Poet's Pick April 7
Elinor Wylie: "Escape"
Selected by Keetje Kuipers
National Poetry Month 2014

Letter from the Editors

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Our thanks to Keetje Kuipers for today's Poet's Pick!

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Editors


Keetje Kuipers's Poetry Month Pick, April 7, 2014

"Escape"
by Elinor Wylie (1885-1928)

When foxes eat the last gold grape,
And the last white antelope is killed,
I shall stop fighting and escape
Into a little house I'll build.

But first I'll shrink to fairy size,
With a whisper no one understands,
Making blind moons of all your eyes,
And muddy roads of all your hands.

And you may grope for me in vain
In hollows under the mangrove root,
Or where, in apple-scented rain,
The silver wasp-nests hang like fruit.

 

*Keetje Kuipers Comments:

My favorite photograph of Elinor Wylie shows her in a flowery dress that wraps and drapes about her shoulders in a way that feels highly stylized and yet is simultaneously evocative of abandon. With her head erect but tilted to the side, eyes slitted as if closed to a blinding sun, fingertips grazing the frame of the door in which she stands, she has a look of ecstasy about her.

And ecstasy is what I feel when I read her poems: Rich with fantastical imagery, enrapturing in the music of their form, and composed as if casting a spell, they are designed to transfix us. “Escape” is a prime example of these techniques. Published in her first signed collection, Nets to Catch the Wind, it is composed in a set of three nearly ballad stanzas: four lines, with an abab rhyme scheme, set in a sort of loose iambic tetrameter. The traditional ballad form often contains that singing quality of children’s nursery rhymes and, making use of mostly simple language, Wylie constructs a poem that is meant to be spoken aloud, with an emphasis on its strong rhythm and a narrative only slightly elided by its incantatory lyric voice.

I have always loved short poems because in them, more than in any other form, not a single word or syllable can be out of place—there is no room for error, not in an adjective, not even in a preposition. Many critics have remarked on the high shine of Wylie’s poems, the sense of an intricate surface polished and polished to a gloss. In “Escape” this sensation is there from the very first line, where an entire story is contained in its quick-witted allusion to a fable by Aesop. Yet the choice of “gold” to describe the grapes finally eaten by the foxes does much to embellish upon that original idea: we see not only those who despise what they cannot themselves possess, but also the opulence of their desire once fulfilled. Likewise, in Wylie’s choice of the word “grope” in the final stanza of the poem, we see that those who pursue this speaker do not wish simply to posses her, but to handle her, to touch her in a decidedly sexualized way, to feel her squirm in their sweaty grasp.

The poem is equally meticulous in its form and construction: Each stanza in the poem is a single sentence, and together—with their “when” and “but” and “and”—they work as a sort of map of the spell that Wylie hopes to cast. Additionally, when we trace the rhymes in “Escape,” we find a trail of meaningful breadcrumbs to follow along Wylie’s path: Only by allowing herself to be consumed can this speaker finally escape. A certain kind of death—of self, of identity, of homeland—will allow for the building of a new kind of life, perhaps one smaller in scope, but safer, too. Then, leaving behind only a faint perfume of who she had been, she’ll slip away from their hands, as unclutchable as the rain. Similar to the sort of fairytale this poem might sound like, we are led along a path full of magic, but the ending we arrive at is as severe as a Grimm’s tale. That final image of “hollows under the mangrove root” and “silver wasp-nets” is one of the grave and ghosts—the speaker’s solution being to leave behind only the papery shadow of her former self, yet one that still buzzes and hums with the danger that her previous life possessed.

Wylie feared her work was “not modern enough,” and it has often been characterized that way. A fan of the Romantics, she chose to indulge the personal and emotional elements in her writing, making sound use of natural imagery and rarely straying into the realms of those more objective Modernists who were her peers. Yet her work often succeeded in reflecting the common experiences so many of us, particularly women, have shared. Scholar Evelyn Helmick Hively writes that in Wylie’s poems “she questions herself, argues with herself, accuses herself; then she provides the difficult, harshly honest answers in her poetry that she so seldom managed in her life… She brilliantly dissects the elements of identity, illuminating ways to understand the self. What she said of Yeats’s readers is true of hers as well: everyone will in some measure see the image of himself in its crystal.”

My young students often object to poems that they feel read like riddles, but while this poem is most certainly a fantasy, it is not one to which any of us might have trouble relating. We all long to sometimes get away from the prying, judging eyes that would condemn us for who we are. This poem works not just as a fantasy but, because of the music found in its meter and rhyme, it also becomes a sort of incantation that might very well transform that fantasy into reality if spoken aloud. As Wylie herself remarked about her poetry, “There’s sorcery in it.”

It pains me then to see that I’ve opened this comment with an examination of Wylie’s appearance, a move that I loathe in the world of poetry, especially when the poet under examination is a woman. And Wylie did feel scrutinized by the public eye, which sought to condemn her behavior—affairs, elopements, several marriages ending in divorce—while lauding her poetry. Widely published in the best magazines, and praised by top critics for her “almost supernatural brilliance and energy,” she is a nearly forgotten poet today, mostly noted not for her work but for her wild escapades and ethereal beauty. Edna St. Vincent Millay praised Nets to the Catch the Wind for its “intelligence, skill, discrimination, reserve, and full powers of sorcery.” What a balancing act it must have been for Wylie to cultivate a private life on the page, and yet find her intimacies—lived fully outside the mores of her time, especially for her gender—taking place in the realm of the very public eye. “Escape” is a poem that grapples with that carnivorous public gaze, and imagines not resistance, but illusion as an answer. Wylie was often praised for her physical beauty, though later that admiration would be used as an excuse for her literary success. And yet many poetic peers like Roethke adored her lyricism. Poet and critic Louis Untermeyer once described her poetry as “passion frozen at its source,” and why wouldn’t it be? To freeze it would be to keep it safe from all those who wished a piece of it for themselves.


About Keetje Kuipers:
Keetje Kuipers's first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, was awarded the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and was published in 2010 by BOA Editions. Her second collection, The Keys to the Jail, has just been released by  BOA.


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