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. . . "Portrait of a Lady," written in 1920 though not included in Sour Grapes, consciously parodies the catalogue convention and calls into question poetic inscriptions of the feminine. In an image linking it to "A Cold Night, " the poem begins: "Your thighs are appletrees / whose blossoms touch the sky" (129). Proceeding, as is customary within the catalogue structure, to comment (gaze) upon the lady's knees and ankles, the poem interrupts itself in a fashion uncustomary of its genre. With each image of a body part, questions break the sequence, until the syntax disintegrates into uncertainty:

        it is 

one of those white summer days, 

the tall grass of your ankles 

flickers upon the shore— 

Which shore?—

the sand clings to my lips— 

Which shore? 

Agh, petals maybe. How 

should I know? 

Which shore? Which shore? 

I said petals from an appletree.                              (129)

Through suffering a disruption of the catalogue convention, the poem has undergone a process of revision on numerous levels. It comments upon the genre (and, by extension, a whole tradition of love poetry) and its reliance upon the male gaze as an objectifying, controlling authority of vision, for the gaze no longer commands the poem once the questions unsettle the eye's directive control. Based on a painting by Watteau, the poem reconsiders the representation of women by male artists. Repeatedly interrogating both the selection and creation of images, it rejects the extended metaphor of the catalogue: "Which sky?"; "What I sort of man was Fragonard?"; "Which shore?" The poem also revises its verbal construction; the opening metaphor evolves into the direct statement ending the poem, suggesting that the woman's body escapes metaphorical dismemberment. Line by line, the poem derails the direction it initially established until it implicitly questions its own authority as a cultural inscription.


From Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press.