Monday, January 22, 2018

Pale File online reading group, Week Two

Two Cedar waxwings, very much alive, pass a berry during courtship. Creative Commons photo by Minette Layne of Seattle, Washington. 

This week. let's read "Pale Fire: A  Poem in Four Cantos." It's a few more pages than we're ordinarily going to do, but it makes no sense to me to break up John Shade's autobiographical poem. Then we can get into the heart of the book, Charles Kinbote's analysis of the poem.

The poem begins with two well known lines:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure of the windowpane; 

Did you see Supergee's post parodying those lines? “I was the fookin shadow of the waxwing slain. I only said Shade was the shadow of the waxwing slain to be nice.”

The poem begins with vivid images of the death of a bird, and as we read the poem, says Brian Boyd in his book about Pale Fire, "we learn more about Shade's lifelong attempt to understand a world where life is surrounded by death."

Andrea Pitzer in the book The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov calls Shade a "very decent poet" and says Nabokov created "a quintessential American writer whose work lives in the shadow of Robert Frost." Frost is mentioned on page 426 of the post. Nabokov did readings with Frost, once opening for Frost at an event in Boston, Pitzer says.

Boyd identifies where the words "pale fire" come from: Shakespeare, in the play Timon of Athens.

The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea: the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun:
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears: the earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement: each thing's a thief:
The laws, your curb and whip, in their rough power
Have uncheque'd theft. 

(From Act IV, Scene III, lines 472-480)

As Boyd notes, Nabokov tells you the source of the name is Shakespeare: Line 960.

Anybody up for a coincidence? As I was working on this post, about a poem that describes a young woman who dies walking on the surface of a thawing, icy lake (Canto Two), I was interrupted by a work phone call. I had to stop working on this blog post, so I could do a quick newspaper story about ice fishermen being rescued after they fell into the water.

I read the poem again Sunday. Let's read the poem together and discuss in the comments. By the way, comments are still being posted for last week's initial post. 


Eric Wagner said...

For me, Shade sounds like T. S. Eliot more than anyone else.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Interesting style observation, Eric. None of the Eliot poems I've read had a narrative story to them, but there's plenty I haven't read.

michael said...

Shade's style reminds me of something between Frost and Eliot's Four Quartets.

What is it about rhymed lines that brings out my humor, big-time? I laffed out loud about 5 times just reading the first 2 Cantos. I'm holding myself back from commenting on lines like some further Kinbote, a guy who knows nil of Zembla, but can take any Nabokovian synesthetic (mirrored?) image and riff on it like an acid casualty or some quarter-baked grad school dropout with perpetual pebble-in-shoe.

I will try to behave.

But hey wow: some brainiacs are wonderful steeped in the poem and its hidden meanings. EX: When I happened upon "That's Dr. Sutton's light" (line 119), I googled it and got this female Serb's take:!

Manic The Doodler said...

I'm really liking this poem so far. I think it's quite beautiful.

Oz Fritz said...

John Shade structuring the poem into Cantos recalls Dante's "Divine Comedy." Dante calls dead people "shades." Leary uses the Divine Comedy as one of the literary examples describing the death/rebirth archetype and the journey of transformation in "High Priest."

"Waxwing" suggests the waxing of the moon, the increase of reflected sunlight. That connects with the Shakespeare quote.

"I was in the shadow of the waxwing slain," reminds me of Pynchon's "Against the Day," which, in one sense, seems an answer to Nietzsche's, "The Dawn of Day."

The fifth and sixth lines: "And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:"
implies the Hermetic formula, "As Above, So Below," an axiom that appears near the beginning of nearly every western esoteric book.

Eric Wagner said...

The music of Shade's verse frequently makes me think of Eliot's music.Mike, I agree it reminds me of "The Four Quartets". Oz, Tim Leary's "Flashbacks" also opens with a brief essay on Dante. Synchronistically, I start teaching "The Divine Comedy" to my humanities class today.

Eric Wagner said...

Line 18, "As night unites the viewer and the view," seems yogic to me.

Eric Wagner said...

Line 15: "And there's the wall of sound" does not refer to the Grateful Dead sound system.

Eric Wagner said...

I had forgotten line 224 mentions Proust. I have become more and more obsessed with Proust over the past seven years.

Lvx said...

So, at the beginning of the poem, Shade likens himself to the bird fooled by the sky reflected in the glass in that he has projected his reality into the afterlife and had that illusion dispelled painfully. It's a beautiful beginning and my favorite image from the poem, but I'm somewhat confused by the fourth Canto where he states he's reasonably sure we survive. How does one reconcile these? Is it meant to be ironic since it's shared in the same breath with saying he's just as sure he'll awaken tomorrow, about which he is wrong? Will I find out later that he already knew he was wrong?

Oz Fritz said...

Eric, I thought of the Grateful Dead also when I saw the "wall of sound" line.

Some more lines that reminded me of the GD, but likely don't refer to them: 759 - 766. They mention a similar fountain in "Ripple." Those lines also indicate research into the Unknown:

"If on some nameless island Captain Schmidt
Sees a new animal and captures it,
And if, a little later, Captain Smith
Brings back a skin, that island is no myth
Our fountain was a signpost and a mark
Objectively enduring in the dark,
Strong as a bone, substantial as a tooth,
And almost vulgar in it's robust truth!"

Line 919: "Over the skin a triple ripple send"

Eric Wagner said...

Lines 379 - 382 make me think of the movie "Celine and Julie Go Boating":

"...the point is that the three
Chambers, then bound by you and her and me,
Now form a tryptich or a three-act play
In which portrayed events forever stay."

michael said...

Let us not make too much of Shade's daughter and her blind date 8:15 (23), her death, and how, Shade's wife Sibyl gets worried at 11:00, where you see an 11 and a 12 (23).

PQ said...

The poem really captivated me, parts of it struck me deeply. Nabokov has a knack for plucking emotions without being maudlin or too dark. The Nabokovian signature seems to blend these feelings: sadness, grotesqueness, humor, intrigue.

The second Canto with the material about Shade’s daughter was especially heart-wrenching. Yet what I was most impressed by there was the descriptions of watching television:

“…The screen/ In its blank broth evolved a lifelike blur…”

“And we allowed, in all tranquillity,
The famous film to spread its charmed marquee;”

“Oh, switch it off! And as life snapped we saw
A pinhead light dwindle and die in black

So it seems the moment their daughter perished, they were switching off their television.

We should also mention that these lines appear in last year’s film “Blade Runner 2049”:

“A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.”

Read about it here: