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Choose three poems you have studied in the course that have images of light, or objects that emit light. How do these imageries serve the theme of the poems? Carl Sandburg once said that “poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” What are the “shadows” in your chosen poems?
Carl Sandburg once said that “poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” Echo here refers to multiple appearances of imagery in a poem, which allows readers to think freely on a topic that the poet wants to bring about with such imagery. This essay would study the poems Alternative Names of Black Boys by Danez Smith, The Walk by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Eclipse by C. Dale Young respectively, which all contain imageries of light, although they talk about different topics, and allow different ‘shadows’ to dance.
There are 7 imageries regarding light in the descriptions depicting black boys in Alternative Names of Black Boys. These imageries represent power and are used throughout the poem. Black boys are described either being or not being able to possess such power, but those having power are mostly described as unnoticeable or unappreciated, despite some exceptions of some very successful black boys.
The smoke in “1. smoke above the burning bush” represent black boys, as smoke is black in colour. The burning bush is an item in the Bible (Exodus 3:1-4:17), and was the place where Moses was appointed by God to lead the Israelis out of Egypt. The bush was not consumed by the fire and this proved God’s power. To be the smoke in such event of revelation means black boys are also a part God’s plan in saving the world, but only used as a background actor in the plot, and such invisibility renders black boys nearly useless. Moses probably would not have noticed the smoke when he was surprised by God’s miracle in not burning the bush out. Light here symbolizes power as it is something God created in Genesis, from which God used a burning bush to intimidate Israelis to follow route and exit Egypt.
“2. [A]rchnemesis of summer night” contains an image of light as well, if readers imagine the opposite of “summer night”, which is “winter daytime”. According to Smith (2007), “archnemesis are friends from a long time ago that have more or less equivalent powers, but also have opposing ideologies”. Black boys and night both are dark in colour, while black boys and summer are both related to hotness as black boys are originally from Africa, which is in the tropical region. Black boys however can hardly be seen at night and do not enjoy good life in tropical Africa. As an archnemesis of summer night, black boys are “friends of winter daytime”. Despite they are born in summer, they yearn for the lives in temperate countries, like the US, where there are winter. They also yearn to be successful and noticeable and therefore love daytime more than night. Light here represents power as well, as daytime grants power to black boys to make them noticeable and successful.
“4. [C]oal awaiting spark & wind” have ample potential in giving a large amount of light, given that spark and wind is present. Spark, as an object that emits light, gives power to black boys for them to burn and be noticeable. Spark and wind never comes to black boys, however, so black boys are only coal that are “awaiting spark & wind”. This echos with the first description in that black boys are never the ones who are burning and emit light. They are left unnoticed in the world.
The starlight in “6. oil heavy starlight” is described as heavy. It is a paradox here because starlight usually emits little light as seen from earth and light pollution can easily make their light unclear. Stars, however, are in fact made of flammable substances and they have a considerable large amount of fuel to burn before they are run out of it. The starlight star emits in fact are very bright and contains large amount of solar energy that can power any device. Black boys as oil starlight in fact can be very successful and powerful, but when such starlight has come to earth, they are always not clearly seen. Light here again refers to power, which black boys have little on earth, but a lot in God’s view, as God sees black boys from the universe.
A phoenix burns in flames and is at its most prestigious form when it dies and reborn from ash. “9. [P]hoenix who forgets to un-ash” is regarding a newly-reborn phoenix, in which a phoenix is in its weakest form. Like the phoenix, Jesus Christ, commonly used as a metaphor of phoenix, was in his most prestigious form near death, when he was crucified. Black boys here refer to a highly sacred being but not at its most prestigious form. Not even do these black boys do not emit light, but they even forget to un-ash. Such powerful being takes its most powerless form in front of the world’s eyes. Light here again represents power, but black boys seems do not own it at the moment.
“12. [W]hat once passed for kindling” is similar to the newly-born phoenix in the sense that they are both burnt and once emitted light. However, the former is not able to give light again because the item is already passed for kindling for a substantial amount of time, and has not much flammable substance in it. The item can be described as useless. Light here refers to power again as not being able to emit light is useless while able to is powerful. Black boys were once passed around in the US as slaves and used for physical labour. Despite black boys are the strongest boys on earth in terms of physical ability, after being a slave for their whole life, they have not much to kindle, and render the rest of their life useless and powerless.
Paradox appears in “13. fireworks at dawn” again. At dawn it is relatively quiet, and fireworks at this time does not seem an appropriate activity because they create nuisance to people in dream. Although fireworks are beautiful, at dawn there is sunlight already and the light of fireworks cannot be clearly seen. Black boys has the power to show their brilliant side, but to the world they are creating nuisance and not noticeable.
In an interview Danez Smith describes that “even in the saddest poems I think there’s an underlying idea that the absence of joy is still talking about joy in some type of way” (Miller, 2016). Therefore, descriptions such as “phoenix who forgets to un-ash” although are dark and black in colour, are still talking about light in some type of way: absence of light, and thus still qualify as imageries of light. These imageries on presence and absence of light together let the ‘power of black boys’ shadow dance.
There are 5 imageries regarding light or objects that emit light in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s prose poem The Walk. These imageries again represent power. Divakaruni studied in an Irish convent school in the US, where the Irish nuns despise the locals and see themselves as more sacred because they serve God. For Jesus once said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.” (John 8:12). In this poem light represents the power given by God to consecrate one’s life and give power to that person.
The first imagery is from the “patent-leather shoes” that Divakaruni wore to go for a walk every Sunday. Patent leather is a type of shiny leather that reflects a lot of light, symbolizing the high-class status of the students in the convent schools, as many parents were very anxious to send their children to convent schools to receive better education (Seshachari, 2001). When these children leave their school and step their foot on other soils, they were stepping on soil with “color of earthworms”, which is quite a disgusting animal to the general. Other people on the Indian soil are disgusting and have no power and high status given by God.
The second imagery, woodfires, gives a macroscopic view of the general public’s living environment in India, which was poor. They have no electricity and have to rely on woodfires. The woodfires are even hesitant, which means they may not have enough wood to maintain a fire of moderate strength. Hesitant woodfire here represents the Indian public’s lack of economic power in general.
The third imagery is “the thick glossy green”, which is used to describe the shrubs they encountered on the way of the walk. The children are also like the shrubs, a brilliant creature that God creates, and have glossy appearance even in the dark. Once Jesus said to Christians “[y]ou are the light of the world… Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works” (Matthew 5:14-16). These children are seen as role models that lights India just like the Christians Jesus told his words to. This light-reflective imagery again relates to power, as God gives them power to become role models of the general public.
The fourth imagery is from the song “O Kindly Light”, which is led by the nuns with choir-boy voices. Nuns are girls but they use choir-boy voices to sing the song. The sacred nature of this song have eliminated the choice of using girl voices to sing out, and this makes readers question if only boys are compatible with light, and girls are of a lower status than boys because what happened in Genesis (Genesis 3:16). Light here represents the power given to males.
The fifth imagery, “the sun’s pale eye” is followed by “it is stumbling-dark”. A rainstorm has come and the nuns have to take the girls back to the convent school quickly. The sun, covered by the clouds, symbolizes the loss of God’s power given to the nuns. The sixth imagery, ‘a sudden streetlamp lights the nuns’ face”, supports this view. The light makes the nuns’ embarrassing drenched, splotched faces clearly seen. This light is turned on because of the rainstorm’s darkness, symbolizing the Indian woman with pakoras in her hand, as she has a darker skin colour like the rainstorm’s darkness. This woman now have more power over the nuns because the Indian food is more attractive to the girls rather than singing hymns in praise of God. She has exposed weakness in the nuns’ teaching, which treats the children “as if they had no past, no culture, no traditions” (Seshachari, 2001).
In C. Dale Young’s Eclipse, the light imageries depict the misused power of Gods. The “sunlight from the window” is reflected on the patient’s head as if it beams from a metal device in his head. It appears that the patient’s appearance resembles that of an angel, but in fact he cannot move because of spinal injury (Young, 2016). The light, therefore, represents the Gods’ power to put a mortal in disability and mock him.
The plastic pen in the poem “vibrates in a key…/of shiny misfortune”. The use of paradox can be seen here, as vibration produces sounds but is described as visually shiny. Misfortune as a negative imagery is also not used with “dull” but “shiny”, which is a positive imagery. The poet tells the patient to admit the misfortune as shiny because he cannot make things happen against God’s will, and it is more practical to see things positively in a negative position. The only power the patient has is to view things positively.
The poet urged the second time for the patient to view positively about his misfortune by questioning why did he forgot about the holiness of halo, which he now has on his head, the titanium device. The description of the holiness of halo in the questioning plays with different meanings of the word “light”: “ring or rings of light painted by the old masters so as to hover lightly around the head”. The poet may have wanted to elicit the third meaning of light here: taking the patient lightly. God’s power of controlling the mortals can be seen here with the use of the light imagery.
The last imagery of light, the setting sun, is occulted by the moon, forming an eclipse. With this imagery is the first use of first-person narrative in the poem, which refers to the distorted version of the poet: “Admit it: I am not alone” (Thorburn, 2017). Because the eclipse is a significant event, many people would see it, and the poet alone. The distorted version of himself is also a significant variation of the poet and he would appear in such form from time to time like an eclipse (Thorburn, 2017). By the time this version of the poet appears, he speaks against the Gods and try to challenge the powers of the Gods just as the moon tries to cover up the sun’s light (Young, 2016).
Alternative Names of Black Boys, The Walk and Eclipse all used imageries of light. But they are used to let different ‘shadows’ dance: to complain about why no one appreciated black boys’ power, to complain about the Irish nuns’ power to treat non-Europeans with contempt and complain about the Gods’ abuse of power respectively. Although the ‘shadow’ is different in each poem, they together have one similarity, complain about issues of power.
(2199 words, to compensate block practice leave)
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