Sharon Dolin: On "Queen-Anne's-Lace"

"Queen-Anne's-Lace," from the 1921 Sour Grapes collection, is an early example of Williams' use of the Cubist model as a way to confuse two frames of reference—to subvert the hierarchy of tenor over vehicle in the structure of metaphor via the poem's enjambments: . . .

The title, "Queen-Anne's-Lace," suggests that this is a poem whose subject (tenor, or Base) is a flower, though Williams, in commenting about this poem, has said "Flossie again" ( comment to Thirlwa1l, CPW 498), thus framing the entire poem as metaphoric expression. The first line foregrounds through litotes the metaphoric or simile-making function of the poem: "Her body is not so white as.'' This coincidence of ''as'' with the first line's jamb (my term for the first part of an enjambed pair of lines), along with the negation, undercuts any tendency to make one pole of the metaphor primary and the other secondary. For "[h]er body" already contains a metaphoric transformation (of the flower into the feminine body) that is in tension with the title, leading a reader to wonder what function the simile can serve, if not to call the body back into the form of the flower—thus switching perspectives.

These visual transformations are similar to those that occur in Cubist paintings; for example, in Juan Gris' famous Harlequin with Guitar (1919), the black right forearm of the figure transposes itself into the top of the guitar—and vice-versa—creating a two-way visual metaphor. On first appearance, the major difference between the Cubist model and the poem is that the painting doesn't prescribe an order for reading; some will see the guitar shape first, others the arm, which then metamorphoses into the other shape. The poem, on the other hand, clearly begins with its title as the name of a flower, which is itself already a metaphor for a regal woman's garment. Furthermore, without the title, the opening of the poem reads like a description of the beloved: A woman's body is not here compared, through litotes, a Shakespearean trope, to anemone petals (as in Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"). Instead, here a modern-day dark lady doesn't measure up to some standard of whiteness. And it's possible to see this use of negation foregrounded by the line's edge as analogous to Cubist negative space, which gains parity with so-called positive space. With the title, there is a reversal of metaphor: Queen-Anne's-Lace to woman to anemone petals to flower to woman to flower. The perspectives switch across the line boundaries: the title, in a sense, is line 0 of the poem, establishing our initial perspective. And the switch in perspective often coincides with the jamb or rejet, as: "Her body is not so white as / anemone petals . . . white as can be with a purple mole / . . . Each flower is a hand's span / of her whiteness. . . . Each part / is a blossom." The line breaks question the hierarchy of values (is it woman as flower or flower as woman?) in order to create a new "field" of "wild carrot taking / the field by force."

"His hand" creates the erotic potential, the "white desire" of the poem, which is the metaphor shuttling back and forth, between flower as woman and woman as flower. The hand is the metaphor for metaphor—creating all "or nothing":

. . . Wherever

his hand has lain there is

a tiny purple blemish. Each part

is a blossom under his touch

to which the fibres of her being

stem one by one, each to its end, . . .

Where "his hand" touches, the flower becomes woman (wounds her into being), then woman becomes flower. "Each part / is a blossom under his touch / to which the fibres of her being" records the transformation from woman's body ("part") to flower ("blossom") to woman ("her being"). Then the next line, "stem one by one each to its end," marks the return to flower—with the rejet "stem" marking the specific point of intersection in cognition of the woman and flower: read as a verb, "stem" refers to the woman; read as a noun, "stem" is a flower part. These metaphorical transpositions are "a pious wish to whiteness gone over— / or nothing." For this kind of poem wants to have it both—or all—ways. Williams claims to have studied with care the natural flowers depicted in the four-fold group of poems in Sour Grapes, of which "Queen-Anne's-Lace" is one. "I thought of them (the four poems about flowers in Sour Grapes) as still-lifes. I looked at the actual flowers as they grew" (quoted in Marling 167). But this poem bears equally the sign of the studied process of metaphor, and of an attention to paintings which broke up the picture plane so completely it became impossible to distinguish figure from ground, or to have one-way metaphors: the harlequin's hat is also the orange and brown striped background or vice-versa. And in a similar way, Queen-Anne's-Lace becomes wild carrot by violating the conventions of a uni-directional metaphor in favor of a perspective that works through linear dislocation.

 From "Enjambment as Modernist Metaphor in Williams' Poetry." Sagetrieb 9.3


Criticism Overview
Title Sharon Dolin: On "Queen-Anne's-Lace" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Sharon Dolin Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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