Peter Halter: On "Queen-Anne's-Lace"

In "Queen Anne's Lace," a paysage de femme poem which fuses the white of a woman's body with a field of white flowers, a basic tension is expressed through the different impact of the two shades and textures of white embodied in the anemone on the one hand and the wild carrot on the other.

. . .

The smooth, delicate, and pure white of the anemone petals seems passive, fragile, almost incorporeal and related to the virginal when compared to the wild carrot, which is not "so remote a thing" but active to the point of "taking / the field by force"--a paradox which recalls the androgynous nature of flowers. With the wild carrot there is "no question of whiteness, / white as can be"; the added purple mole at the center of each flower makes it approachable. It is turned into a flower-woman that is desired by the sun-poet and desirous of him, caressed and caressing: "Each part / is a blossom under his touch / to which the fibres of her being / stem one by one."

Here, where there is desire, love, warmth, and fertility, whiteness does not reign supreme; it is not the spotless purity of the dematerialized absolute. Although it still contains the "pious wish to whiteness," it is "a pious wish to whiteness gone over--." Gone over to where? Whiteness of Apollonian clarity

and restraint gone over to whiteness of Dionysian ecstasy, gone over to the climactic moment in which the field of erotic encounter is "empty" of everything but the "white desire" to collapse into the "nothing" at the very end of the poem, when the imaginative ecstatic union of the male sun-poet with the female field of flowers has reached its orgasmic height and the poet is thrown back on himself, on his own separate consciousness.

. . .

Such a pan-erotic empathetic identification of the poet with the sun in his encounter with the field of flowers is only possible in a poem whose aesthetics of energy transcends the fixed categories of the rationalist technological outlook and makes no fundamental difference between human and nonhuman realms. The poem becomes a field of action into which the poet's consciousness enters, in the double movement of appropriating it and being exposed to it with "the mind turned inside out." And the colors in this field of action are an essential part of the basic forces interacting with each other.

The specific process that gives direction to these interacting forces is often that of form being born out of the formless ground. In this context "Queen Anne's Lace" is of particular interest because it paradigmatically enacts this process on the level of colors: It begins and ends with color being born, so to speak, through the subtlest distinction of white. The white of the wild carrot is not "white as can be," which, as an endpoint on a scale, turns into its own negation into an absence of color which is an absence of life, the "nothingness that is before birth." Hence the sense of purity conveyed by total whiteness can only be a purity beyond fruition.

Approached from this angle, the "nothing" of the last line acquires a second meaning, which becomes clearer when we realize that syntactically it stands in opposition to the previous eight lines: "Each part / is a blossom under his touch ... until the whole field is ... a pious, wish to whiteness gone over - / or nothing." Life begins where the sterility and nonform of absolute whiteness "[goes] over" into something else - life begins where color begins, and a color can be perceived only in its relation to another color.

Thus the interaction of colors enacts in a paradigmatic way what happens also on all other levels (that is, the level on which the sounds and forms of the words making up the poem interact as well as the level of the interaction of the things denoted).

From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Peter Halter: On "Queen-Anne's-Lace" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Peter Halter Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams
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