Michael North: On "Her Lips Are Copper Wire"
"Her Lips Are Copper Wire" . . . is one of two or three poems in the book that represent Toomer's earlier imagist period. It is prosodically irregular, syntactically discontinuous, and devoid of punctuation. The pronoun references shift from second to third person abruptly and without explanation, and there is a queasy inconsistency of mood: "telephone the power-house" is almost certainly in the imperative, but "whisper of yellow globes," the first line of the poem, could be indicative or imperative. As in many modernist poems, these formal discontinuities are meant to mimic the jaggedness of modern urban life, in this case the on/off patterns of the lights on the city signs: "(her words play softly up and down / dewy corridors of billboards)." Here Toomer is apparently describing the same Seventh Street scene that appears in "Gum":
J E S U S
The Light of the World
. . .
It Does You Good
Intermittently, their lights flash
Down upon the streets of Washington
In "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," Toomer's words play up and down in the same way, flashing on and off with the electrical current that is the gathering metaphor for the whole poem.
The reconnection of a circuit, the jump of electricity across a gap, is, in fact, a gathering metaphor for most of this, the second, section of Cane. For much of this section the sexual tension between the characters crackles across a physical or social gap. In "Theater" John silently watches Dorris dance while Dorris watches him watch, until a "shaft of light goes out the window high above him" and somehow sweeps both of them up into the same dream. In "Box Seat" Dan and Muriel yearn for one another, but they remain separated by the intrusive Mrs. Pribby, so that "Muriel's lips become the flesh-notes of a futile, plaintive longing." In "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" the restrictions are stripped off and the electricity fairly hums:
then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent
Until this moment of release, "the main wires are insulate," but once that insulation is stripped off, lips touch, lights light up the city street, and words flow.
The incandescence is not simply sexual because its glow is the glow of words released from inhibition and restriction. In "Box Seat" Dan is wooed not just by Muriel's physical lips but also by "Lips, flesh-notes of a forgotten song. . . ." This song emerges from the black urban culture of street and theater: "Dark swaying forms of Negroes are street songs that woo virginal houses." In "Her Lips" these songs break free and "play softly up and down / dewy corridors of billboards." The energy is released when it jumps a gap, like a spark, or overcomes resistance, like an incandescent filament. It almost seems as if the songs require a prior moment of forgetting or the obstacle of repression so as to release all their energy. And this does seem to be the way Toomer looks at the relationship between the "forgotten" songs and their urban re-realizations, as if the discontinuity of modern life were not the death of an old organic existence but the release of it in a new form.
Thus Toomer defines the form he himself uses in most of the second, urban section of Cane, where even the prose is choppy and asyntactic: "Stale soggy wood of Washington. Wedges rust in soggy wood . . . Split it! In two! Again! Shred it! . . the sun." Like Williams, Toomer uses ellipses to suspend ordinary syntax and to mimic the action of splitting or breaking indispensable to creation. Out of these breaks in the ordinary, leaping across them, comes a speech and a poetic, both associated with jazz. It is not really an accident that the idiom used for jazz improvisation is "tore it down," that when the piano player does this in "Bona and Paul," "the picture of Our Poets hung perilously." Like Cane itself, jazz has an old, rural basis, but it mobilizes that influence against standard European forms in a way that makes it seem both simple and complex at once.
If jazz provides a general formal model for this section of Cane, imagism provides the specific metaphor of electricity. "Her Lips" was written around 1920, before most of the poems in Cane; in fact, it was composed when Toomer was preparing a response to Richard Aldington's essay on imagism entitled "The Art of Poetry." In that essay, which used examples from Pound and H.D., Aldington declared that a successful imagist poem included "phrases which give me a sudden shock of illumination . . . . " This is Aldington's metaphor--not a particularly lively one--for Pound's doctrine of the image as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. . . . It is the presentation of such a 'complex' instantaneously which gives that sudden sense of liberation . . . which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art." Toomer copied Aldington's electrical metaphor into his notebook and literalized it in "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," and in so doing he puts the doctrine of the image to work in an urban American setting.
|Title||Michael North: On "Her Lips Are Copper Wire"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Michael North||Criticism Target||Jean Toomer|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||14 Jun 2020|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature|
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