Home from Monday

When, a little distance past your heaviest thoughts,
on the dim way home from Monday, in the woods,
a raccoon-shape comes across the path in a scurry,
and then, hearing footsteps, sprints back to the dark,
but holds her ground there, still gleaming at you,
with those reflective eyes, another living thing
bent into a question mark, not knowing your intent,
and three cubs, chittering, blow their cover,
perhaps like me, you feel inexplicable
tears welling, a smile you can’t help, tenderness,
being glad, I guess, that this once,
you’ve met a stranger you can read,
more, that this time the question is misplaced,
that animal fear isn’t needed here,
and after you pass, she will unbend
into the regular punctuation, the everyday
exclamation of her unseen, earnest being,
that it will be okay, though she doesn’t know it yet.

Fairy Tale Snippet

Right now, I’m working my way through an anthology of Russian and Soviet fairy tales, and I like the quirky humour of the first paragraph of “The Frog Princess” so much I have to share it.

‘Long, long ago, in ancient times, there was a king with three sons, all of them full grown. And the king said to them, “Sons! I want each of you to make a bow for yourself and to shoot it. Whichever woman brings back your arrow will be your bride. Whoever’s arrow isn’t brought back is not meant to marry.” The oldest son shot his arrow, which was brought back by a prince’s daughter. The middle son shot his arrow, which was brought back by a general’s daughter. But the arrow of the youngest, Prince Ivan, was brought back by a frog, who gripped it in her teeth. The two older brothers were happy and jubilant, but Prince Ivan grew pensive and burst into tears. “How can I live with a frog? To live one’s whole life isn’t like wading a river or crossing a field!” He cried and cried and cried some more, but there was nothing to be done — he married the frog. Their wedding observed traditional rites; the frog was held on a dish.’

The anthology is called Politicizing Magic: An Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales, edited by Marina Balina, Helena Goscilo, and Mark Lipovetsky. So far I think it’s worth investing the time. Fairy tales in general are interesting as a genre, Russian fairy tales are doubly interesting – add the Soviet agenda(s) to the mix, and the interest octuples.

It’s Just an Expression…

“Poetry has a greater capacity than prose to express the complexities of life.” True or False?

If you happen to like poetry, this is one of those sentences that seems intuitively accurate, amiright? Especially if “prose” means academic polemic, comments on YouTube (though calling those prose is arguably a stretch), news, conventional history, textbooks, most blog posts, etc.

Unfortunately, the sentence kind of unravels when you pull on one thread: What can’t prose express? You can see, I think, that if the quoted statement is true, the only possible answer can be a poem. It certainly can’t be prose. That’s amusing and a little bit freaky because it means that critics can praise poetry for its superiority of expression all they like, but they can never in seriousness (which here means prose) tell us what the content of that complexity is. If the quoted statement is true, all of literary criticism faces what has been called “the problem of paraphrase.” (Paraphrase, being a form of translation, can never exactly reproduce the thing being paraphrased. What did Shelley say about translating poetry? Something about violets and crucibles. They don’t mix well.)

But of course lots of people still do literary criticism, officially and unofficially, so either people are okay with perpetual failure or we don’t really think that poetry has a greater capacity than prose to express the complexities of life. I think the latter possibility is the most likely.