Painting Joseph Massey’s “Polar Low”

Lena Levin. Half-sheathed in ice, after Joseph Massey’s “Polar low”. 12″x12″. 2016.

Half-sheathed in ice
a yellow double-wide trailer

mirrors the inarticulate morning.
The amnesiac sun.

And nothing else
to contrast these variations of white

and thicket
choked by thicket

in thin piles that dim the perimeter.

Every other noun
frozen over.

Joseph Massey, “Polar Low”

The poem starts as a landscape — a vast expanse of ice, or snow in morning light, with a single concrete, human-made object, the yellow double-wide trailer. It is described with some precision, but it is half-sheathed in ice.

This half-sheathed is, I believe, the first key to the poem, the first glimpse of it being not only an image, not just a landscape. There is an inner tension in sheathed — a sheath covers a weapon (thus protecting its owner and others from it), but sheathed in the modern usage also invokes the idea of protective covering. It’s also the thing itself that requires protection, rather than others needing protection from it.

Primed by the idea of sheathing, double-wide invokes double-edged (sword). But the trailer is not a sword, is it: it is not only sheathed, but it is also inherently unpowered; it needs another one to move it. Alone, it is truly stuck there in ice, truly forgotten (preparing us for the amnesia of the sun).

But it does something — it mirrors the inarticulate morning, a morning that cannot express itself. By the way, it is the only agency in the poem, filled as it is with passive verbs. And it is the dubious agency of a mirror, which can only reflect — not act.

Why is the morning inarticulate? Perhaps because everything is so white, there is not enough contrast to create a clear picture? This inability of the morning to express itself prepares us for the coming: And nothing else // to contrast these variations of white. Nothing but yellow.

But the question arises: are mornings even supposed to be articulate? The first hint of anthropomorphism in the poem, immediately followed by the amnesiac sun — we don’t usually think of the sun as something having memory. And if you cannot have memory, how can you be amnesiac? Here is the rub, isn’t it — mornings aren’t supposed to be articulate, and this one is not; the sun isn’t supposed to have memory, and it doesn’t. But by stating these truisms in these anthropomorphic and negative terms, the poem implies that they should (or might) have these abilities: to express themselves, to remember.

How does the trailer mirror the morning? Is it because there are reflections in its surface, or in the ice sheathing it? Or is it because its yellow on the surface of the earth is the counterpart of the amnesiac sun in the sky? The trailer is forgotten, the sun is amnesiac.

And there is nothing else.

Wait, but there is: thicket chocked by thicket — the image of bare branches struggling with one another, obstructing one another’s breathing and (possibly) movement. Another meaning of choke: “overwhelm and make someone speechless with a strong and typically negative feeling or emotion”. Are thickets inarticulate too, unable to express themselves because of one another?

But if there are thickets, then it isn’t just (variations of) white and yellow — there is also the black of the branches. Perhaps the branches are also covered with ice and snow, but they are visible, they dim the perimeter — so there are some dark lines in the landscape. But the perimeter of what? Of the trailer? Of the field of the poet’s vision? Of the morning itself? Of the poem? Dim: Do they make the morning and ice less bright? Or less distinct? Less intense?

And the thickets are piled? Are the branches cut, or are they also just frozen? Thickets in thin piles — there is both thickness and thinness in the same thing.

And with this linguistic conundrum between thickness and thinness, the poem finally reveals itself as not-a-landscape: every other noun frozen over.

Are nouns frozen because it’s so cold, so it’s difficult even to utter them — and when they are uttered, they get frozen in the air? Or is it about “freezing” of words, their becoming less warm, less alive, less connected to their relatives and their underlying metaphors.  Thicket might signify anything thick, but now it is frozen in one specific meaning.

So in the end, it seems as though it is language itself — rather than the double-wide trailer with which the poem started — that emerges as being half-sheathed in ice, half-frozen. But it still mirrors things that are, in themselves, inarticulate and amnesiac.

Isn’t this what poetry is for?

The Brain is just the weight of God

Painting Emily Dickinson

Lena Levin. The Brain is just the weight of God. After Emily Dickinson. 2016.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Emily Dickinson


A dramatic shift in pace and in age — I’ve been painting an Emily Dickinson poem these days. On the one hand, it is a part of this grander quest for a space of unity between poetry and painting. On the other, I am following ModPo 2016 at Coursera.org, and this week’s assignment was close reading of a poem by Emily Dickinson. The painting is — possibly — still in-progress, and below are my close-reading notes informed by this attempt at painting translation.


1. Brain

Dickinson uses this word in such a way as to override the mind-matter duality: brain “stands for” both the material tissue inside one’s head and the mind. In my dictionary, these are two different meanings for brain (1. Tissue; 2. Mind). In lexicography, this structure implies that these meanings cannot be present simultaneously: in each individual usage, the word means either one or the other (otherwise, they would be listed under the same number, in a comma-separated list). I believe my dictionary is correct as far as everyday usage of this word is concerned.

But in this case (as probably in many others), the English language is smarter than its users and lexicographers. Ask a scientist, and the mind and the brain turn out to be the same thing — or rather, two alternative ways to describe the same thing. But the language knew that already, and that’s what Dickinson sees and brings out here. She “wipes away” the duality and falsifies the artificial boundary between the two meanings. In the poem, brain has both meanings simultaneously: the “matter” meaning is evoked by talking about dimensions and weight, the “mind” meaning — by its ability to contain the sky (and the sea, and God). Had she used the word mind here, the poem would have become both trivial (we all know that one’s mind contains the sky, and the sea, and God, too) and false (mind has neither spatial dimensions nor weight).

2. Contain // With ease — and You — beside

An interesting — pseudo-rational — argument of why the brain is wider than the sea. It’s simply because once we put the sea in it, there is still place for You. It can be my (the speaker’s) brain containing the person I talk to (you), or it can be your (the listener’s) brain containing yourself (apart from the sea). Here, too, I believe both interpretations are invoked at the same time.

3. Blue to Blue

This quatrain begins as though it is going to be structurally and semantically parallel to the first one: wider than the sky, deeper than the sea. This expectation is interrupted by the puzzlingly surprising idea that Brain is Blue. Why is it?

On the one hand, it invokes the meaning of blue as “sad, melancholic, depressed”. On the other, I am reminded of Kandinsky’s insight into what he calls “spiritual meanings” of colours. For him, Blue stands for spiritual (as opposed to material), divine, heavenly. This is related to the fact that blue recedes: if something is bluer, it’s generally perceived as being more distant, or even moving away (this effect is often called “atmospheric perspective”). I am not sure, of course, whether it was Dickinson’s intention to invoke this quality.

4. Absorb As Sponges—Buckets—do—.

Because of the non-conventional punctuation, and because the first meaning of bucket is “container”, I first interpreted Buckets as an alternative to Sponges (a kind of “correction”, where the brain is compared to a bucket, rather than a sponge). But then, buckets don’t really absorb, do they?

So the intended meaning is probably buckets as in “large quantities of liquid”. But I think it’s important that the language’s pervasive tendency to conflate “containers” and their contents as meanings of one single word is invoked here, in the reader’s momentary confusion over which meaning to choose. I think it’s important, because its reminiscent of the core motive of the poem: the brain as both a container and its “contents”.   

5. just the weight of God.

The poem suddenly moves from truisms (“the sky is wide, the sea is deep”) to an (almost) blasphemy: God is heavy? You can heft him (or her, or it, or them) Pound for Pound? The idea of God being heavy is smuggled in almost imperceptibly at first, through the lullaby quality of the sky-is-wide-sea-is-deep comforting parallelism.

It’s really this Pound for Pound that brings it home, strikingly, especially after the much more lyrical Blue to Blue of the second quatrain. It invokes a rather disturbing, Dali-worthy, picture of a person carefully hefting a pound of God in one hand and a pound of (their own?) brain in the other. In its turn, this picture brings with it the Merchant of Venice, and his pound of flesh just about to be cut off.

How did it happen, that God becomes as heavy as the sky is wide and the sea is deep? One image that comes to mind is an ocean shore, where all one sees is the sky, and the sea, and the rocks breaking the waves. Now here is something as prototypically heavy as the sea is deep. It is as though God replaces rocks in a familiar seascape.

Interestingly, there is another expectation broken by this quatrain. The width in the first quatrain, and the depth in the second, prime the reader for the third spacial dimension, height. And indeed, God is high would be much “easier” than God is heavy.

6. As Syllable from Sound

Which is of these is compared to God, and which to Brain? Dickinson leaves the question open. But even if she didn’t, it won’t help us decide which might turn out to be a little heavier, because how do we compare Sound to Syllable?

On the one hand, Syllable is a kind of Sound. It is a linguistic sound, a component of speech, and there are certain structural constraints (there ought to be one vowel, and — possibly — one or more consonants on either side of it). So Syllable is something much more defined than Sound, and much more human: it is a part of human language, whereas sounds can be non-human. It is also the stuff of poetry: syllabic structure is much more salient in a poem than in the language in general.

With the most general sense of sound in mind, one can say that Syllable is something much smaller (lighter?) than Sound. But Sound can also refer to a single phoneme (or phone) of language (as in “the sounds of the English language”): if we focus on this meaning, then a syllable consists of one or more sounds — so it is potentially larger than a sound, but not necessarily (/a/ is both a sound (in this sense) and a syllable).

So, in the end, which is which? Which of this strange pair is Brain, and which is God in Dickinson’s comparison?

I am inclined to think God might be to Brain what Sound is to Syllable (that is, that this is the insight of this poem), because Syllable is more human, and more structurally constrained, and more unambiguous than Sound. But the puzzling quality of the comparison might be even more important than any answer after all.   

Still, I cannot help thinking that Colour is to Painting what Sound is to Syllable.