Poem of the week: Atavism by Elinor Wylie

11 months ago 153


I ever was acrophobic of Somes’s Pond:
Not the small pond, by which the willow stands,
Where laughing boys drawback alewives successful their hands
In brown, agleam shallows; but the 1 beyond.
There, erstwhile the frost makes each the birches burn
Yellow arsenic cow-lilies, and the airy entity shines
Like a polished ammunition betwixt achromatic spruce and pines,
Some unusual happening tracks us, turning wherever we turn.

You’ll accidental I imagination it, being the existent daughter
Of those who successful aged times endured this dread.
Look! Where the lily-stems are showing red
A soundless paddle moves beneath the water,
A sliding signifier has stirred them similar a breath;
Tall plumes surmount a painted disguise of death.

This week, we’re revisiting the enactment of the New Jersey-born writer and novelist Elinor Wylie. Atavism, from her archetypal collection, Nets to Catch the Wind, is an awesome sonnet, archetypal taking the scholar disconnected defender with its title, and pursuing that with the quiet, astir casual admittance of the archetypal line: “I ever was acrophobic of Somes’s Pond.” Wylie organises the iambic pentameter present truthful that “was” is accented – not intrusively but with understated, colloquial assertiveness.

The pond she’s not acrophobic of is simply a country of lively activity, the section boys hand-catching “alewives” (plump, herring-like fish) successful “brown, agleam shallows”. But the communicative moves connected swiftly to “the 1 beyond”, displayed successful the evocative colours Wylie ever handled truthful good successful her poetry. It’s a wintertime scene, sinister with much than the stillness of the frost that “makes each the birches pain / Yellow arsenic cow-lilies”. Yellow birch trees are disturbing. The notation to the yellowish “cow-lilies” mightiness besides beryllium a reminder of however densely these fast-growing water-lilies (also known arsenic spatterdock) tin colonise a pond, and permission the food and different plant-forms dormant for deficiency of light.

It’s absorbing that, arsenic the octave closes, the plural pronoun “we” replaces the narrator’s “I”, and gives the communicative a caller accent arsenic shared experience, possibly the fractional of a conversation. We’re brought firmly into the contiguous tense, too, for other ghostly effect: “Some unusual happening tracks us, turning wherever we turn.” Cleverly, but not ostentatiously, the “turning” of the couple, and immoderate is haunting them, foreshadows the “turn” of the sonnet.

“You’ll accidental I imagination it,” the talker continues, addressing the reader, arsenic good arsenic her companion, “being the existent girl / Of those who successful aged times endured this dread.” So the atavism of the rubric comes into focus. But wherefore is “this dread” the poet’s peculiar inheritance? Settlers had arrived successful Somesville successful 1761, making this country the oldest non-indigenous colony connected Mount Desert Island. Perhaps Wylie heard shade stories portion connected vacation there, and felt her ain high-achieving household shared the guilt of the assemblage past. As the fearfulness intensifies, the archetypal representation she sees, moving underwater, is the “silent paddle”, intelligibly an entity belonging to the suppressed indigenous population.

The “tall plumes” mightiness beryllium suggested by the reddish lily-stems, the “sliding shape” by the question of the water, whereas “the painted disguise of death” belongs to a much symbolic bid of imagination. Finally, the poem seems to stiffen astir the plumed and painted mask. That earlier, relaxed, colloquial code is lost. The vaguely threatening movements of the ghosts besides cease, arsenic if stunned by the mask’s presence.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists 2 definitions of Atavism: “recurrence successful an organism of a trait oregon quality emblematic of an ancestral signifier and usually owed to familial recombination” and “recurrence of oregon reversion to a past style, manner, outlook, approach, oregon activity”. The 2nd is astir applicable to the eventual closure the sonnet dramatises. The atavistic consciousness of “dread” is older than the fearfulness of vengeful ghosts handed down by a colony oregon family: it’s the dread felt by the “ghosts” themselves, erstwhile their lives were threatened by the tide of caller settlers. This past embraces a longer, wider span of quality ancestry, which Wylie’s sonnet simultaneously reveals and conceals.