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There is a girl in our neighbourhood who always wears a red shawl-like thing. I see her often, and her shawl has a sort of haunting effect on me. This poem, though shorter than its introduction, sets out to exorcize this haunting.

Over Everything

She wears a red shawl over everything,
and everything else is forgotten,
because the red she wears is over everything.

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I wrote some time ago about the image of bluebottles in the writing of C. S. Lewis, Robert Graves, and George Orwell, describing how two different kinds of bluebottle — the fly and the flower — had become entwined for me in this image.  Interestingly, at least to me, I recently came across a reference to the flower part of this image in William Golding’s Free Fall, and even more interestingly, the reference appears in the context of death and World War II, both of which were elements that I discussed in my previous post.  The strangest part of the reference, however, is how randomly it appears in the novel.  The main character, Sammy Mountjoy, is being interrogated by a German officer named Halde, when the reference to the cornflower (another name for a bluebottle flower) is inserted almost randomly into the dialogue.  I will quote the whole section, beginning with the words of Halde:

“Tell me everything you know about the escape organization and you shall be what you were before, neither more nor less.  You shall be taken from this camp to another camp, neither more nor less comfortable.  The source of our information shall be concealed.'”
“Why don’t you talk to the senior officer?”
Blue cornflowers.
“Who would confide in a senior officer?”
“Why won’t you believe me?”
“Who would believe you, Mr. Mountjoy, if he had any sense?”

The reference to cornflowers could hardly be more random, seemingly even less motivated that the instances of the image that I had discovered previously, and once more it used here by an English writer of that generation, one who went to school at Oxford and fought in World War II and wrote in a wide variety of literary genres.   I have no idea what to make of this, but I am utterly fascinated.

I have tried to articulate the ideas of this poem in a more serious way any number of times, but this is what comes of my attempt to do so with a little more humour.  I have no other justification for it.

Suitable Words

I was calling her thighs soft at first,
but the word is obvious, and besides,
we’re not just talking about sweaters here,
or kittens, or plush toiletpaper rolls.
These are a sleeping woman’s thighs,
so soft doesn’t begin to cover it.
It’s the same with the word smooth.   I mean, sure,
a woman’s thighs are nothing if not smooth,
but then so is everything else these days.
Bottled beer is smooth, and so is a car’s
new totally redesigned suspension,
and so are flavoured yoghurt cups.
The word smooth has lost all useful meaning.
Now, I once heard a poet tell his love
that her thighs looked yielding on the soft sheets,
and the word yielding has the benefit,
at least, of being slightly less cliche,
but only at the too substantial cost
of sounding like a paperback romance,
and there’s the grave consideration too
that female bodies are now widely thought
to be capable of a great deal more
than just yielding or not yielding themselves,
what with all the widespread patriarchal
stereotypes of ardent, active males
and modest, passive females having been
thoroughly displaced by now. So there’s that.
The problem is that I can’t think of words
that are in any way more suitable.
Firm is too, well, too firm, I would suggest.
Curved? — accurate but a bit technical.
Warm? — obviously. Plump? — oh God save me.
Just imagine if I called her thighs plump,
even in the best way, because I do think
that thighs should have some plumpness to them;
there’ s just no way I’d get away with it.
But if no true words remain to be said,
then we’re stuck with common experience,
and I have to hope that all hands have laid,
as mine is now laid, on a woman’s thigh,
or a man’s of course, if you so desire,
depending on your gender and preference
and so forth, but a thigh in any case,
because if your hand too has lain like that
you might also understand, without words,
what it is that I’m trying to describe.
Except the thigh where you have laid your hand
would always be another thigh than hers,
your hand always another hand than mine,
and it could never, ever be the same,
not even remotely, not ever.
So I’ll just keep on lying here, and know,
without words, what it is to hold this thigh,
and leave the rest of you all on your own.

I have just finished reading William Golding’s Free Fall, and among many other things that I should but will not write about here and that I will certainly talk about with anyone who wants to have coffee when I get back from PEI, there is a short sentence in a paragraph about how a child perceives the world. It reads, “A doorstep is the size of an altar,” and it reminded me of Heidegger’s discussion of the pain of the threshold, an idea that I have written about several times and have explored at length in several ways, including a longish poem.

What I like about Golding’s contribution to this idea is the attention to the physical similarity between the the doorstep and the altar step, where we are, in both instances, brought to the step before the threshold, to the uncrossable and yet constantly crossed threshold, but where we are most often prevented, unless we have some sort of special status, from crossing the altar step, are made to kneel on it instead, and it strikes me, not that this kneeling is too much reverence, that it should be done away with, but that our easy crossing of the doorstep should perhaps be more reverent, that we should be made to kneel, if not physically at least by word or gesture, as we pass the doorstep, because there is something sacred in it, a resemblance to the altar step that we no longer sufficiently recognize.