Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ellen Bass' "Gate C22"

I've been reading the New Poets of the American West anthology (Many Voices Press, 2010) lately and ran across "Gate C22" by Ellen Bass. The poem, which describes a most tremendous kiss shared by two middle-agers at the Portland aiport, is killer good, a testimony to what the imagination can do in a single moment when moved by sudden, arresting circumstances. In this case, the speaker, the "passengers waiting for the delayed flight / to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots, / the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling / sunglasses" are all subsumed by the couple's kiss.

But I'm less concerned with the kiss and its voyeurs than I am with the simile in the poem's second stanza. Bass writes the lovers "kissed lavish / kisses like the ocean in the early morning." At first I was like — that's so dull, a missed opportunity, an okay image that falls flat because a kiss is nothing like an ocean and the simile does nothing to change that perception—has done nothing yet, that is.

I should say that I also found the poem neither here nor there at this point: strong imagery, strong verbs, but nothing that sucked me in the way that kiss sucked in its onlookers. The first stanza was fine, and the second began in a dull mode, using two short, flat sentences in a single line to start an "unattractive" description of the couple:
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,

Of course, those opening lines are a setup. Rather than stop that simile after a single line, Bass continues to work the metaphor, describing how the kiss/ocean "gathers and swells, sucking / each rock under, swallowing it / again and again. Drawing that comparison out over a few lines is extraordinary, allowing it a chance not just to be a comparison but a synthesis of the two disparate images. The verbs gather, swells, sucking, swallowing apply as well to the tide as they do to the embrace. It's a great example of why poets should be careful not to stop their metaphors short, but to work them out. They can always be pared back if that's what the poem desires.

The other thing I like about this kiss/ocean is that the simile really becomes the poem's center, even more so than the kiss. The kiss is the audience's central image, but not the poetry's. What I mean by this is that the description of the ocean not only sensualizes the kiss by being sensual itself but acts as something of a scaffold for the workings of the rest of the poem. Imagistically, it is the most sensual part of the piece—the literal descriptions of the kissers and their kiss don't come close.  More importantly, the movement of the poem from stanza to stanza follows the movements of a tide, rushing in and easing out, extending at times with great velocity, others with a benign steadiness. This can be seen in Bass' use of mini-catalogues: each stanza begins with some scene-setting narrative, then dives into these brief but very imaginative lists, which, for me, is where the poem most succeeds. Bass' kiss/ocean, placed in the middle of the poem, seems to be the fulcrum on which this back-and-forth occurs.  It becomes the center of the poetry and, for me, the imagination of the poem even though the kiss remains the center of attention.

I find the ocean a good central metaphor for "Gate C22" for another reason, too.  The shoreline with its rising and falling tide is a place of gatherings and departures—the flotsam washes onto shore, the beach junk washes out.  In and out, coming and going, landings and departures—it's an airport.  How perfect!

I think the first person to really drive home to me the point of expanding a metaphor (remembering it can also be pared back) was Steve Orlen.  We were reviewing some poems of mine when he commented that I had taken a just-okay image and turned it into something special by working it out over the course of several lines.  I had been oblivious to this fact, but since then have made a point of looking to see how I and others use metaphor in our poems.  For Orlen—at least in our conversations—it was often a matter of rhythm, growing an image in order for the language to keep up its music.  But, as it does in Bass' poem, expanding the analogy can also give the imagination room to grow, infiltrating and invigorating the rest of the poem.


No comments:

Post a Comment