29 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/9

A Shower

That sputter of rain, flipping the hedge-rows
And making the highways hiss,
How I love it!
And the touch of you upon my arm
As you press against me that my umbrella
May cover you.

Tinkle of drops on stretched silk.
Wet murmur through green branches.

Amy Lowell

Lowell sets the scene swiftly: we're outdoors, or looking at the outdoors; it's an area with lots of greenery (the hedge-rows), and it could be the countryside, or a park, or even a nice residential area, because we are not far from human habitations and connections (the highways). And it's raining: not a downpour but not quite gently either; the sounds of the rain are brought out vividly with sputter and hiss. And the rain is flipping the hedgerows – that's an odd word to use; the hedgerows obviously are not literally being flipped (turned over sharply) by this rain; perhaps we're meant to see the individual leaves in the hedge-rows being struck and inverted by the splashing rain, or perhaps she's hearkening back to the word's mid-sixteenth-century origins as a term to indicate flicking with the finger and thumb, which is an accurate description of how this sort of rain would hit leaves.

Sputter, flip, and hiss are not necessarily words with positive connotations – in fact, the primary feelings suggested by them are negative ones of confusion, loss, and disapproval. And not everyone is fond of rainy days. So there's a bit of a shock in the third line when this landscape is suddenly entered by the speaker, who expresses vigorous enthusiasm for the scene: How I love it! And we find out that the speaker has not only entered the scene emotionally, she is there physically as well, placing us firmly outdoors as she addresses her companion directly: the touch of you upon my arm. Her explosive exclamation of love is the hinge between the landscape with rain and the companion's touch upon her arm; the conjunction (And the touch of you) spreads the feeling of love from the rain to the companion's touch, another thing she loves; this unexpected joyful feeling of love suffuses the rainy scene. The effect is both public and intimate. She's speaking to the companion, but you encompasses the reader as well; we are drawn in under the sheltering umbrella in a way that feels intimate rather than voyeuristic. Here's another reason to love the rain: it causes her companion to touch her arm, to press against her; it allows her to protect her companion. (Since this is Lowell, we can assume the companion is another woman, though of course a reader can visualize whomever he or she likes as the loved companion; but in this case it's useful to bear in mind that this rain allows the two women to express physical closeness and affection in public.)

After this emotional climax, there is a break, and then two gentle and precise afterglow images:

Tinkle of drops on stretched silk.
Wet murmur through green branches.

The two are still outdoors, still walking in the rain under a shared umbrella. Again, sounds bring the scene to life: the drops fall musically, like chimes, on the stretched silk of the umbrella, though stretched silk may also bring a mental image of  the women's dresses, perhaps (in some future scene) in some disarray or stretched out through caresses. We're given another sound: the murmur of the wind through the branches (communication between the two women is blurred into our perceptions of the world around them). As with tinkle, it's a gentler word, with more positive connotations, than the opening splutter, flipping, and hiss. In this context, murmur may bring to mind postcoital love-talk, especially as it is modified by wet. There are three words in this poem that bring to mind physical sensations: touch, then the more intense press, and then wet. We can trace an erotic arc there. With the final words of the poem – green branches – we are given for the first time a specific color, green, the color of spring's renewal, of growth and health; the sudden appearance of a color may make it seem as if (under the love expressed here) the branches are suddenly flowering before our eyes. (Green is also the color of jealousy; perhaps that connects with splutter, flipping, and hiss to suggest an underlying uneasiness or danger in what is otherwise presented as a glowing and happy moment of love.)

Lowell was a leader in an early Modernist poetic movement called Imagism, which rejected high-toned "poetic" language and vague sentiments in favor of very specific images and emotions. As part of their rejection of what they saw as filler, most Imagist poets jettisoned what they felt were the shackles of regular rhyme and meter in favor of free verse. As in the slightly earlier art-world movement Pointillism, exemplified by the paintings of Seurat, the conjunction of different intense spots of color (or, in the poem, images) produces an energy that generates and vivifies a whole scene. Here, sheerly through precise description of specific details (the rain on the hedge-rows and highways, the sound of rain on an umbrella, the touch of her companion), Lowell has created not only a vision of the two women walking in the rain but a sense of the emotional and even implicitly the physical connection between them, a reminder of the erotic tension and release that can underlie and transform even our most casual and public moments.

I took this poem from Amy Lowell: Selected Poems, edited by Honor Moore for the American Poets Project in the Library of America.


Unknown said...

The last two lines sounded so much like they are from haiku that I even counted syllables, and, yes, 7-7.
One of my favorites that you've posted.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

That's an interesting thought -- the Imagists were influenced by Asian poetry (you may remember the two translations, by Lowell and Pound, of the Letter from a River Merchant's Wife).