Poetry Sunday: “Prophesy,” by Jill Bialosky

I also believe that one (and maybe the main) impulse of poetry is communication; otherwise, why not just tap out our poems on our keyboards and call it a day? In one interview, Bialosky mentions that working as an editor rather than an academic is freeing because it allows her to aim for a broader audience. This has been one of my personal writing goals and conundrums: how to write poems that says something worthwhile, not just to my graduate school teachers (and trust me, I do want to write poems those teachers consider worthwhile), but also to the guy who drives the UPS truck or wrote the algorithm determining his schedule.  And to my mother, whose education concluded with high school. I want to reach all those people, and I admire poets like today’s whose work can appeal across a broad spectrum.

What are some ways to make poetry accessible in the best sense of that word? Frost did it by writing poems that work on many levels. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” can be read literally, as a nice story about a nighttime sleigh ride through a snowstorm and can be enjoyed enormously on that plane. It can also be enjoyed the way instrumental music is, just for its sounds. Or read metaphorically as being about JFK, or more generally, examining the tension between living in the moment and anticipating what needs to be done in the future. I have even heard that Marxists identify with a sense of class conflict they discern in the poem. In the case of “Stopping by Woods,” the levels are created through metaphor. The primary method at work in today’s poem is allusion, a reference to another work of literature or art—here, the Oedipus story—that exists outside the poem.

In alluding to the Oedipus tragedy to tell larger truths about the speaker’s own experience of motherhood during her son’s rite of passage, “Prophesy” uses what Western Art calls mise-en-abîme (from the French meaning to “place into the void”), the technique of embedding a smaller representative version of something in a piece of art to reflect and cast light on the larger subject—think of paintings that themselves contain miniatures of other paintings, or of the art of heraldry in which a shield displays symbols that are potent figures of a larger story. A commonly cited example in literature is Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play technique, using a performance staged by his characters to reveal larger truths about the play the audience is viewing. The device is recursive, that is, it’s a kind of repetition that can feel infinitely regressive; in today’s poem, the allusion to Oedipus reminds us that the struggle between the speaker and her son is a perennial conflict that cuts across cultures and time.

Allusions allow poets to build layers of meaning that work simultaneously on many levels and thus can appeal to a wide range of readers. They are not without risk, though. When the referents are too arcane, allusions can alienate, making us feel ignorant or excluded. When done well, allusions function in such a way as to not detract from the experience of readers who fail to “get” them while also enhancing the experience of readers who do. In this case the allusion has been well chosen. Even readers who have not read Sophocles are at likely to be familiar with the outline of story made popular in our culture through Freud’s “Oedipus Complex.”

In Sophocles’ trilogy (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone), Oedipus is born to Queen Jocasta and King Laius who, hoping to thwart a prophecy predicting that his son would one day kill him, abandons the baby on a mountainside. A shepherd couple rescues and raises Oedipus, who eventually learns of the prophecy. To avoid fulfilling it (with the shepherd he believes are is parents), Oedipus leaves for Thebes. On the way, he quarrels with and kills a stranger, his real father, King Laius. Arriving in Thebes, Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle and wins the throne of the dead king and the hand of his widow, Jocasta, who, unbeknownst to him, is his mother. When he discovers the truth, Oedipus curses himself for his metaphorical blindness and seizes her brooch to stab out both his eyes.

Most readers have at least a passing familiarity with the story, one reason it works so effectively in today’s poem. When she executes the allusion, Bialosky goes a step further, reminding us that Oedipus “married / his mother” and used her own “pin” to stab out his eyes, along with other salient elements from the plays, such as the ideas of fate (“We knew there was nothing we could do”) and “prophesy” (in Oedipus, from the Oracle at Delphi), and the grove of sacred trees at the end of the poem. These details ensure that readers who know nothing more about Oedipus than what they’ve heard from Freud via Family Guy or even just from the poem itself can still understand what is being said.

Allusions like this one universalize a poem. They also add emotional and psychological depth and complexity. The taboo against incest transects cultures and time, so bringing it in via Oedipus is a superbly effective way to communicate the intensity with which teenage boys recoil from their mothers in adolescence. It is also unexpectedly funny. The ancient tale is so very melodramatic and extreme that likening the speaker’s son’s aversion to his mother to Oedipus recoiling from Jocasta is a kind of overstatement or hyperbole. Lastly, due to what I think of as   the poignancy of memory, allusions also add power and pleasure. Think about how the experience of reading a poem (or of anything, really) is intensified and often made better by the power of recognition. If you familiarize yourself with the story of an opera before you watch it performed, you’ll appreciate and enjoy it more; if you happen to know one of the arias, you’ll recognize it—often with pleasure—when it is finally sung.

What is the significance of that “grove of gentle trees” that concludes the poem? Oedipus rests from his wandering in just such a grove at Colonus, right before (or is it right after?) he meets and murders his father, and this concluding image is one thing that allows the poem to so deftly sidestep sentiment. It’s possible to read the ending as a happy one, assuring readers that their sons will come home. But anyone knowing anything at all about Oedipus and will recall that his story did not end well. The word “refuge” in the penultimate line likewise has dark elements, for refuges are temporary havens from, not solutions to, suffering. While the poem suggests that some sons return to their mothers, it will never be to that idealized childhood relationship of mutual adoration.

Auden said that poetry is the clear expression of complicated feelings, and that is true here. We understand the story being told, a classic tale of loss and limited redemption. But through its images and allusions, “Prophesy” manages to communicate the naivete of every mother who thinks her experience will be different, as well as the depth of her pain when she realizes it is not. It also captures the way some things in life feel preordained and the way our efforts to insure against disaster often go awry. Our children will turn away from us, and some will leave us to wander as if in exile. Others will injure themselves terribly with the tools they got from us. And all we can do in the face of this is endure: “ride it out.”

I resonated with the poem’s clear expression of the fear that shot through me as a young mother when I saw rifts between mothers and sons, and its acknowledgement of my devastation the first time I realized I’d moved from the center into a distinct periphery of my child’s universe, and the comparison between the speaker’s son’s embarrassment and Oedipus’ histrionics made me smile. Humor and tragedy, the two most powerful forces at work in literature according to Aristotle, are also at work in this poem. “Prophesy” reminds me that my own experience of rejection from my teenagers was not unique but is shared with mothers everywhere, and it reminds me again that sometimes clarity is the best way to fathom great depth.

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