28 February 2024

Poem of the Week 2024/9

Lot's Wife

"In that rich, oil-bearing region, it is probable that Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of asphalt – not salt."
 – Sir William Whitebait, Member of the Institute of Mining Engineers

I long for the desolate valleys,
Where the rivers of asphalt flow,
For here in the streets of the living,
Where my footsteps run to and fro,
Though my smile be never so friendly,
I offend wherever I go.

Yes, here in the land of the living,
Though a marriage be fairly sprung,
And the heart be loving and giving,
In the end it is sure to go wrong.

Then take me to the valley of asphalt,
And turn me to a river of stone,
That no tree may shift to my sighing,
Or breezes convey my moan.

– Stevie Smith

Smith's poem takes off from the familiar Bible story of Lot's wife (in Genesis 19, specifically verse 26; Lot, his wife, & their two daughters are warned to flee their hometown, Sodom, as the Lord is going to blast it for its iniquities; they are instructed to head into the mountains (Lot negotiates the Lord down to fleeing to a nearby city) & not to look back as they flee, but Lot's wife looks back, for motives not given – nostalgia? vindictiveness? forgetfulness & habit? curiosity? – & is turned into a pillar of salt). More precisely, her poem takes off from a strange & rather funny remark by an apparently distinguished member of the Institute of Mining Engineers, who knows the story but doesn't really seem to grasp, or maybe just take seriously, its punitive religious implications. To him, knowledgeable in oil-rich Middle Eastern geography, asphalt is a more likely natural end result than salt (though the transformation is not a natural result). Asphalt is a sticky residue left over when crude oil is processed; it seems like something that would form a pool rather than a pillar, but maybe that is Sir William's concession to Divine power.

The speaker seems to be a woman in some modern-day Sodom (perhaps London, where Smith spent her life) who would very much prefer to flee to some desolate waste land, a feeling prompted not by righteous religious wrath but by social awkwardness. She means well, or says she does, & greets others with a friendly smile, but something isn't going right, as offense follows her wherever she goes. She seems as if she would fit in: her rhymes are clear & regular, her diction mostly direct, though with a poetic air about it (the desolate valleys & rivers of asphalt). Perhaps that is a result, or perhaps it is the cause, of her ill-fitting-in quality.

The second stanza fleshes out our sense of her: she seems to be married, & middle-aged; old enough, in any case, not only to be married but to have had the marriage "go wrong" in some unspecified way (does that signal a separation? or just average discontent?). The second line, Though a marriage be fairly sprung, is a wittily packed line. Was the marriage sprung on her in some way? Or should we give more weight to the modifying fairly there – it was all in the fair & normal course of things. Or does fairly sprung mean the marriage is pretty far along, as in, it's lasted this long, & so far maybe not so good but OK? Sprung is the past tense of the verb to spring, but there's also a reminiscence of the noun Spring, meaning the season often associated in poetry with eager young love; when this flexible word appears in the past tense, is there an aura of disappointed maturity conveyed indirectly, almost subliminally? Another meaning of sprung, specific to the UK, according to the dictionary I looked at, is of furniture that uses coiled metal springs for support: a mattress, for example. Is there a glancing version of "our sex life is OK but things still aren't quite right" here? The rhyming lines in this poem change from stanza to stanza (in Stanza 1, lines 2, 4, & 6; in Stanza 2, lines 1 & 3; in Stanza 3, lines 2 & 4). So sprung is not officially one of the rhyming lines in its stanza, but there is an echo in sound with the last word of the stanza, wrong: sprung / wrong are close enough to a rhyme so that we notice the dissonance of their not-quite alignment, a verbal half-echo which strengthens the force & meaning of wrong.

Perhaps Lot's Wife had had enough of Sodom, the Lord, & Lot, & deliberately looked back, counting on Jehovah's punishment as her way out; in the final stanza of Smith's poem, the speaker appeals not to an angry God but to some unnamed power to take her away from her awkward life in the awkward city. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking. In either case it is unlikely that anything will happen to the speaker, which adds to the wistful air of the poem. But perhaps wistful isn't quite strong enough, as her desire to escape – to be not dead but transformed into something strange, (perhaps as a reflection of the inner strangeness she feels)– leads her into the most dramatic & even extravagant lines in the poem. So far things have been rueful but mostly average in diction & tone. But now we are dropped in the valley of asphalt, & she wants to become a River of Stone: a powerful & contradictory image. I think here she means not lava or magma, stone or potential stone so blazingly hot that it is liquid; I think she means something impossible in nature, something that is both flowing like a river but hard & solid & set in place like rocks. Clearly we are in a poetic realm here, however bleak; this wish is not a real solution to her discontent, because there is no real solution. (Perhaps her desires have always been contradictory.)

This valley of asphalt isn't completely desolate: the natural world appears in the form of trees & breezes (again, the slippage in sound between tree & breezes helps keep the poem a bit off-kilter as we hear it in our minds). But the speaker isn't expecting happiness there, either; she mostly wishes to be apart from other beings. She wants the trees unaffected by her sighing, the breezes free of her moans. Sighing & moaning will, it seems, continue, but in the valley of asphalt they will not affect her surroundings, as they do in her city life, where even if her sighs & moans are ignored by her husband or others, the very fact of being ignored makes them an inescapable part of her feelings of awkwardness & separation. She wishes to end up like one of the wronged nymphs in Ovid's Metamorphosis, a permanently lamenting & isolated part of the landscape, a striking monument to her own melancholy sense of otherness. The Bible & Ovid's great epic of transformative myths are two of the major source-books for English-language poetry; with a light touch Smith here combines the two, although the Bible is stripped of its deity & the metamorphic escape is only wishful thinking; the speaker's sense of unhappy awkwardness remains.

I took this poem from the Collected Poems of Stevie Smith.

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