Thomas Dilworth

Thomas Dilworth: On "Portrait of a Lady"

Veiled by metaphors and changing tone, the eroticism of this poem has not been fully unappreciated. The poem works and partly disguises itself by means of contrasts between subject and imagery and by distraction, as the bumbling speaker progresses through interruptive rhetorical excursions and returns. Emotionally he rings the changes from erotic adulation through nonchalance to petulance. Having begun in a metaphorical vein, he feels obliged to continue inventing metaphors, and the obligation strains his patience. He makes "mistakes," which frustrate him and distract the reader from his subject, a woman's lower extremities. This is a "portrait" only from the waist down, and it begins, at least, as a love poem in the Renaissance mode of direct address, comparing body parts to aspects of nature.

The initial metaphor is appletrees for thighs. "Blossoms" above the trunks suggest lacy underwear or pubic hair, which, in turn, touches "the sky." The metaphorical sky must be the lady's bottom, a designation initially emphasized by the question "Which sky?" The erotically charged tactility of the word "touch" is canceled, however, by its metaphorical relationship to sky, which no one ever really touches. And the speaker short-circuits the logic by which the sky is her bottom when he identifies the sky as that in a picture, remembered as by Watteau, in which a young woman's slipper hangs in air.

Soft and warm, the "knees" of the speaker's lady are "a southern breeze." The silly rhyme may indicate an amateur (the speaker, not Williams) at work. Wishing to add the tactile to the visible, and because the knees are white, he says that they are also "a gust of snow." A poet might want to revise here, because the warm breeze and the snow are contradictory. (The warmth would melt the snow, or the snow cancel the warmth.) So when the speaker exclaims, "Agh!" the reader might assume that he has caught his mistake, but the speaker is thinking of an earlier, factual error. The painting in which "a lady's / slipper" hangs is not by Watteau but by Fragonard. Distracted by realizing his error - which he does not go back to correct, because the fictional pretext is that this is a transcript of thinking - he wonders "what / sort of man" Fragonard was. We shall see that this question has sexual implications. He quickly dismisses the question and recalls his purpose, "Ah, yes," and resumes his selection of metaphors, moving "below / the knees, since the tune / drops that way." This statement is risque, implying that the tune might just as easily have risen above the knee. Furthermore, the word below is ambiguous here, because in the painting by Fragonard the young woman raises her right leg so that "below" the knee might literally mean above it.(2) But here the ordinary convention applies - and unlike Fragonard's woman, this one will have her feet on the ground. The speaker feels obliged by having moved almost inadvertently from thigh to knee to continue in that direction to calves, "those white summer days," and ankles. The latter are flickering "tall grass," an image that decorporealizes and de-eroticizes. In fact, none of the metaphors, except possibly "blossoms," is erotic. Carried by momentum of descent, the speaker kisses not the ground but "the shore," a word connoting destination. According to the logic of anatomy, this "shore" is her feet. He asks, "Which shore?" (line 16), recalling his previous short question, "Which sky?" (3), with its initially erotic suggestion. Shore and sky are feet and bottom, at each of which legs terminate. These terminations may have affinity with one another, because feet is sometimes a euphemism for genitals.(3) The word feet is not mentioned, however, and the erotic suggestion is faint.

We saw that the first question, "Which sky?" leads to a reification of metaphor that transforms its effect. We shall see that the corresponding second question may signal another transformation. In answer to this second question, the speaker decides that his "shore" has a beach: "the sand clings to my lips." Because this image elicits discomfort ("Agh"), he tentatively revises: "petals maybe." Then, in a return to the opening metaphor of the poem, he makes the choice definite: not sand but "petals from an appletree." Passive now, he is petulant at having to make the choice: "How should I know?" Twice he asks, "Which shore?" to help him decide whether his lips will take away from the kiss sand or petals. But why, in the penultimate line, does he repeat the question? He has already exchanged sand for petals, albeit tentatively. The question now seems inappropriate, its third and fourth repetition excessive - unless another choice is being considered.

What other shore is there from which he might come away from a kiss with "petals from an appletree?" He may kiss the blossoms themselves. This possibility requires that her bottom also be a "shore" and, implicitly, a destination - which is how a man might regard the female genital area. If her groin is now his shore, the "blossoms" must be pubic hair. (Whether dropped onto feet or still in place, "blossoms" are unlikely to be lacy underwear, because the notion of underwear clinging to his lips after a kiss is ludicrous.) The reasons a reader might suspect the exchange of feet for pudendum are: the choice of the word "shore," with its connotation of destination; the excessive repetition of "Which shore?": the suggestiveness of "feet"; the ambiguity (in the context of the painting) of "below"; the suggestion that movement from thigh to knee might have gone in the other direction; and the return to the opening metaphor, which may be a reversal in direction.

The allusion to Fragonard's The Swing emphasizes interest above the knee. In that painting, a young woman exposes her open legs to the enraptured gaze of a voyeur hidden in a bush directly in front of her. Few modern viewers realize what the painter knew and what Williams may have known, that eighteenth-century women did not wear underpants. These, in the shape of bloomers, were inventions of the nineteenth century. When the speakers asks, "what / sort of man was Fragonard" (7-8), he implies an interest in the Frenchman's sexual preferences and may wonder whether Fragonard was a voyeur. Because the title of the poem identifies the speaker as a metaphorical painter, an analogous question would be, "What sort of man is he?" There is a hint, at least, of interest in cunnilingus. As the few commentators who have thought it requires analysis agree, this poem is much more a portrait of the speaker than of the lady. If he is revealed to be whimsical, lackadaisical, petulant, and not a very good poet, something about his erotic inclinations is also at least implied. He is not, however, a voyeur like the youth in the painting. That role is reserved for the reader, the viewer of this "portrait."

From The Explicator 56.2 (Winter 1998)

Thomas Dilworth: On "Coon Song"

"Coon Song" by A. R. Ammons is a remarkably metamorphic literary experience. It seems to deconstruct itself by denying its opening narrative description—about a raccoon surrounded by hunting dogs—in order to express something beyond the range of narration and description. The narrative is broken off by the poet's direct address to the reader, which initiates a dramatic monologue. Within this monologue, kinds of relationship between the poem (or poet) and the reader are in conflict. Because the dramatic monologue retains its reference to the initial narrative and because the dominant images of that narrative become metaphors in the monologue, the poem retains its unity. This achievement is especially impressive since the work tends to fly apart because of multiple generic metamorphoses. At eighty-eight lines, it is too long to reprint here in its entirety, so I will quote liberally as I interpret.

The initial narrative captures the moment before action, the imminent attack on the raccoon by the dogs:

I got one good look

    in the raccoon's eyes

        when he fell from the tree

came to his feet

    and perfectly still

        seized the baying hounds

in his dull fierce stare,

    in that recognition

        all decision lost,

choice irrelevant, before the

    battle fell

        and the unwinding

of his little knot of time began. . . . (ll.1-13)

The narrative is followed by an editorial intrusion expanding on the notion of freedom and its limits: "Dostoevsky would think it important if the coon / could choose to / be back up the tree: / or if he could chose to be / wagging by a swamp pond, / dabbling at scuttling / crawdads" (ll.14-21). In one sense, the coon, like any victim, has no choice. He may fantasize himself into a safe, womb-like, leaf-lined hole "of a fallen oak" (l.24). This is not, of course, a practical option, though it may constitute the sort of choice the poet reads in the coon's eyes: "reality can go to hell" (l.28)—a metaphysical choice of sorts. Realistically, the only decision the coon can make is between "exposed tenders, / the wet teeth" (ll.40-41). Tenders, the ligaments at the back of the hounds' jaws, pun on the commercial term for "formal offers." Which mouth to choose is, for the coon, the only "problem to be / solved" (ll.41-42). Because the editorial intrusion is the sort that narrative can accommodate, no generic change has so far occurred.

But then the poet turns on the reader: "you want to know what happened, / you want to hear me describe it, / to placate the hound's-mouth / slobbering in your own heart" (ll.47-48). The poet catches us in voyeuristic expectation, wanting to witness the consummation of violence; as readers we become analogous to the blood-thirsty hounds. And a corresponding metaphor is implied: the poem—and then, as he speaks for himself, the poet—becomes the coon. (As hounds will consume the coon, readers consume the poem.) The imminent "unwinding" of the coon, we now realize, has affinity for the unwinding that takes place during literary analysis and may recall Wordsworth's dictum, "we murder to dissect." As if to avoid such analysis, the poem itself begins to unwind as the poet says about the fate of the coon: "I will not tell you" (l.49).

But then, apparently contradicting himself, he relates that "the coon / possessing secret knowledge / pawed dust at the dogs / and they disappeared" (ll.49-52). The fantasy breaks the realism that has dominated the narrative and that will go on to characterize most of this dramatic monologue of direct address. As a consequence, the initial narrative is seen as fictitious and therefore, in its conclusion, as potentially a romance, in which the coon can make the dogs disappear. But then the poet undermines this possibility: "maybe he didn't: I am no slave that I / should entertain you, say what you want / to hear , let you wallow in / your silt" (ll.56-60).

Why silt? The only possible explanation is implied by references to the pond where crawdads scuttle (ll.19, 54). If the poet is now the coon, we readers have become crawdads scuttling in silt, which is the comfortable habitat of wish-fulfillment. The hunters (the hounds/readers) have become the hunted, and the coon/poet has caught us, though almost immediately he allows us our freedom, in fact, insists on it.

At first this freedom seems contingent on the generosity of the poet, for he remains in control in so far as he generates what we consume and directs our mental and emotional response. But it is precisely to diminish this control and to increase our freedom that he institutes a new generic shift—to nonsense, which is, as Lewis Carroll realized, closely related to romance though it effects the collapse of all other generic modes: "one two three four five six seven eight nine ten: / (all this time I've been / counting spaces / while you were thinking of something else" (ll.61-64). We are forced to realize that the entire poem has been a counting of spaces, an artifice or conventional fiction and not only as narrative but as monologue. What we have accepted as imaginatively "real" in deference to primary literary convention is actually built on airy nothing. Literary "reality can go to hell."

This the poet further emphasizes as he returns us to romance: "mess in your own sloppy silt: / the hounds disappeared . . . into—the order / breaks up here—immortality: I know that's where you think the brave / little victims should go" (ll.65-71). The effect of this is to make the reader realize that the element of direct address in the monologue is also a fiction since you, surely, are not the fictional reader. That reader is a projection of the poet, someone who was hound-like in wanting the coon killed but able to identify with the coon enough to want (or accept) its magically making away with the hounds. To that point you may well coincide with the projected reader. But now that the poet continues associating the reader with the hounds, he supposes that you identify emotionally with them. Behind the comedy of this final supposition is implied an immense passivity and egoism on the part of the reader that force you to disidentify with the fictional reader. The "silt," which that reader wallows in, is now not the fantastic escape of the coon from death but the escape of the hounds from death into "immortality," which the poet suggests is equally unreal.

He continues to free the reader from authorial control by generating more nonsense, which is now circular in its unwinding of the poem:

                I do not care what

you think: I do not care what you think:

        I do not care what you

                think: one two three four five

six seven eight nine ten: here we go

        round the here-we-go-round, the

                here-we-go-round, the here-we-

go-round: coon will end in disorder at the

        teeth of hounds: the situation

                will get him. . . . (ll.72-81)

Twice we have been offered the contrasting outcomes of brutal realism and escapist romance or fantasy. Now the speaker presents "two philosophies" condensed into images: "spheres roll, cubes stay" (l.82). If we read these as aesthetic philosophies and as reflecting the choices we have so far been given, the rolling spheres suggest romance, which has up to now been a wallowing in accommodating silt, and the static cubes suggest realism. As larger, ontological philosophies, the spheres suggest Platonic idealism; the cubes, Aristotelian realism.

In any case, the poet finally, enigmatically announces, "what I choose / is youse: / baby (ll.86-88). With that decision, he transfers choice, placing responsibility squarely on the reader. How will you, whose "exposed tenders" have been chosen, consume this coon/poem? Will you choose escapist romance? Probably not, since the poet has biased you against romance as a mere wallowing in silt. Will you choose brutal realism? Although it seems more probable, he has also biased you against voyeuristic self-indulgence. Maybe you can refuse the choice.

But what you must accept is the freedom of the poet, who is "no slave that" he "should entertain you" (ll.57-58). He has liberated himself. Moreover, because he has become analogous to the coon and because of the colloquial racist connotations of the word "coon," his self-liberation resonates with the civil rights movement already under way when this poem was first published.

Analogically, the meaning of the work is partly sociopolitical, but the experience that gives substance to the analogy is literary-analytical and consists of the liberation of the poet (and also the reader) from literary bondage through radical shifts in generic modality: from realistic narrative to dramatic monologue and, within monologue, between realism, romance, and nonsense. In the process, the reader's point of view is repeatedly altered and finally brought to the awareness that he or she is not the reader whom the poet addresses, is in no way accommodated by the poem, and is therefore as free as the poet. 

From The Explicator 47:1 (Fall 1988), pp. 40-43.