Sunday, June 26, 2005

Poem of the Week 6/26/2005: Centaur


The first typeface I loved
was Centaur, cut by Bruce Rogers
in 1914. It had animal bones,
and reminded me of skinny-dipping at night,
baptized in star water so cold
I suddenly became another
animal from the waist down.

In our family, we knew all about the Minotaur,
Cyclops, and centaurs.
My father read to me about the man-horses,
so I had an inkling
of their danger,
and thereafter leaned toward the horse part
and away from the man.

Chase Twichell 2005

Hallo darling friends and family! Another Monday is come and almost gone, so with it I give you this Poem of the Week. I read this poem sitting in Borders with one of my friends, and I went back to copy it out of the Kenyon Review because I loved it so much. What originally caught my eye was the line "star water," and I later realized that my favorite imagery synthesizes the everyday with the cosmic (does anybody remember Dufault's fountain of planets? Beautiful!). Not exactly relevant to the poem I guess, but isn't it exciting to discover something about yourself? I always find so; even the trivial things are invigorating. It's the same with learning things about other people. And I think that I like the small details almost more than the big ones, because people often ignore the small details. One can always overkill on this, of course, but that doesn't make the details irrelevant. Oh look at me chatting away when there is a poem to work on! Though this tangent does remind one of poetry's personal nature. The Poem of the Week (and all poetry I guess) is a very intimate part of me, so to cut that out of my close readings would starve the analysis.

Just a little justification.

Perhaps it is and perhaps it is not coincidental to note that the poem is also distinctly personal. The title, "Centaur," connotes something quite special for this speaker; I for one did not expect it to be a typeface. Also, Twichell (who is, by the way, a woman) writes later that her family knew about centaurs, but the poem is only about one. This centaur is probably the typeface or the speaker herself. But, then, we ask, what is a centaur? Or, more precisely, what does it mean to be a centaur for Twichell? It is clearly more than a typeface; this small, personalizing detail sserves more as a springboard into the true metaphor. I find it interesting that she chooses typeface, which is really a way of writing, as the opening image, for it's like a second layer of words. We have the visual words on the page, and then we have a means for constructing words within those lines. Just as a poem shakes itself into being when read, this poem's central metaphor clip clops out of that typeface when recollected.

She feels like a centaur because the water agitates her lower-body nerves just so. Twichell seems to say, then, that a strong, seizing physical sensation like skinny dipping can turn us into animals. Or perhaps it simply reminds us of our animal bodies, exposing the animal by peeling away the cerebral layers. Some of you may have noticed that she is animal from "waist down." This connotes sexuality, of course, though Twichell does not follow on this track. I think that the idea of being part animal means, both here and in life, that humans have an instinctual, powerful, noble side along with our delicate hands and quick brains. Simple, but easy to forget.

Twichell, having established the metaphor, leaves it for a moment, giving us more personal history. She provides the Minotaur and the Cyclops as other mythical beasts. I enjoyed imagining her family life as these two partial-humans. Instead of saying that "In our family, we knew / all about the Minotaur, / [and] Cyclops," she could have said, "my family was familiar with bull-headedness and short-
sightnedness." It could also mean that her family was well-read and connected with the past, but I like the more personal response.

Near the end of the poem, the speaker talks of centaurs' apparently inherent danger. Because she chooses to stick with the animal over the man, it seems that she believes this danger comes from man. This part of the poem invites us to think whatever we want about the dangers of man and the positive aspects of an animal. For me, the greatest peril of being a man (against which there is advantage in being animal) is our cerebrality; we forget to simply feel sometimes for one reason or another. Work is tiring, kids are draining, we don't laugh anymore... we fear feeling. That is something to which a horse would not be sensitive in my imagination. It is all about freedom from fear and societal constructs and binary opposites. Of course, there are any number of ways to look at the danger idea - man could be dangerous because his heart can break. Perhaps it is safer to be an animal and procreate without feeling. That interpretation calls back the sexuality in line 8. Man's danger could come from being so destructive. It struck me a little bit ago that animal could also be a metonym for nature, so the poem could be an ecological statement. The dangers of being a centaur could actually have to do with the tension between man and animal, too. Perhaps they are not reconciliable, so one has to choose? Maybe that is the tragedy.

I wrote at the beginning of this poem, "perhaps it is and perhaps it is not coincidental that this poem is very personal." I mean that it isn't a coincidence that I am going off on personal tangents for this particular poem. A personal poem evokes personal responses, and I hope that you think about what is human and animal and neither in yourself. I hope that you can respond personally to this poem by thinking about it - that is how to interact with literature and possibly learn something about yourself along the way. Sometimes articulating something is better than just knowing it; that is what poetry can do for me. It has a way of forcing me to pinpoint and spell out whatever I am feeling.

On a final note, I know that I mixed up the speaker and Chase Twichell time and again here, but it helps me to think of a poem's speaker as the author most of the time. There are of course countless poems wherein it is obvious that the speaker and author are separate, but I believe that this is not one of them. I don't know enough about the different schools of poetry yet to sort out the Confessional poets. With time, with time. For this time, I hope that you enjoyed this poem and good night!


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