Duck/Rabbit

Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry's current issue. Sarah Howe's poem, "Sirens," appears in the December 2015 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors' Blog.

How (if at all) can words make us see pictures? When we talk about an "image" in a poem, what do we actually mean? These are questions I've thought about for a long time, sometimes as a poet, at others as a literary scholar. My poem "Sirens" came out of this fascination. Half-lyric poem half-academic essay, it walks through a single, unexpectedly tricksy poetic image--one that, even as I watch, twists out from under me. The metaphor in question comes early on in Theodore Roethke's poem "Elegy for Jane," with its lovely portrait of a dead girl and her "pickerel smile." "A studen' of mine who was killed by a fall from a horse" is how he introduces her in one recording:

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;

There was a while when I would listen again and again to Roethke reading the poem, his voice alternately fleet and halting--like an uneasy horse's gait, I fancied.
"Sirens" had its seed in a lexical curiosity. The word "pickerel," according to the heavier sort of dictionary, can mean either "a small pike" or, more obscurely, "a type of wading bird." The two nouns evolved separately, converging by accident: the former is a diminutive, while the latter probably formed along similar lines to "cockerel," to denote a bird that "picks" things out of the sand. I began to recall an incidental detail from my reading, years earlier, about the evolving iconography of Sirens, whose songs lured the unwary sailors of myth to rocky shipwreck. At some point after the Greeks, European tradition began to blur and conflate them with mermaids. One moralising Renaissance emblem presents the Sirens as literally neither fish nor fowl: the illustration shows Homer's original bird-women, while the accompanying verses speak of fish-tailed temptresses. That coincidence slowly fleshed into a conceit, led to a poem.

"Sirens" comes from a sequence that runs through my first collection, Loop of Jade. In one of his essays, Jorge Luis Borges cites (which is to say, invents) "a certain Chinese encyclopedia" called The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, quoting its entry on "animals." After Borges, I wrote one poem for each of the fourteen creatures listed there. Among that oriental work's peculiar categories, "sirens" rub shoulders with "stray dogs" and "sucking pigs," with beasts "included in the present classification" and "having just broken the water pitcher," with ones "belonging to the emperor" and "that from a long way off look like flies." I first came across this hilariously mismatched and contradictory bestiary as a graduate student, excerpted in the preface to Foucault's The Order of Things. Foucault recognised that what the spuriously Chinese encyclopedia illustrates is not so much the "exotic charm of another system of thought" as the "limitation of our own."

Read the full essay on the Poetry Foundation website.