Studying Savonarola, he considers his lover as kindling


Studying Savonarola, he considers his lover as kindling


With your amber eyes, yellow and red
of you, sun-sign heart like a blood orange
suspended in a porcelain cage, say you burn

in a courtyard and your ichor drips like honey
on the firewood, on the branches bound in fasces,
flesh fumed in the air, dark as molasses,

but what you are hovers as mist, as the spirit
of water is invisible until steam makes the sky
waver. Say you die, scorched into ashes, say

you pass from here to there, with your marigold
eyes, the garden darker for lack of one golden flower,
would bees mourn, would crickets keen, drawing long

blue chords on their thighs like cellists?
Say you disperse like petals on the wind,
the bright stem of you still a living stroke

in memory, still green, still spring, still the tint
and the tang of you in my throat, unconsumed.








Preambulatory Definitions

_____ This analysis is intended for students new to the craft of poetry. We begin with some fundamental definitions:

_____ As opposed to its counterpart, prose, full-sized poems employ mnemonics in order to be preserved verbatim. Poetry can be identified and categorized according to the presence of these memory tricks. To wit:
  • Verse

    Meter: A set number of units (e.g. feet, beats, syllables, tempi, etc.) per line/stich.

  • Free Verse

    Rhythm(s), but no meter.

  • Prose Poetry

    No rhythm(s), no meter, but conspicuous use of other poetic devices.

_____ Note that linebreaks play no role in distinguishing free verse from prose or prose poetry. As the truism goes, "linebreaks don't make poetry any more than stuttering does."

_____ As with poetry itself, criticism comes in three types:
  • Critique

    Comes before publication and is directed at the author. "Can this be improved?"

  • Reviewing

    Comes shortly after publication and is directed at the audience. "Is this worth reading?"

  • Scholarship

    Comes long after publication and targets academia. "Why is this significant?" Includes:

    • Interpretation: References? Allusions? Parallels?

    • Influences: Similarities to previous and subsequent poetries?

    • Analysis: Technical merits? Prosody?
_____Of these considerations, the most important for any student of the craft is the analysis of the poem itself. This is what defines the category and type (i.e. prose, prose poetry, free verse or verse) of the writing and allows us to appreciate why it deserves its place within that niche. N.B.: Now that the reviews are in, the question isn't whether or not the poem is good but what made it so.

_____ Why, then, do critics and readers consider "Studying Savonarola" one of the greatest poems of the 21st century? What can be learned from it?

_____ We begin our appreciation of "Studying Savonarola" by noting how everything builds towards release in that last line, that last anticlimactic word: "unconsumed". The pace, the rhythms, the sounds, even the originality rises to that crescendo.





"...other poetic devices."

_____ Most poetic devices fall into two basic classifications: the repetitive and the informative. As we'll see, these often meet at the sonic level.

Information: Comparison (e.g. simile, metaphor, parallel, symbolism, foil, antithesis, etc.), as opposed to reportorial modifiers, is poetry's lingua franca. While she doesn't do so to the extent that Michael Ondaatje does in his archetypical prose poem, "Sweet Like a Crow", Maz relies on simile, with the level of originality rising from the gratuitous and clichéd "like honey" and "dark as molasses" to crickets keening "like cellists", relapsing with "like petals on the wind" before hardening into the final metaphor, "the bright stem of you".

_____ Question: Is "hovers as mist" a simile or a metaphor? Or neither? Don't answer too quickly!

Repetition: While informative elements like trope, contrast and prima facia descriptions help us understand the poet's declarations, repetition helps us remember them. Unlike song, non-metrical poetry doesn't use choruses and, Federico Lorca's "Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejías" notwithstanding, rarely uses repetends. We do see anaphora and anadiplosis at the phrasal level and even the occasional rhyme at the syllabic level. For example, we note the playful near-rhyme of "branches", "fasces" and "mollasses", "wind" and "tint", along with the "unrhymable" word, "orange", being contained within (i.e. "suspended in a") "porcelain cage".

_____ Most often, though, we encounter repetition of phonemes: alliteration, consonance and assonance. As we'll see, the sonics of "Studying Savonarola" are remarkable in the plethora of consonantal repetitions and the dearth of assonance.

"Meeting at the Sonic Level": The crudest conjunction of the repetitive and informative--of sound and sense--is in the ploce of "still" and the anaphoric iterations of "Say you..." and "like a...." More subtle is the way certain individual sounds create or release tension.


Sounds


_____ If we examine the repetitions of phonemes (colour coded in red, blue, brown, purple or green), we see at least ten salient clusters of alliteration/consonance and three assonantal groupings--all short or long "i" sounds. Notice how the frequency of these repetitions peaks in the penultimate strophe and line.



With your amber eyes, yellow and red
of you, sun-sign heart like a blood orange
suspended in a porcelain cage, say you burn

in a courtyard and your ichor drips like honey
on the firewood, on the branches bound in fasces,
flesh fumed in the air, dark as molasses,

but what you are hovers as mist, as the spirit
of water is invisible until steam makes the sky
waver. Say you die, scorched into ashes, say

you pass from here to there, with your marigold
eyes, the garden darker for lack of one golden flower,
would bees mourn, would crickets keen, drawing long

blue chords on their thighs like cellists?
Say you disperse like petals on the wind,
the bright stem of you still a living stroke

in memory, still green, still spring, still the tint
and the tang of you in my throat, unconsumed.




_____ Each of these contributes to the listener's experience of the tone, pace and mood. For example, the reiterations of the "r" sounds in strophe #4, peaking with "garden darker", reflects the frustration and realization of sudden loss, as when we might cry "Argh!" In the final strophe monosyllabic words after "memory" quicken the pace, leading up to "unconsumed". The sibilance is menacing, recalling its earlier appearance in describing the steam and death. At the same time, the usually calming "l" sounds go from the beginnings of syllables to the ends of words, signalling that at the end of everything there will be an eternal lull. The "t" sounds klaxon in climax, surviving all the other reiterations before trailing off into the final word: "unconsumed".

_____ Look at the finest prose or prose with linebreaks and you will not find anywhere near this density of trope and sonic device. So far, this is, at worst, lineated prose poetry at its finest.

_____ Is it free verse, though?

_____ Contrary to popular belief, the operative term in "free verse" is the latter, not the former. The central question becomes: "Does this poem have coherent rhythms?"


Rhythms


_____ To say that "Studying Savonarola" is rhythmic is like calling the sun "warm". In the following view--one of many possible, no doubt--the poem is bookended by anapests (in blue) with one iambic substitution ("of you"). It has two strings of trinaries that resolve into dactyls (in purple). The rest is iambic (in red) with only two inversions (in black), two tiny syncopes ("porc'lain" and "mar'gold"), three anapestic substitutions ("in a court-", "on their thighs" and "you disperse") and three hypercatalectic lines ("orange", "fasces" and "honey"). Note that there is not a single transitional syllable between these rhythm strings. The poem has seven lame feet (marked with asterisks), all of them coming after significant pauses (commas or periods) that "stand in" for the "missing" syllable.

_____ In short, the poem is in seven rhythm strings--all of which would fit into a metrical poem. Indeed, "Studying Savonarola" is more strongly rhythmic than T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", which is metrical!



With your am|ber eyes, yel|low and red
of you,| * sun-|sign heart | like a | blood or|ange
suspend|ed in | a porc'|lain cage, | * say | you burn

in a court|yard and | your ich|or drips | like hon|ey
on the | firewood,| * on | the branch|es bound | in fas|ces,
flesh fumed
| in the air, | dark as mo|lasses,

but | what you are | hovers as | mist, as the | spirit
of | water is
| invis|ible | until | steam makes | the sky
waver. *| Say you die, | scorched into | ashes, * |say

you pass | from here | to there, | * with | your mar' | gold
eyes, | the gar|den dark|er for |
lack of | one gold|en flow|er,
would | bees mourn, | would crick|ets keen, | * draw|ing long

blue chords | on their thighs | like cel|lists?
Say | you disperse | like pet|als on | the wind,
the bright
| stem of | you still | a liv|ing stroke

in mem|ory, | still green, | still spring,
| still the tint
and the tang | of you | in my throat, | unconsumed.




_____ "Studying Savonarola" is so rhythmic that even a trained ear can take it for blank verse. It has a cretic (DUM-de-DUM) backbone, due in part to some of the lame iambic feet (e.g. "sun-sign heart", "drawing long") and anaphora (e.g. "say you die", "say you pass", etc.). After "suspended", all of the trisyllabic words are cretic; concealing "porcelain", "marigold" and "memory" in syncopes and iambs makes that last, clearest, diaresic amphimacer, "unconsumed", sound like an endnote in a song.





Conclusion


_____ All of this, taken together, hardly scratches the surface of this mind-boggling technical masterpiece. Nor does it touch on the profound sense of the work. "Studying Savonarola" is a love poem, an elegy, a sensuous discourse on life, death, illusion, and both physical and metaphysical transfigurations in an indifferent universe. Progressing from a ragged start to a stunning finale, this is the "perfectly imperfect" poem.

_____ As for the sudden and recent passing of its author, bees may not mourn but her readers certainly will. When we speak of Margaret's grace, wit, charm and patience as a commenter, critic, editor, poet, mentor and friend, superlatives understate. A new poet could scarce imagine a better role model.





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