Poem of the Week: Atavism by Elinor Wylie | Poetry


I’ve always been afraid of Somes’s Pond:
Not the little pond, near which stands the willow,
Where the laughing boys catch alewives in their hands
In the shiny brown shallows; but that of beyond.
There, when the frost burns all the birch trees
Yellow like water lilies, and the pale sky is shining
Like a polished shell between black spruce and pines,
A strange thing follows us, turning where we turn.

You will say that I dream of it, being the real girl
Of those who once endured this terror.
See! Where the lily stems turn red
A silent paddle moves underwater,
A slippery shape stirred them like a breath;
High plumes surmount a painted death mask.

This week, we revisit the work of New Jersey-born poet and novelist Elinor Wylie. Atavism, from his first collection, Nets to Catch the Wind, is an impressive sonnet, first catching the reader off guard with its title, and then with the calm, almost flippant admission of the first line: afraid of Somes Pond. ”Wylie here arranges the iambic pentameter in such a way that“ was ”is emphasized – not in an intrusive manner but with quiet, familiar assurance.

The pond she’s not afraid of is a bustling scene of activity, with local boys hand-catching “alewives” (plump herring-like fish) in “bright brown shoals.” But the tale quickly shifts to “the one beyond,” displayed in the evocative colors that Wylie has always handled so well in his poetry. It is a winter scene, sinister with more than the stillness of the frost which “makes all the birches / Yellows burn like cow lilies”. Yellow birches are worrying. The reference to yellow “water lilies” could also be a reminder of the density of these fast growing water lilies (also known as spatterdock) can colonize a pond and leave fish and other plant life dead from lack of light.

Interestingly, at the end of the octave, the plural pronoun “we” replaces the narrator’s “I” and gives the story a new significance as a shared experience, perhaps half of it. ‘a conversation. We’re also put firmly in the present tense, for an added ghostly effect: “A strange thing follows us, turning where we turn.” Cleverly, but not conspicuously, the “turning point” of the couple, and what haunts them, foreshadows the “turning point” of the sonnet.

“You will say that I dream of it,” continues the speaker, addressing the reader, as well as her companion, “being the real girl / Of those who once endured this terror. »Thus, the atavism of the title comes into play. But why is “this terror” the particular heritage of the poet? The settlers had arrived in Somesville in 1761, making this area the oldest non-Native settlement on Mount Desert Island. Maybe Wylie heard ghost stories while on vacation there and felt that her own high performing family shared the guilt of the colonial past. As the fear intensifies, the first image she sees, moving underwater, is the “silent paddle,” clearly an object belonging to the suppressed indigenous population.

The “large plumes” could be suggested by the stems of red lilies, the “slippery shape” by the movement of water, while “the painted mask of death” belongs to a more symbolic order of the imaginary. Finally, the poem seems to stiffen around the feathered and painted mask. That earlier, relaxed and familiar tone is lost. The vaguely threatening movements of the ghosts also cease, as if stunned by the presence of the mask.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists two definitions of atavism: “recurrence in an organism of a trait or characteristic typical of an ancestral form and generally due to genetic recombination” and “recurrence or return to a style,” a way, a perspective, an approach, or an activity ”. The second is the most relevant for the ultimate closure that the sonnet stages. The atavistic sense of “terror” is older than the fear of vengeful ghosts transmitted by a village or a family: it is the terror felt by the “ghosts” themselves, when their lives were threatened by the tide of new ones. settlers. This past embraces a longer and wider expanse of human ancestry, which Wylie’s sonnet simultaneously reveals and conceals.

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