"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
In the beginning there were days set aside for various tasks.
On the day He was to create justice
God got involved in making a dragonfly
and lost track of time.
It was about two inches long
with turquoise dots all down its back like Lauren Bacall.
God watched it bend its tiny wire elbows
as it set about cleaning the transparent case of its head.
The eye globes mounted on the case
rotated this way and that
as it polished every angle.
Inside the case
which was glassy black like the windows of a downtown bank
God could see the machinery humming
and He watched the hum
travel all the way down turquoise dots to the end of the tail
and breathe off as light.
Its black wings vibrated in and out.
Anne Carson’s sequence The Truth About God, from which this poem comes, is a small part of her deep and broad output. She often writes work that falls between categories, or for which no category has yet been invented. It’s not the sort of thing you can read absent-mindedly whilst watching The Simpsons.
Before we start thinking about this poem, read it slowly. How does it make you feel? What mood or atmosphere does it create? A good poem, like a good painting, will affect you emotionally before you understand how it does so. Another question – what is it about?
It makes me feel that there is something dark at work; something with a life of its own, beyond what God intends and beyond what I can perfectly understand. There’s a feeling of great power in this poem. First, that grand title: God’s Justice. This is not going to be a lightweight piece, as the first line confirms. There is no phrase in English more resonant with baggage than ‘In the beginning….’
The stanza breaks consistently bolster the sense of the sentences, and build a little tension. ‘God got involved in making a dragonfly// and lost track of time.’ Again; ‘The eye globes mounted on the case// rotated this way and that.’ Carson makes us wait to see what the eye globes did. The similes are precise and odd. Lauren Bacall, for instance, was not two inches long with turquoise dots all down her back, but she was super-slender, elegant, seductive, dangerous. It took me four words to say that, and all of them are vague. Poetry has to use shorthand to show us all the ideas in play. The carapace of the dragonfly is ‘glassy black like the windows of a downtown bank’. Like the Lauren Bacall image, this one is both physically precise and suggestive of something else: wealth, power, impenetrable secrets.
God is a rather innocent being by comparison, the sort who can lose track of time. Once he’s made the dragonfly, God seems to have no influence over this creature. He’s as fascinated as we are: he ‘watched it, as it set about cleaning the transparent case of its head.’ Its wings vibrate, its innards hum without any further input from him. The words chosen to describe it make it thoroughly alien. Its head is ‘transparent’, its eyes ‘globes’. It has ‘angles’. Its body is ‘glassy’ and full of ‘machinery humming’. There is nothing to suggest emotion or softness. You can be impressed by it, like a Stealth bomber, but you aren’t meant to like it. The only hint of goodness is the hum breathing off ‘as light’. But then the ‘black wings vibrated in and out.’ The final image in a poem always has extra power. It’s the one that hangs in the air as we leave the poem wondering what that was all about. The dragonfly is not going to give us any clue.
And then you remember what we were told at the beginning of the poem…. this was what God made when he got distracted from making justice. It has beauty, but you’re never sure what direction it will take or where it will land. He didn’t get around to making justice, as he intended in the first orderly days. This light, fast, unpredictable and inscrutable creature – impenetrable even to God – is what we got instead.
[Glass, Irony & God is published by New Directions (1996). If you’re enjoying this blog and feel a powerful desire to say so with a donation, however small, then please click here to donate via PayPal.]