Posts Tagged ‘William Blake’

Yesterday, I went to a doctor’s appointment, picked up a children’s magazine called “Highlights” (from August 2008), and read the following poem:

“Burning Bright”

A mermaid’s tears
have silver fish in them,
a tiger’s,
yellow stars.
Mine have spikes
and spokes of bikes
and yours
have blue guitars.

Lillian Morrison

The poem was illustrated with a mermaid weeping silver tears that turned into fish and disappeared into the ocean waves around her.

I liked this poem, and I thought that it needn’t necessarily be a poem exclusively or even necessarily for children. Who, afterall, is speaking in this poem? What is the emotion of it? It seems, really, to be a poem about a difficult relationship between a girl and a boy … or a man and a woman.

The imagery is gendered … the connotations of some words (“tears,” “spikes,” “blue”) suggest sadness and difficulty … and the mermaid seems to be weeping by the water while the tiger is on the land looking at the stars: the two are separated by their environments and orientations. The mermaid looks deeper into the sea while the tiger looks higher into the sky.

The juxtaposition of “mermaid” with “tiger” and “mine” with “yours” in the parallel lines suggests a relationship between “mermaid” and “mine,” as if the speaker sees herself as a mermaid. Likewise the juxtaposition suggests a relationship between “tiger” and “yours,” as if the speaker identifies her friend with the tiger. The implications of this are complex when the we consider the mermaid-speaker has “bikes” reflected in her eyes.

The bicycle imagery conveys a most complex problem. A mermaid cannot ride a bike, and yet, like Ariel in the “Little Mermaid” (a Disney film developed from the famous fairy-tale preserved by Hans Christian Andersen), she seems to want to learn how. To do so, she would have to transform or be transformed, thereby losing something (her natural ability to navigate underwater) and gaining something (a new ability to walk on land and, more importantly, ride the bicycle that has captured her attention).

The bicycle imagery also suggests a desire for movement and freedom, perhaps escape from her circumstances or maybe a means to keep up with her tiger, who is stronger and faster and more able to navigate earthly terrain.

There are signs of hope in the untold story behind this lyric. “Silver fish” are pictures of life and provision and maybe even poetry itself. “Guitars” are musical instruments that can accompany songs, songs that, like poetry, emerge from the deep well of creativity within every human soul. Why are guitars reflected in the “your” eyes?

Perhaps “you,” the tiger the mermaid loves, are a musician who wants to play the guitar … for many reasons … maybe even for “me,” the mermaid. How beautiful! Mermaids are legendary for their voices, for singing and for saving sailors lost at sea. Here, the desire to play the guitar, to become a guitarist, suggests these two creatures who are so different might be connected by the power of music.

Of course, there is another interpretive possibility: if the mermaid is looking at the tiger and the tiger is looking at the mermaid at the moment in which this poem occurs, then it is the mermaid playing the “blue guitar” and the tiger riding the “bikes.” That is why the guitar is reflected in the tiger’s eyes and the bikes in the mermaid’s eyes. So she is sad in that case, and he is about to ride away.

These contrasting interpretations remind me of the poet Robert Frost’s last lines in his most famous poem: “Two paths diverged in a dark wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Are these lines an optimistic conclusion? Many read them that way, but they could also have the opposite meaning, a profoundly negative meaning. Both possibilities are contained within the same words.

The same is true for our poem, “Burning Bright.” This short lyric could be about a difficult relationship that will resolve in a beautiful way that brings music and poetry and life to the mermaid and the tiger … or not. The interpretive path chosen by the reader will make all the difference.

(Postscript: The title of this poem clearly alludes to “Tyger, tyger, burning bright” by William Blake. It is interesting to read this little poem in the light of that longer one! Lillian Morrison’s poem also alludes to common phrases in the English language: “her eyes burned with tears,” “the stars burn in the sky.” Both phrases pertain to the opening lines of this poem. Finally, burning can connote passion, pain, and/or purification, and fire can have both destructive and life-giving force.)

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Stone cries to stone,
Heart to heart, heart to stone,
And the interrogation will not die
For there is no eternal city
And there is no pity
And there is nothing underneath the sky
No rainbow and no guarantee –
There is no covenant between your God and me.
It is superb in the air.
Suffering is everywhere
And each man wears his suffering like a skin.
My history is proud.
Mine is not allowed.
This is the cistern where all wars begin,
The laughter from the armoured car.
This is the man who won’t believe you’re what you are.
This is your fault.
This is a crusader vault.
The Brook of Kidron flows from Mea She’arim.
I will pray for you.
I will tell you what to do.
I’ll stone you. I shall break your every limb.
Oh, I am not afraid of you,
But maybe I should fear the things you make me do.
This is not Golgotha.
This is the Holy Sepulchre,
The Emperor Hadrian’s temple to a love
Which he did not much share.
Golgotha could be anywhere.
Jerusalem itself is on the move.
It leaps and leaps from hill to hill
And as it makes its way it also makes its will.
The city was sacked.
Jordan was driven back.
The pious Christians burned the Jews alive.
This is a minaret.
I’m not finished yet.
We’re waiting for reinforcements to arrive.
What was your mother’s real name?
Would it be safe today to go to Bethlehem?
This is the Garden Tomb.
No, this is the Garden Tomb.
I’m an Armenian. I am a Copt.
This is Utopia.
I came here from Ethiopia.
This hole is where the flying carpet dropped
The Prophet off to pray one night
And from here one hour later he resumed his flight.
Who packed your bag?
I packed my bag.
Where was your uncle’s mother’s sister born?
Have you ever met an Arab?
Yes, I am a scarab.
I am a worm. I am a thing of scorn.
I cry Impure from street to street
And see my degradation in the eyes I meet.
I am your enemy.
This is Gethsemane.
The broken graves look to the Temple Mount.
Tell me now, tell me when
When shall we all rise again?
Shall I be first in that great body count?
When shall the tribes be gathered in?
When, tell me, when shall the Last Things begin?
You are in error.
This is terror.
This is your banishment. This land is mine.
This is what you earn.
This is the Law of No Return.
This is the sour dough, this the sweet wine.
This is my history, this my race
And this unhappy man threw acid in my face.
Stone cries to stone,
Heart to heart, heart to stone.
These are the warrior archaeologists.
This is us and that is them.
This is Jerusalem.
These are dying men with tattooed wrists.
Do this and I’ll destroy your home.
I have destroyed your home.  You have destroyed my home.

James Fenton
New Selected Poems (2006)

Commentary:  Tomorrow, I am going to Jerusalem.  I first heard of Jerusalem when I was in my mother’s womb, listening to charismatic sermons in my amniotic sack and dreaming dreams about Jesus before I was even born.  There has never been a day in my entire life when I was not aware of the city of Jerusalem.  I have imagined it.  It has become a metaphor for my heart, for the the center of my soul.  But it is a real place.  I have no idea what it will really be like for me to walk on the walls and the streets of Jerusalem.

I have read other people’s gospels and stories and poems about Jerusalem.  I have imagined what they were imagining.  I have sung songs about Jerusalem.  I have studied medieval maps that place Jerusalem in the center and call it the umbilicus terrae, the navel of the world.  I have translated the word, Jerusalem, from Spanish, French, Latin, and Hebrew into English in dozens of translation exercises over the past twelve years or more. 

It is impossible to go to Jerusalem without preconceived notions, without ideas and pictures, other voices, other languages, other words.  I read James Fenton’s poem, and that is one vision.  There are other visions.

Claudia told me what it was like to drive up from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem at sunset.  Onnaca told me she hated the pressing of the mob of tourists at the holy sites … and she took a day just to look at the sky over Jerusalem … and the experience was more deeply spiritual for her than kissing any reliquaries.  I have listened to testimonials from other tourists on radio programs, in pulpits and classrooms, at the dinner table and on the internet.     

Today, I read half a dozen poems about Jerusalem.  William Blake turned Jerusalem into a metaphor for England’s religious triumphalism.  Yehuda Amichai complained, justifiably, about tourists only interested in the monuments of Jerusalem and not its citizens, its people.

My memories are full of Jerusalem, and I have never been there.

In fact, I have precious momentos from Jerusalem:  a bookmark my pastor gave me when I was in elementary school after he returned from his once-in-a-lifetime journey, a stylized print of the old city on purple cloth that my step-father gave me for Christmas one year.  

But tomorrow Jerusalem will be real to me in a way that has never been possible before.

What will Jerusalem be like for me?  I know everyone sees it differently; certainly that is what James Fenton is saying in his poem.  But even knowing my perceptions have already been shaped by the pilgrimages of other people — like Egeria and Margery Kempe and Birgitta of Sweden — my desire to see Jerusalem is still an intense passion:  a passion for Jerusalem.


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