Speaking of hell, let’s turn to a brief but encompassing metaphor. It comes from the wonderful Russian writer Varlam Shalamov, who spent 17 years in the Gulag, in the northeast, where permafrost and tundra were prevalent and temperatures could reach minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit — in which the prisoners had to work all day. Solzhenitsyn called this place the Gulag’s “pole of cold and cruelty.” This is the metaphor:
Hope is slavery.
That’s it. Three words. It occurs in his collection Kolyma Tales, which the Soviet government forced him to renounce. “Hope is slavery” because it keeps the one who is hoping in expectation of a change for the better. There will be no change for the better, Shalamov says, and for him there was mostly not. This is the metaphor of a man who has learned that hope is his enemy. That hope will steal from him his energy and his ability to trust. It is one of the strongest metaphors I have ever encountered.
But there are also metaphors of lyrical joy. William Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” is short but useful. It’s also brilliant.
Earth hath not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
The poem celebrates London, and the mighty heart is a metaphor for all that is good and great about the city. I think we also feel the feeling is in Wordsworth’s own “mighty heart.”
In the final stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem “There’s a certain Slant of light,” she describes winter as hushed, mysterious, and attentive:
When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows— hold their breath—
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—
The landscape has an ear cocked to catch whatever is or might be about to be said. This is a metaphor, as landscape can’t speak. The next line in the poem heightens the drama still more. Has snow fallen? Maybe. Shadows holding their breath is another metaphor. A shadow cannot hold its breath. Or can it? We feel that tension, too, and perhaps hold our own breath. (Note the slant rhyme between “listens” and “distance.” Emily often opted for slant rhyme, which means slant rhyme is not a new thing.) When winter or snow leaves, what remains (forgive, too, this pun) is something like a corpse, something like a dead season, something buried and exhumed, ravaged.
Dickinson has often been called “the mother of American poetry” as Whitman is called the father of American poetry. (She declined to read Whitman’s poems, having heard they could be outrageous.) Like John Donne’s, her work was discovered and recognized only later, although she enjoyed an intense relationship with friends and writers via what we now call snail mail. Close to 1800 poems were found after her death.
But maybe we need more metaphors from fiction. A small fiction by Blake Kimzey, a fine young writer who recently received an Emerging Writer Grant from The Elizabeth George Foundation, mentions that “[t]he boy’s mother chanced a visit once, held her poem to the latch on the cellar door and what light bled through the cracks.” The metaphor lies in “bled,” the comparison being between light and blood.
Another short-short in the same anthology, “The Canyon Where the Coyotes Live,” by noted author Bobbie Ann Mason, is about a woman who wishes she had a child, but her husband says murderous, unforgivable things, such as this: “[W]e are lucky we don’t have any kids. I see how you would be with them.” I think that’s reason for divorce, but the woman in the story merely serves some lunch. Then she leaves us with both a simile and a metaphor:
She makes a salad with artichoke hearts and palm hearts. Her own heart could be the centerpiece, ripped out and posed on a platter like the head of John the Baptist. There is nothing to do but dance.
The simile is in the comparison (like) between the woman’s heart and the decapitated head of John. The metaphor equates the woman’s heart with the dancer we commonly call Salome, even though we see neither the dance nor Salome.
Metaphors are all over the place in poetry. Striking they may be, but in poetry they are more or less expected. They work a bit differently in fiction. There are moments when a metaphor can lift a story to another level: when it carries the reader out of the world or into the Garden of Eden or to a place far, far away. If you have been writing a realistic story, a metaphor can dart off in an instant, on a tangent, taking you to lines that are lyrical or amusing or somberly philosophical. Or it can make a flourish for the story’s ending, as it does in Neil Jordan’s “Tree,” from his first book, Night in Tunisia. A woman who does not want to be loved remembers whitethorn, a tree from her childhood, and believes she has seen a whitethorn tree just now, in the landscape she and the man who wants to love her are driving through. He says she’s mistaken: “There are no trees. This is a limestone landscape.” The argument continues and turns uglier. She dashes from the car, running away, climbing over a wall, fleeing from the car horn the man is blasting. “And it was there then. . .”
. . . bare rough whitethorn with scores of tiny rags tied to each branch, pieces of handkerchief, shirttails, underwear, shift, masquerading as blossom. She thought of people wishing, tying these proxy blossoms. She thought of her and her hope that it had blossomed and them, making it blossom with their hope. She wondered again what hope meant, what impossible meant . . . [A]nd the wail of the horn flooded her again, distant, plaintive, pleading . . . And the horn wailed like pain.
Neil Jordan has a talent for expressing the truth of the thing that remains hidden, invisible. The thing beyond our grasp except that he makes us grasp it. The horn is wailing the man’s pain. It also wails her pain. Not a happy ending, but the wishing tree, the whitethorn, bursts into “proxy blossom” with terrific energy and color and sound and feeling , and the reader is almost overwhelmed by the pain and the beauty, simultaneous sensations.
“[T]he wail of the horn flooded her again” is a metaphor, the wail equivalent to flooding waters. “And the horn wailed like pain” is a simile, though the structure of it suggests a metaphor.
Two more examples. Kristin FitzPatrick, in her debut story collection, My Pulse Is an Earthquake, just out, introduces to us a man, Richard, who has just learned from a soldier bearing a folded flag that his wife’s sister’s husband has been killed overseas. Richard, who is English, is understandably in a mild state of shock. “His tongue is swollen with the wrong words,” writes Fitzpatrick, which is, I think, a metaphor, at least the “swollen” part. Richard is as yet uncertain of his standing in America, at work, in his wife’s family. It’s his British-ness, in accent, word choice, and other ways, that makes him uncomfortable. Richard’s British-ness is further stressed when Richard thinks to himself that his brother-in-law, Bobby, who has been drinking since noon, must be having “his hard day’s night out”: a nod, obviously, to the Beatles.
And in another story, Fitzpatrick shows us a young girl beginning to realize that the friendly neighborhood cop is a danger to her and her friends. “I feel,” she tells us, “a hot rush over the backs of my legs. Every part of me wakes up.” The latter sentence is a metaphor. It wakes us up, too, and makes us want to continue reading.
The great Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, among many other works, a book titled Rhetoric and another titled Poetics. They are certainly worth reading, but unlikely to be of use to a writer. Aristotle dissected drama, enumerating and labeling its various parts. Unfortunately, the working writer — that is to say, the writing writer — seldom finds himself or herself on fire with creative passion while retrofitting a script to someone else’s analysis or outline. Maybe screenwriters do, but I am not acquainted with any screenwriters.
There is a little book that talks about how metaphor occurs in the world and not only in literature: Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, published by the University Press of Chicago in 1980. It gets a bit technical but is an interesting discussion of rhetoric and reality. •