Reading Deeply: Allusion

May 10, 2022


Sometimes reading poems deeply requires not just repeated readings, but looking up information off the page: unfamiliar words, words in another language, historical references, classical mythology, references to other cultures and practices.  It’s not just a matter of learning more of a poem’s context, but understanding a poem’s basic terms.  The first examples that come to mind are T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but there are endless examples, past and present.  The three poems below all required some looking up for me to follow them. This is a kind of warm-up for next week, when we’ll be joined by poet Judith Baumel, who will read and discuss poems from her new book, Thorny–poems full of allusion.  This is a chance for us to talk about the relationship between poem and reader, and what they each need to do to meet on common ground.  What does a poem need to do to make us curious enough to learn its vocabulary?  What do we need to do to meet it on its own terms?

I hope you’ll add your own examples here, and bring them to this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).   As always, I’ll send the zoom link on Friday morning.


The opening of The Waste Land
T. S. Eliot

for Ezra Pound, Il Miglior Fabbro

  1. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

                      Frisch weht der Wind

                      Der Heimat zu

                      Mein Irisch Kind,

                      Wo weilest du?

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.



Natalie Scenters-Zapico

This is how macho :: hembra play house.  This is how macho :: hembra
play love.  This is how macho :: hembra crave violence.  This is how
macho :: hembra purge themselves.  These events are related.  A man
whispers in my ear: I want to break you & I think I am in love.  I accept
machismo.  Hembra is to let men bite your mouth until it bleeds.  Hembra
is to witness your thighs cut to stars by the thrusts of men.  Hembra is
to know sex is a blind flicked shut.  Machismo is not about the father.
Machismo is not about walnuts waiting to be peeled, chiles turned soft,
pomegranate thrown on a plate to be served to your macho.  Machismo
is men as animals hunting: kiss her neck, crack it, still her under your chin.




Anne Carson


Isaiah awoke angry.

Lapping at Isaiah’s ears black birdsong no it was anger.

God had filled Isaiah’s ears with stingers.

Once God and Isaiah were friends.

God and Isaiah used to converse nightly, Isaiah would rush into the garden.

They conversed under the Branch, night streamed down.

From the sole of the foot to the head God would make Isaiah ring.

Isaiah had loved God and now his love was turned to pain.

Isaiah wanted a name for the pain, he called it sin.

Now Isaiah was a man who believed he was a nation.

Isaiah called the nation Judah and the sin Judah’s condition.

Inside Isaiah God saw the worldsheet burning.

Isaiah and God saw things differently, I can only tell you their actions.

Isaiah addressed the nation.

Man’s brittleness! cried Isaiah.

The nation stirred in its husk and slept again.

Two slabs of bloody meat lay folded on its eyes like wings.

Like a hard glossy painting the nation slept.

Who can invent a new fear?

Yet I have invented sin, thought Isaiah, running his hand over the knobs.

And then, because of a great attraction between them—

which Isaiah fought (for and against) for the rest of his life—

God shattered Isaiah’s indifference.

God washed Isaiah’s hair in fire.

God took the stay.

From beneath its meat wings the nation listened.

You, said Isaiah.

No answer.

I cannot hear you, Isaiah spoke again under the Branch.

Light bleached open the night camera.

God arrived.

God smashed Isaiah like glass through every socket of his nation.

Liar! said God.

Isaiah put his hands on his coat, he put his hand on his face.

Isaiah is a small man, said Isaiah, but no liar.

God paused.

And so that was their contract.

Brittle on both sides, no lying.

Isaiah’s wife came to the doorway, the doorposts had moved.

What’s that sound? said Isaiah’s wife.

The fear of the Lord, said Isaiah.

He grinned in the dark, she went back inside.

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  • Reply martha May 13, 2022 at 1:21 pm


    I get it about WWI & the flu, but more so because of Voigt’s Kyrie, and my own grandfather’s letters (a pathologist, he was posted in France doing research on lice, whose eldest son died at home aged 11)—all I really needed to know was the dates, not any research elaboration. I do want to know about the hyacinth girl! – but a google search doesn’t reveal much. I want her to be a Vermeer, but, apparently not. And the very idea that I ought to be reading Tristan & Isolde in German annoys me. Some of Eliot’s verse is rewarding, but I don’t like having to yap at the intellectual gates designed to exclude me in order to dig it up. There’s plenty enough glorious poetry a lot easier to find. Sez I.

    N S-Z:

    No idea of the meaning of “macho :: hembra,” but I felt certain of understanding the poem without. Terrific, yes. Then I google searched “macho :: hembra” just because I always do my homework, and am richly rewarded by all the various things “male :: female” can mean, including drugs, marijuana, & how to discern the sex of a kitten or a plug. (But how can I differntiate a plug from a kitten?) – these delights take me out of the poem, though. I liked being in the poem.


    This is another poem that feels complete to me—or nearly so—without research, but, wondering about the “wife” business I’ve reread about 2/3 of Isaiah finding no wife/pillars so far. There is the horrifically misogynist passage in 3-4, apparently generalizing from Lot’s wife and Sodom/Gomorrah, but most of the rest seem to me military: the battles & defeats that the Lord will visit upon us, plus the great battles to victory of our rewards. Tedious, boring. Someone has observed (accurately) that the 3 monotheisms, because we have only one god, are all about winning-or-losing, all-or-nothing, as opposed to the busy this-&-that of soap-opera polytheisms. It’s odd in Isaiah: I agree with the sins proclaimed– corruption, failure to help others, lusury, etc, plus God seems especially disgusted by animal sacrifice. Carson’s 2 slabs of meat? Why 2? 2 sexes?

    I do not feel excluded from Carson’s poem. This part #1 seems to depict the prophet wresting judgment about sin away from God, trying to make it his own, and to represent this seizure as a service rather than an expropriation, It seems that God and Isaiah make a bargain, that this will be OK as long as neither of them ever lies to the other. Interesting; stay tuned! (Bargain not especially warranted by the Revised Standard Version of Isaiah as I’m reading it so far.)

    My nominee: an alltime lifelong favorite below. Graves is known to have written a whole huge tome about The White Goddess, allusion personified, in whom pretty much all cultures everywhere participate/procreate. Really? Cool! And/but I have no desire/need to read it. This poem is all I need/ everything I need (really, Martha?) to live with for etermity.

    To Juan at the Winter Solstice
    by Robert Graves

    There is one story and one story only
    That will prove worth your telling,
    Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
    To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
    That startle with their shining
    Such common stories as they stray into.

    Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
    Or strange beasts that beset you,
    Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
    Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
    Below the Boreal Crown,
    Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

    Water to water, ark again to ark,
    From woman back to woman:
    So each new victim treads unfalteringly
    The never altered circuit of his fate,
    Bringing twelve peers as witness
    Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

    Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
    All fish below the thighs?
    She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
    When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
    How may the King hold back?
    Royally then he barters life for love.

    Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
    Whose coils contain the ocean,
    Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
    Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
    Battles three days and nights,
    To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

    Much snow if falling, winds roar hollowly,
    The owl hoots from the elder,
    Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
    Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
    The log groans and confesses:
    There is one story and one story only.

    Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
    Do not forget what flowers
    The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
    Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
    Her sea-blue eyes were wild
    But nothing promised that is not performed.

  • Reply martha May 13, 2022 at 1:25 pm

    damn! — posting destroyed the stanza breaks. Break after every 6 lines. grrr.

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