20 May 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/21

Richard Wagner's 200th birthday is on 22 May, two days from today. Here is a current American poet offering refractive tribute to his continuing cultural vitality:


Who are you, fair-haired lady,
Dissecting me with blue stares?
Why do you watch me only?

Here on the streets of Cologne,
Across the seats and peopled aisles
Of the Strassenbahn, alone

On evenings in the Alstadt,
Near the twilight Cathedral,
You probe and etch my dark heart.

Though Tristan clasps your prim form
As you navigate the crowd,
I rivet you. Am I charmed?

Is it my caramel flesh,
Or the black gloss of coiled hair,
The gnome's goatee – or anguish

In the eyes? Perhaps you see
James Meredith sprawl – shotgunned –
Or hear Dizzy Gillespie

When you watch me. Can I know
What I am beside the moon:
The darkness or a shadow?

I sing your beauty, lady.
For I can never touch one
Foreign as the moon to me.

D L Crockett-Smith

The poem starts with a basic evocation of the public spaces in the German city Cologne, with the hint of a possible romantic encounter with an interested stranger, but as it begins its second half (in the fifth of eight stanzas), we become gradually aware that it's more about alienation than union. Even in a foreign country the narrator cannot escape his American experience and his consciousness that it shapes the assumptions made about him by others. He feels himself marked out, set permanently apart, by the eyes of this European woman (or women; he mentions several locations in which he has been "dissected with blue stares," so either he's running into the same woman several times or, what seems to me more likely, "she" is a stand-in for all the ultimately unknowable German women with whom he's had such fleeting ocular encounters). Her gaze turns out to be mostly clinical, a dissection, with a curious assumption that his "dark heart" is reflected in his dark skin. Like the Volsungs, his race sets him apart.

Yet he is also projecting his cultural assumptions on to her – she ultimately remains "foreign as the moon" to him. He assumes she is prim (it is actually her "form" he calls prim, but form can imply essence and conduct as well as shape, and the word hangs over her trim figure). But he also associates her, since she is German, with the music of Wagner (just as he is associated, in his own mind and, he thinks, possibly in hers, with the black American jazz of Dizzy Gillespie, though he clearly has knowledge of other kinds of music), and the association with Wagner connects her, despite her primness, with the erotic possibilities of Tristan. But even more than Tristan, it is the Ring that hangs over this poem: not just in the narrator's being set apart like the Volsungs, but in his association with Alberich, the gnome who could be seen as having "anguish in his eyes," the "schwarz [black] Alberich" forever cut off from the love of his desired Rhinemaidens.

Collections by D L Crockett-Smith may be found here; I took this poem from The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, edited by Arnold Rampersad.

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