thou red thing

Southern Night

by D.H. Lawrence

Come up, thou red thing.
Come up, and be called a moon.

The mosquitoes are biting to-night
Like memories.

Memories, northern memories,
Bitter-stinging white world that bore us
Subsiding into this night.

Call it moonrise
This red anathema?

Rise, thou red thing,
Unfold slowly upwards, blood-dark;
Burst the night's membrane of tranquil stars
Finally.

Maculate
The red Macula.


I had to look up "maculate," which turns out to be a verb. So the final two lines can be translated as, more or less, "blot out the red blot." I'm not sure what Lawrence means here. Is he asking the moon to blot out some other red blot? If so, what blot, the blot of "northern memories"? Or is he asking for some other force to blot out the red moon? No, I think it's the former: the red moon is to blot out the memories. I assume "northern" here means "English," and "southern" means "Italian," as Lawrence wrote this poem in Sicily. This is one of the less Whitman-inspired poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers. By "less Whitman-inspired," I guess I mean that it's a little more self controlled, less rambling. Shorter, certainly.

12 comments:

  1. Macula: the area of sharpest vision in the eye... so,"stain my vision...?" that would make sense, wouldn't it? like the moon staining the sky of stars... somehow it sounds rather bitter, as if he had a grudge against England, which he most likely did... no?

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    1. I took Lawrence's "macula" as meaning "spot," in the Latin. Blot out the red spot. Whatever that means.

      I'm willing to bet old Dave had more than one grudge, though I don't know very much about his biography.

      The thing about these poems is that they seem to contradict themselves, to point in many directions at once, like a lot of Lawrence's writing. There are some large-scale ironies for me as a reader, like Lawrence's rejection of Freud while he writes poem after poem full of sexual metaphor and reductive claims about women. Tres amusant.

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    2. sort of like a rainbow with some missing colors; rather out-of-balance, as most of us are...

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  2. For me, there are four possibilities, two of which are preferable, one of which seems best. Perhaps simply "stain (or sully) the blot." Or perhaps the part of speech (verb or adjective in "maculate") is not clear, given the lack of punctuation. Perhaps "stained, the blotch." Or "stained/sullied/defiled, the part-of-eye most sensitive to color and most sensitive to seeing." Or "stain/sully/defile the part-of-eye most sensitive to color and most sensitive to seeing."

    Of these I like the last best because it sounds most like Lawrence to me. And because the brilliance of red is registered most in the macula. And because it continues the upward-thrusting power of the rising moon that will burst the tranquility of stars.

    The red moon obliterates our sense of the moon as white, overwhelms the white of memories, and attacks the usual peace of stars. "Unfold" does not work as is, seems like the wrong word for this thrusting, brilliant rebellion. Though perhaps he was thinking (as he does elsewhere in his poems) of the weird vigor and force of flowers. (Moonflowers and their saturated morning glory cousins, sometimes red!) If he was, the poem needed something more.

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    1. Yesterday evening I was watching (on youTube) a masterclass presented by virtuoso violinist Maxim Vengerov. The student, a 19 year-old, played a very good "Carmen Fantasy" (the Waxman version, which is about three times as hard as the more commonly heard Sarasate version). The student has probably been working on this piece for almost a year to prepare for the Menuhin Competition. Vengerov proceeded to give the student advice and pointers, playing complex and difficult passages from memory, with much more musicality and clarity, and a deep knowledge of the inner workings of the piece. Cheerfully, gently, showing the young performer how it's done. I kind of know how that kid feels now.

      In other words, thanks for that reading! I will keep struggling with/against poetry. I bought Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter? this weekend, along with Brodksy's Collected Poems in English. Poetry is an immense and unknown world.

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    2. it certainly is... it's illuminating to read the words of someone who really knows what they're talking about... tx, Marly (although i'm still not sure what it was she said...)

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    3. Hahaha! I like Mudpuddle's comment (the parenthetical part!)

      And thanks. Those are good choices...

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  3. It's worth emphasising that both of the macul- words sound so similar that the reader doesn't have to know the precise meaning of either of them to feel that something is being asked to commit an action on, or against, itself: perhaps in an act of self-obliteration or replacement, as if you'd said, "Person, impersonate."

    By "red macula" perhaps he suggests that the colour-loving part of his eye is only "seeing red", that the red or anger is destroying his full-colour vision by narrowing him down to angry emotions, and he is asking the red moon to attack its cousin inside his head, the round moon-eye that sees only red; his anger, the source of his unhappiness, the frustration that turns his macule red, focuses him on one small area of existence, and stops him enjoying everything else in the world. And the red moon is also his: he is the one who summons it and names it in the first two lines. It wasn't naturally and casually a moon. He had to establish a naming power over it to make it one. And the naming power comes through the eye. He is asking the "red thing" to be both seen and named. And if there is a conflation of the "red thing" and his own eye-anger then is he asking Self to become evident to Self so that Self can give Self a name and act upon Self to cure Self? The cure requires destructive bursting because this is the way Lawrence envisions most cures.

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    1. This is helpful, too. I was sort of thinking yesterday afternoon that the red of the "moon" was a projection of Lawrence's own eye, that the moon and his eye and his anger were all the same thing, and that he was going through a nightly ritual (because of the "finally") where his resentment at his past orbits him like the moon, hangs over his head oppressively, but is just a projection of his bloody blindness upon the earth. And that maculate/macula line could mean both blot out the blot and intensify focus on the intense focus; why not?

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  4. Our friend Himadri from the Argumentative Old Git blog emails to add this comment:

    The only other use of the word "maculate" that I know of is in T. S. Eliot's "Sweeney Among the Nightingales", the first verse of which reads:

    Apeneck Sweeney spread his knees
    Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
    The zebra stripes along his jaw
    Swelling to maculate giraffe.

    And no, I am not sure what the word signifies here either. I guess it means that the zebra-like stripes along Sweeney's jaw swell when he laughs, and look like markings on a giraffe. But, even if that is correct, that's just the literal meaning, and, in poetry, the mere literal meaning rarely takes us very far.

    For me, the sound of the word "maculate" immediately suggests its opposite - the more frequently used word "immaculate". And this word (once again, for me) has theological associations ("immaculate conception"). So I have always taken Eliot's use of the word "maculate" to suggest the very opposite of the state of being without sin: it suggests being mired in a state of sinfulness.

    Now, this is just the way my mind works - I am not insisting upon it. But if the admittedly tortuous logic of the above is admissible, it may apply to Lawrence's use of the word also. Although Lawrence is asking for the moon to "maculate" - to "maculate the macula", to (as I read it) stain, or to make sinful, the point of our keenest vision.

    And at this point, I throw up my hands and admit I just don't know!

    ----------------
    Me again, to say that I'd also briefly considered the maculate/immaculate pair, but it didn't mean anything to me until I'd begun to consider that Lawrence might be chastising himself in this poem. And then I'd forgotten about it until Himadri emailed me. Ta awfully for the contribution.

    I'm glad I posted this poem. I'm especially glad that everyone is helping me think about it. I've forgotten to say that "come up, and be called a moon" is a splendid line. I may steal that, to put into the mouth of a future character if I write more fiction one day.

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    1. Maybe there's another meaning to that final couplet. Maybe Lawrence does take "maculate" to mean "sinful," so he says something like

      Sinful
      the red blot of my vision

      Though I'm not sure how well Lawrence could judge his own nature. He sure pinned his neighbors with his eye, though.

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