place…this strange internet place…where my connections to virtual people are fueled by…by what? by what I know of people deeply through this “real” life. Connection. Anyway, all very interesting to feel a sense of depth and meaning to a place, here, and to people whom I’ve never met.

  4. Thomas Davis Says:

    I would love to meet you someday, Jim, although given the distances involved the meeting is unlikely. We do have a poetic connection, though, that I, at least, feel deeply.
    The Wallace Stevens’s poem, which I have read before, is magnificent. The interior rendezvous, which is constant, I suspect with all humans, is our most powerful characteristic. It is in thought that we collect ourselves and find the highest candle that lights the dark–as Stevens says. Remembering the poem, especially spilling out of your sonnet, is a gift. Thank you.
    Just as ice fears its fate in icicles,
    The songs you hear could be a winter’s hymn,
    or the thoughts inside ourselves, I guess, or the poetry that spills out of us onto the page, illuminating who we really are even while we are hiding that from ourselves.
    Given that I am fighting bladder cancer right now–which I’ve got on the run, I hope, I will admit that this discussion is powerfully affecting.

  5. extrasimile Says:

    Such a curious relationship the Internet has given us. We share ‘poetic’ thoughts; we probably wouldn’t recognize each other if we sat together on the train. I hope this surgery, Thomas, was minor and you recover completely. This seems a good time to document Wallace Stevens’ use of the word ‘paramour’.

    The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour

    Light the first light of evening, as in a room
    In which we rest and, for small reason, think
    The world imagined is the ultimate good.

    This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
    It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
    Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

    Within a single thing, a single shawl
    Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
    A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

    Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
    We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
    A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

    Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
    We say God and the imagination are one…
    How high that highest candle lights the dark.

    Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
    We make a dwelling in the evening air,
    In which being there together is enough.

  6. Thomas Davis Says:

    Both of you are smarter than I am. This is a playful sonnet indeed. The question is, after the discussion above, what am I to say? I do not think I have lost words, but I did not spot hoar frost right away either, although knowing you, Jim, I probably should have as your words roll into the roll of a tire downhill and spin until they spill out meanings and puns in endless circles of sparkling fireworks.
    And ah, the couplet at the end:

    This willful whore-as-sonnet to conclude…
    Just don’t ask her how, sir. That’s very rude.

    Giving a sonnet a life beyond words, lines, and rhymes seems clever beyond any magic in the known universe, but there it is–as surely as the old animists believed that inside a rock is an old spirit with powers beyond those owned by humanity.
    I suppose it is rude to ask a “lady” sonnet how. After all, a lady is a lady. And so I go off smiling into the sunset of an evening after recovering from surgery.

  7. John Stevens Says:

    Yes, we called it Jack Frost here in England, but we didn’t have your storm windows. We just shivered behind the regular glass.
    Somehow ‘paramour’ sounds a whole lot politer than ‘whore’; less mercenary I suppose (but then I guess poetry doesn’t have much of a market value!).
    I love that pun on hoar frost – very clever. I wish I’d spotted that for myself.

  8. extrasimile Says:

    Yes, I remember frost—we called it Jack Frost—on the windows. In the house I grew up in, my father and I would put storm windows over the regular windows each winter. These windows would frost over each night and then when the sun hit them in the morning they would melt, fading away in the morning light. A frost tiara indeed.
    Is she really a whore? The answer really comes down to whether or not you think poetry is a whore—or is it a legitimate spouse and lover. (Let’s keep in mind that you are quite correct when you describe this poem as ‘playful’.) Wallace Stevens’ term ‘paramour’ might be a better way of putting it. The whole thing really comes from ‘hoar frost’—white frost—which Coleridge uses in the Ancient Mariner. I find it hard to pass such things up.
    I suggest, John, we each make a leg to Her Modesty and pass on in to the ballroom. Cold out here.

  9. John Stevens Says:

    I love this picture: “when a frost tiara recycles/ A whoring snow into betrothal’s whim”. It’s a very tangible image of winter’s white and silver transformation. And it reminds me of my childhood days, before central heating here in England, when winter would bring frost to window pane in the morning – just like that diadem.
    But of course this is the surface of the poem. Let me slow down; let’s listen to winter’s hymn … the songs of life … this playful sonnet (is she really whore? I don’t think so).
    A terrific title by the way, Jim; does she need to be so modest? Where do you get these cunning titles from?


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