Monday, November 07, 2005

Poem of the Week 11/7/2005: Deaf-Mute in the Pear Tree

Deaf-Mute in the Pear Tree

His clumsy body is a golden fruit
pendulous in the pear tree

Blunt fingers among the multitudinous buds

Adriatic blue the sky above and through
the forking twigs

Sun ruddying tree's trunk, his trunk
his massive head thick-knobbed with burnished curls
tight-clenched in bud

(Painting by Generalic.* Primitive.)

I watch him prune with silent secateurs

Boots in the crotch of branches shift their weight
heavily as oxen in a stall

Hear small inarticulate mews from his locked mouth
a kitten in a box

Pear clippings fall
soundlessly on the ground
Spring finches sing
soundlessly in the leaves

A stone. A stone in ears and on his tongue

Through palm and fingertip he knows the tree's
quick springtime pulse

Smells in its sap the sweet incipient pears

Pale sunlight's choppy water glistens on
his mutely snipping blades

and flags and scraps of blue
above him make regatta** of the day

But when he sees his wife's foreshortened shape
sudden and silent in the grass below
uptilt its face to him

then air is kisses, kisses

stone dissolves

his locked throat finds a little door

and through it feathered joy
flies screaming like a jay

P. K. Page 1985

* Ivan Generalic (1914-1992), Croatian painter in a "native" or "primitive" stlye
** boat race

Hello! I was delighted last night to find P.K. Page in my Norton Anthology; I had read this poem before, but hadn't really appreciated it until yesterday. The music of the poem is round and thick and crisp, like a pear. Read it out loud - you are meant to feel the words come rolling off of your tongue.

This musicality, in fact, is somewhat ironic, as the narrator is discussing a deaf-mute. He could no more say these words than we could sit up and fly out the window. This tension indicates that examining tone will be fruitful for this poem, if you'll excuse the pun. The tone shifts from beginning to end, or at least appears to; whereas the deaf-mute is almost problematically represented in the first 15 lines or so, the narrator turns to him with more empathy in the final half of the poem by attempting to re-create and thus empathize with his experience.

Labeling him "deaf-mute" is akward right off the bat. After all, aren't we taught to look past people's physical characteristics and see what's inside? Naming him only as a "deaf-mute" seems to limit him. However, the view of this deaf-mute is more nuanced than an initial glance will reveal, even in the beginning. The speaker uses the words "clumsy", "blunt", "thick-nobbed", and "trunk" to describe him, which appear stereotypical and harsh. However, the poem's music softens these callous observations. By mixing "His clumsy body" with "a golden fruit / pendulous in the pear tree", he smooths out the label. Other lines reflect this technique. "Blunt fingers" move among "multitudinous buds" and his head is "thick-nobbed with burnished curls / tight-clenched in bud". We get images of primitivism mixed with those of fertility, richness and color. Though he moves "heavily as oxen in a stall", he uses sophisticated-sounding tools ("silent secateurs").

Part of me, though, wonders if the complicated language results from the narrator's childish desire to assert his own ability to say these words. These words do carry some kind of prejudice; it's odd that such a beautiful poem signifies bias. The tension sitting between the discrimination and the ripe imagery reflects the tension that appears at all levels of this poem. There is tension between the rich visual imagery and the word's aural cadence in "pear clippings fall / soundlessly on the ground / Spring finches sing / soundlessesly in the leaves". The lines, "small inarticulate mews from his locked mouth [sound like] / a kitten in a box" embody this contrast. On one hand, the narrator likens the deaf-mute to a soft, tender kitten, while on another he compares his attempt at communication to that of an animal. Thus, the deaf-mute is at once sympathetic and degraded.

The narrator's bias lifts somewhat as the poem continues, however; he begins to empathize with the deaf-mute by couching his observations in terms the man would understand and indeed by nearly swathing himself in the mute's consciousness. The line "A stone. A stone in hears and on tongue" represents the man's disability in a form he can understand. A stone, after all, exists as a visual and tactile object. It certainly makes no noise, linking it to his handicap. Again, though, we must ask ourselves if equating a man with a stone is problematic; stones, aside from being seen and not heard, are not intelligent. The phrase "dumb as a rock" springs to mind.

I would argue, however, that the view is not intentionally negative. Of course not; "Deaf-Mute in a Pear Tree" is, instead, about a "normal" human watching a liminal other. So of course there are positives and negatives; Page certainly picks up on the fact that the speaker is not trying to degrade the deaf man. There are indications in the second half of the poem that the mute has other, special perceptions as well. The narrator notes that the mute "knows the tree's / quick springtime pulse". The deaf man notices the smell of the pear tree's sap, a feat I doubt many could reproduce. More interestingly, though, is how images of water and sky are consistently mixed. The sky is "Adriatic blue" (in reference to the Adriatic Sea), "pale sunlight's choppy water glistens", and "flags and scraps of blue / above him make regatta of the day". The narrator, in imagining this other's senses, gains insights/perspective he might not have had without this encounter.

The speaker actually drapes himself in the deaf-man's consciousness when the wife enters. Before treating this, however, we must note the line "his wife's foreshortened shape"; this line could again encompass one of two views. "Foreshortened" may be a reference to how, from above (where the mute is standing), people look shorter. On the other hand, however, it could signify that the wife, too, is disabled. She doesn't uptilt her face, her shape uptilts "its face". This is precarious; the narrator straddles the line between empathy and prejudice.

While the previous line is potentially offensive, the line, "then air is kisses, kisses" is utterly empathetic. The deaf man's thought breaks through the narrator's, or perhaps occupies the speaker's consciousness, displacing it. It finally ascribes a delicate kind of beauty to the mute: a complex, bright emotion. That kind of tenderness truly humanizes him as well, making up for (in my opinion, though this is a value judgment) the previous references. It shows, to me, that the narrator has grown over the poem, to this point at least. The euphoric form at the end of the poem does persuade me some, though; the capital-less, cascading lines "then air is kisses, kisses / stone dissolves / his locked throat finds a little door" comprise the empathatetic pinnacle of the poem. They are as beautiful as the the emotion they describe.

The final couplet, needless to say, undermines this delicacy. Or rather, reimplements the tension found elsewhere throughout the poem. It is as if the narrator is shocked at the final sound, and his return to an animalistic description revives his prejudice. The period is absent, leaving the sentence hanging as are our jaws. The ending makes me wonder, is it possible to step outside of our prejudices (for they doubtlessly exist), to consciously shake them, or do we simply sedate them? Or is it that we have the tendency to be fascinated by monstrosity - the anthropologist/literary critic/professor René Girard would have something to say about prejudice. We are threatened by liminally similar others, as this disabled man is. He engenders both human and non-human qualities, making him threatening, according to Girard.

But - very few of you will care about/understand that thread, so I leave you here. Before I go, though, I want to say that I have been estactic to recieve feedback from you, either through email or comments. I am completely serious when I say that it makes my day. So thank you to all of you who read this and to those of you who commment (Tom and Gloria!).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

just wanted to let you know that I am studying this poem in a course, and your insight was very eye opening and quite helpful!