Friday, September 9, 2011

POETRY: "Candlebird" by Don Paterson

I do not read a great deal of contemporary poetry. This is not to say that it's not worth reading; in fact the more I read the more I find to like about it. But when you only have so much time to yourself, you tend to want to read the classics.

But I am glad that I was assigned Don Paterson's book of poetry The White Lie in college, because it is very good, and I really love this poem. The note on the title is the poet's own, the other note is mine. And all I know about Abbas Ibn Al-Ahnaf is that he was a poet, and that Mr. Patterson must have read some of his work.

after Abbas Ibn Al-Ahnaf, c. 750

If, tonight, she scorns me for my song,
You may be sure of this: within the year
Another man will say this verse to her
And she will yield to him for its sad sweetness.

'"Then I am like the candlebird,"' he'll continue,
After explaining what a candlebird is,
'"Whose lifeless eyes see nothing and see all,
Lighting their small room with my burning tongue;

His shadow rears above hers on the wall
As hour by hour, I pass into the air."
Take my hand. Now tell me: flesh or tallow?*
Which I am tonight, I leave to you.'

So take my hand and tell me, flesh or tallow.
Which man I am tonight I leave to you.

*Generic name for several species of seabird, the flesh of which is so saturated in oil the whole bird can be threaded with a wick and burnt entire.

*tallow: the white nearly tasteless solid rendered fat of cattle and sheep used chiefly in soap, candles, and lubricants

I like how this poem speaks to the fickle nature of love and lust. It touches on a truth about love that we all learn as adults: that sometimes who you are or what you do is not as important as when you meet a given person. This can be discouraging and also frustrating, particularly to young men, who are more likely to be caught up in one-sided infatuation. And maybe it's just me, but I like how the "verse" in question (what we might call a pick-up line more colloquially), is just a tad sleazy. Again, it speaks to how if you catch a woman on the right night, you might just be able to get her into bed with a really sleazy line.

The speaker's imagined rival comes across as less genuine than he somehow, which I think is how all young men imagine their rivals. While the rival would use the same line on the same woman and it would work, it is the speaker who really means it and believes it. Of course, maybe he doesn't. After all, this whole imagined scenario ultimately adds up to a longer and more complex pick-up attempt in the last two lines. The only question is, is it done cynically or is the speaker so lovesick that he actually believes what he is saying? I tend to think it's the latter, because that is the best way to account for the melodrama of the poem.

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