How not to read

Larkin goes beyond abstract ideas in this collection. One of my favorite images comes from a poem called “Noah Variations”—again with the biblical references, though the image of which I’m speaking isn’t an ark. In fact, I can’t be sure what it is, but here are the lines: “rose blood / retina hung high above the sea.” My initial thought is of the sun and I like this comparison to the body, something fleshier perhaps would have also been nice.

1. The problem with looking for metaphors that aren't explicitly lain out for you: You can only connect the metaphor to something you find obvious (something red and eyeball like above the sea? what could it be? of course it's the sun). But then you are stuck with a metaphor that seems obvious to you. And then you are tempted to blame the author for this obviousness, but of course you are the one who supplied that metaphor, not the author. You are the one to blame for your own dissatisfaction.

2. That is a nice pair of lines though. "rose blood" has at least three meanings: a) rose-colored blood (blood-colored rose?); b) the rising of blood; c) blood from a rose, akin to rose water. "retina hung high above the sea": "retina" makes it human, connected to the eye, and pictures of the retina are noticeable for the blood vessels; "high above" ties with meaning b of the first part; "sea" near "retina" suggests "see"; etc. "rose blood" is a tight cluster of possible connections; the second line stretches some of them out, leaves some behind. It's a tangle at one end with some frayed edges following it.

2a. I don't have the book in front of me, but most of the book works like that; semantic knots followed by looser lines that connect the knots in ways that never quite resolve into a simple clear path, but suggest all sorts of possibilities. This rhythm is one of the things I enjoyed most about the book.

2b. I could go on about that and put psychological motivations behind it (which I certainly did while reading it, and it is the mix of intelligence, fear, and wonder a the big big universe and the big big language that I really loved about the book) but it would take a lot more words to have that analysis come off as anything convincing, so I'll stick it in a parenthetical and leave it be for now.

3. But as a side note I want to point out the sound of those lines: the long, back, mid-open vowels of "rose blood"; starkly different from the copied (can we say "rhymed") vowel patterns to "retina hung" and "high above the"; and the isolated and open-mouthed ending of "sea", a vowelly exhaled ending after a consonant-chiseled pair of lines.

3a. Connect the sound structure in §3 with the semantic structure in §2. Nice!

4. "I can't be sure what it is" is enough to say. Then talk about what you can be sure of.

5. I have more to say about this book, of course.



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