When the Poetry Society of America asked Margaret Atwood to write about her first literary love, she had to coin a phrase to describe her unusual pick. "I Saw A Peacock With A Fiery Tail," the mysterious 17th century poem a 4-year-old Atwood found in a nursery rhyme book became known from then on as a "trick poem," a writer's version of trompe l'oeil.
The magic of the anonymously-written poem, according to Atwood, is its straddling of the "banal" and the "apocalyptic," an effect of its scrambled structure, in which each descriptive clause is written for the subject of the line below. Take its starting lines: "I saw a peacock, with a fiery tail/I saw a blazing comet, drop down hail/I saw a cloud, with ivy circled round." Drop the first clause, attach each subsequent one to the next, and what do you get? A blazing comet with a fiery tail, a cloud that drops down hail, and if you read on, a "sturdy oak" to claim the "ivy circled round" -- all normal, indeed "banal" images. (We've reposted the poem in full at the end of this post.)
Writing in the book "First Loves," Atwood credited the poem with showing her "the possibilities of poetry" -- "what it could do, how it could mean several things at once, how the familiar and the strange depended on each other."
Now a new incarnation of the poem two years in the making attempts to capture that duality with another simple trick. To represent the poem's two worlds visually, designer Jonathan Yamakami lit on a hands-on technique embraced by everyone from romance publishers in search of a "keyhole" effect, to an E-book-wary Jonathan Safran Foer. Known as die-cutting, the process involves strategically cutting holes into a book's pages. Yamakami's cuts, woven through artwork by Indian tribal artist Ramsingh Urveti, function as portals between the worlds, alternately linking and breaking the lines.
We've posted a video look at the book's finished version below, from Chennai-based publisher, Tara Books, and the full poem below that. To read Yamakami's account of the book's genesis, or for purchasing information, head to Tara's site.
We'd love to hear about your versions of Atwood's "trick poem." Have any paintings, poems, stories, movies, compositions -- any artwork of any kind -- captivated you with sleight of hand? Let us know in the comments.
WATCH "I Saw A Peacock With A Fiery Tail":
I saw a Peacock, with a fiery tail, I saw a Blazing Comet, drop down hail, I saw a Cloud, with Ivy circled round, I saw a sturdy Oak, creep on the ground, I saw a Pismire*, swallow up a Whale, I saw a raging Sea, brim full of Ale, I saw a Venice Glass, Sixteen foot deep, I saw a well, full of mens tears that weep, I saw their eyes, all in a flame of fire, I saw a House, as big as the Moon and higher, I saw the Sun, even in the midst of night, I saw the man, that saw this wondrous sight.
*Middle English term for ant
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly credited the image to Tara Books. In fact, it was taken by Maria Popova.