I was told by a very influential teacher — Mr. Renaissance Man as I call him because he flies helicopters, speaks Ancient Greek and Latin, builds cabinets, makes his own bows and arrows and shoots them, teaches History, Latin, and Philosophy and is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met — that I would have to don some spiritual armor if I ever wanted to read two specific books. They are A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and The Red Cavalry by Isaak Babel.
(Of course, both of these books have incredibly tragic histories regarding the lives of the authors — Burgess based his satiric novel on an assault on his wife by marauding soldiers and Babel served in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War and saw the horrors perpetrated by disenchanted, roving men and was later killed by Stalin — so that may have something to do with it.)
I’m going to go ahead and add The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath to that list. (I
cried my eyes out managed a few manly sniffles at The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, but that’s different.) In the instance of Plath, however, it may be because I was forced to read her poetry for about a month in high school and analyze up the wah and out the zoo of her. Regardless, there’s still a soft spot in my heart for her, unlike Latin American Literature.*
Achnyway, here’s an awesome poem by Plath that may be the inspiration for an awesome title!**
Here are two pupils
whose moons of black
transform to cripples
all who look:
each lovely lady
who peers inside
take on the body
of a toad.
Within these mirrors
the world inverts:
the fond admirer’s
turn back to injure
the thrusting hand
and inflame to danger
the scarlet wound.
I sought my image
in the scorching glass,
for what fire could damage
a witch’s face?
So I stared in that furnace
where beauties char
but found radiant Venus
This poem stabbed me in the back with a Finnish knife.*** I was flabbergasted at the 24 lines of brilliance that absolutely encapsulated the texture of my novel in words I wish I could have written myself. (I would write poetry, but after being editor of a high school literary magazine and having my lines cut down like Justin Bieber on the internetz by a bunch of swarthy, pimply-faced, angsty-poetry-writing teenagers, I’ve been scarred.)
The main theme here is inversion; what is expected is not what ultimately appears. This gives a sense of both defamiliarization (a favorite literary technique of mine, though I under-use it) and altered expectations. Beauties look into this ‘mirror’ and are left with the “body / of a toad” and the narrator, a “witch” with a demonic boyfriend, finds “radiant Venus.”
First of all, a demon, an Other, as a reflection of human nature is an iconic theme. Demons, or even the Devil himself, are a natural mirror for those aspects of ourselves that we don’t like, or are unable to comprehend. Much like the Devil was created because there are aspects to God — like, why does he allow us to suffer? Why is he so wrathful? — that are projected onto a separate figure, so are demons already a reflection of those unsavory aspects of humanity. Like a Jungian Trickster figure — think of Joker from Batman as a classic example of a chaos-inducing, evil-for-evil’s-sake anarchist — this poem inverts the normal into the profane and vice-versa. Marilyn Munster’s relationship to the rest of the macabre clan is an example of this.
The fire imagery recalls both the hellish aspects of the poem and passion. If we’re talking Dracula-type of passion, in that Dracula himself is a symbol for the repressed sexuality of the late 19th century, this could be an allegory for the narrator’s meditations on her own sexuality in the form of Venus, but a somewhat perceived danger to others, those beauties who end up charring because of the narrator’s daring. The participles — “thrusting,” “scorching,” and “burning” — along with the constant references to fire are all very aggressive, something that would not be tolerated in a woman during Plath’s time.
I particularly like this poem because I share some of the imagery in my novel. Especially toads, which are a symbol of betrayal and ugliness — see the African myth explained in the first Hellboy graphic novel — and the mirroring aspects. My characters may not always have reflections, but that could be because they don’t like what they see; Main Character Gwen is much like the narrator in that she has a demon lover, is often thrust into a cluster-cuss-furnace of anger and “burning darts,” but can always find the humanity buried deep beneath the surface.
This also can describe the love/hate relationship that Main Villain #2 Nathaniel-the-Douche-Canoe has with Gwen. He loves her but is also repulsed by her; he wants to possess her, but oftentimes at the cost of his own flesh and sanity. His love is never returned and he becomes enmeshed in his own private hellish furnace that turns him into a “cripple.”
Which is why, dear readers, I really want to pay homage to this poem in my novel by either having it at the beginning or by having the title refer to it. Problem is, Two Moons of Black sounds like a mixture of bad angsty teenage poetry and Native American mythology; Where Beauties Char doesn’t really fit with the vampire theme; and anything else just sounds like a bad romance novel.
*I rate Latin American literature like I do the band Vampire Weekend: such an awesome name, such a bad band. If you carry that metaphor a little better, I love the idea of magical realism, but haven’t been able to shake my knee-jerk I-just-drank-coffee-after-eating-grapes reaction every time I even hear about Pedro Paramo or One Hundred Years of Solitude or House of the Spirits. Though, technically The Master and Margarita is classified in that same genre, but, let’s face it, there are vampires in that book. I’ll get Gabriel Garcia Marquez on the phone and see if he wants any pointers.
**My sister was reading an article that says the word du jour of the American teenager right now is awesome. Maybe those guys should get a thesaurus or go to a writer’s workshop or something.
***The Master and Margarita. Don’t worry ’bout it.