Similes, Metaphor, a Pushcart Prize Winning Poem and Mary Gaitskill
It’s raining in Monte Carlo and so my plans to watch taped tennis all afternoon are shattered, shattered like the broken heart I have today to begin with. (It will be mended as soon as my husband comes home this evening and says, “everthing will be fine”.) The discussion on how many adverbs or similes or anything a writer should use made me think of this poem. Now, I do understand that fiction is not poetry (sorry Blake, that’s my opinion) and I understand that the agent who was sharing these rules did so out of a sort of kindness toward writers. That said, I love similes- even awkward ones, maybe especially awkward ones, like in the poem “Love In The Orangery” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (who you can find out more about linked here). I also love the miracles that happen in The End of the Affair and cancer stories.
Here is the poem, which originally appeared in Third Coast and is reprinted in The Pushcart Prize 2009. I find the similes and metaphors at the end almost purposefully leaden (and therefore the use of the word “lead” as a joke) and yet there is so much heart and mystery in the poem. It’s funny without being silly. It’s a bit silly, maybe, but tempered with seriousness. Love is no joke. I am so grateful for the love in my life– it is the food which feeds my ability to play in the world, on the internet and on paper:
Love In The Orangery
When you see a seventy-pound octopus squeeze
through a hole the size of a half-dollar coin, you
finally understand that everything you learn about
the sea will only make people you love say You lie.
There are land truths that scare me: a purple orchid
that only blooms underground. A German poet
buried in the heart of an oak tree. The lighthouse man
who used to walk around the streets at night
with a lighted candle stuck into his skull. But winters
in Florida—all the street corners have sad fruit
tucked into the curb, fallen from the orangery truckers
who take corners too fast. The air is sick with citrus
and yet you love the small spots of orange in walls
of leafy green as we drive. Your love is like a concrete canoe
that floats in the lake like a lead balloon, improbable
as a steel wool cloud, a metal feather. This is the truth:
I once believed nothing on earth could make me say magic.
You believe in the orange blossom tucked behind my ear.
And lastly, Mary Gaitskill is the writer who I chose as the biggest influence in my life as a young writer, as prompted by Matthew Simmons. She addresses subject matter bravely, she presents women not as victims but as vulnerable humans and she is sexual, risky and thorough. And to the point of this post, she uses words and phrases and structures that are not in any of the guidebooks. I think it is one of her strengths, her strange relationship to language. Her first book, Bad Behavior (maybe I like the book because the title basically is my life? Naah…), contained stories of which not ONE had appeared in any journals. People didn’t get her. Now they do. Here are some excerpts from her latest collection, Don’t Cry:
Some adverbs and excessive use of adjectives from the story, “College Town, 1980”:
He was tall, but girlishly slim and narrow-built, with the sensitive, angular face of a greyhound, a face heightened piercingly by large, transparent eyes and a full emotional lower lip. When he played the drums, he sat straight and earnest behind the set, his eyebrows furrowed, listening terribly hard to something only he could hear, and hitting with a thrilling fierceness that seemed to come from the center of his small chest.
And from the brilliant “The Arms and Legs of the Lake”, where Gaitskill gets away with using the adjective “blobby” not to mention a very wierd simile:
Near Penn Station, he’d gone to a bar with a green shamrock on it for good luck. Inside, it was dark and smelled like beer and rotten meat in a freezer—nasty but also good because of the closed door feeling. A big white bartender slapped the bar with a rag and talked to a blobby-looking white customer with a wide red mouth.
And that’s it, folks. I don’t have Gaitskill’s bravery in my work, but I aspire to it, which means I’m going to write in ways that are not generally acceptable. And I may never have thought of love as a “metal feather”, ( indeed, I may never have visualized the image of a “metal feather”)- as something hard as iron but made of air- but now that I have, I am richer for it. And it stopped raining in Monte Carlo! My afternoon will now proceed as nicely as if it had never rained in the first place.