I read far less poetry than I should – by “should” I mean simply that I enjoy it but rarely have the time or concentration to manage actually doing so.
That said, I ran into some poems by Robert Lowell the other day – and one set of lines from “My Old Flame” struck me. They are:
how quivering and fierce we were,
there snowbound together,
simmering like wasps
in our tent of books
What struck me first was the complexity of the figurative layering here: this isn’t a mixed metaphor, if by “mixed” we mean “carelessly heaped without regard to type” – although it certainly blends several different images. The key is the way those images and associations interrelate and reinforce one another rather than clash unproductively.
“Quivering” and “fierce” set up a tension: the first seems fearful, the second anything but. Yet one surely can be fierce and tender at the same time, in the manner of a mother bear, say – and one doesn’t quiver only from fear. Or rather, there might be different kinds of fear – and one might fiercely defend oneself, one’s preconceptions, against a quivering of doubt, of uncertainty, of potential for loss.
“Snowbound” resonates with “quivering” – and makes us think one might quiver also from cold, or from nerves or restlessness, or from being bound by the tension of those nerves, stuck in a cold household.
But not only cold: again thwarting a straight-line reading, Lowell begins the next line with “simmering,” a heat under pressure or tension, which curiously turns the implicit house into a pressure cooker whose lid is that (literal or metaphoric) snow. At the simplest level, “like wasps” is an imaginative way of describing any simmering: pull the lid off your rice water and imagine the roiling bubbles as wasps flitting randomly, bouncing dangerously off the walls and lid, their sting a threat like water boiling over. I think “wasps” also suggests something of a summer hothouse – another contrast with “snowbound,” as if inside, there’s heat, tension, activity, under pressure from the cold, stifling outside – or perhaps from the stifling of cold inside.
“Tent,” of course, aligns well with “wasps,” an unwanted guest but inevitable – but “books” is a bit of a surprise. Of course, one can easily form a tent-like enclosure from a single book – but a “tent of books” makes a shelter or enclosure from those books…one that, given the other enclosed spaces in this stanza, holds in a compressed threat and holds out from any sense of relief – so here one imagines the books as a means of avoidance, something that “keeps a lid on it”…something that keeps these fierce, quivering now–ex-lovers from escaping a togetherness that’s more like imprisonment, lacking relief and release.
The snow that binds or bound these former lovers is elsewhere in the poem plowed to the side of the road – by someone else, cleaning and clearing the road of its debris, just as the lovers’ former house has been “swept bare, / furnished, garnished and aired.” The poet seems glad of the renewal – but it’s not his, can’t be – and his ex-lover no longer speaks with her “old voice / of flaming insight,” is – then – no longer a flame, the force that heats the elements to set their waspish souls simmering.
And is a list a fit place for birds?
PS: Some formatting demon got hold of the quote from the poem – my apologies. Weird.