A Comment on an Iconic Reading of Two e.e. cummings Poems As Webster and Terblanche show in their analysis of some of the poem groups in e.e. cummings’ work, CP 531 and CP 532 can be read as a dialogic pair, both in a thematic and a representational sense. I would suggest, however, that one may safely stretch the bubble of interpretation even further than they do in their own, inspired dialogic paper, “Eco-Iconicity in the Poetry and Poem-groups of e.e. cummings: A Dialogue” (Presented at the 5th Symposium on Iconicity, Krakow, March 2005).
The central image of the bubble is exactly what informs poem 531 from the first line of its sonnet structure. The bubble serves as a container of ‘despair’ which ‘hate’ blows into the world. The bubble bursts and ‘fear buries tomorrow’, paradoxically bringing a false spring, ‘green and young’, disguising the past, ‘yesterday’ – glossable as death masquerading as rebirth.
The protagonist of the poem is ‘a man’ who considers petitioning ‘madame death’ for a ‘neverless now and without winter spring’ (a figure for eternal youth, perhaps, if the latter part of the wish is read as ‘spring without winter’). The poem speculates that the only way to receive a gift from death is by being willing to ‘sing’ for her. In answer to that request or command the ‘man’ replies in the last line of the sonnet: ‘And if I sing you are my voice,’ The fact that the poem ends with a comma should lead us to look for the continuation promised by this punctuation mark (in lieu of the closure endings might otherwise signal), either elsewhere in the poem or beyond the poem itself. Dialogic thinking leads us to propose that the first word of the next poem (CP 532), ‘air’ and its continuation ‘be comes or (a) new (live) now’ – glossable as ‘becomes a new now (or alive)’ – might supply the full response to ‘madame death’, thus vindicating the ‘man’s’ desire for the ‘neverless now’ earned by singing his song with her ‘voice’ of ‘hate’ (that her voice IS hate becomes apparent if we read CP531 as having its end fold back on the beginning line, which is another possible circular closure for CP531).
Another crucial link between 531 and 532 is an iconographic one: When the poems are read as a pair, we see the bubble blown by the man in the sonnet travelling over onto the page of CP532, pushing the text of that poem into a bracket-shaped curve. The text of 532 is thus written on the fragile skin of the bubble blown in/by CP531, yet is outside the circumference of ‘madame death’s’ ‘hate’ message. This is apt, since 532 is about ‘new (live) now’, rather than 531’s death warmed over to appear spring-like. As 531 operates with dichotomies of tomorrow and yesterday, excluding the middle of ‘today’ or ‘now’ (as shown by Webster and Terblanche), and of pleasure and pain, self-deconstructed by the poem’s near chiasmus, ‘(one itself showing,itself hiding one)’, leading to the claim that ‘life’s only and true value neither (i.e. pleasure and pain) is, 532 features its own dichotomy between fear and hope: ‘th (is no littler th an a: fear no bigger th an a hope) is’. Hope was, in fact, the excluded middle of 531’s third potential dichotomy, hate and fear, which are not truly a dichotomic pair but rather one of complementary, negative ascriptions which are only revealed to have an alternative by 532’s overt mention of ‘hope’. In 532 where hope is inscribed on the surface of the bubble containing ‘hate’ the added surface tension created by the manifest presence of he previously excluded middle is enough to sustain the bubble, which never bursts in 532, where the ‘new now’ remains ‘st anding’ as a ‘st a.r’, or star/stair at the poem’s ending.
On the micro-iconic level the bubble is also inscribed in poem 532. The dot over the ‘i’ in the poem’s first word, ‘air’ is readable as a representation of the bubble, which then is iterated as part of the poem while at the same time constituting the surface bubble the poem is inscribed upon (‘madame death’, muse-like, provides both the material basis for the poem and its thematic content). This tangled hierarchy of representation, where the bubble is both the container and the contained illustrates a typical complexity in cummings’ style where surfaces never are flat or one-dimensional (as Webster and Terblanche also demonstrate with their ‘flattened’ transcriptions of poems such as CP488, which are impossible to perform without this reduction in complexity).
In poem 532’s first word the bubble hovers in its perfect conventional place, but as the poem travels down the page, the micro-bubble also descends until it has come to resemble a full stop, separating the ‘a’ and the ‘r’ in the poem’s final word, ‘a.r’. (The dot/bubble might be argued to have travelled to this base position via the semicolon in line 9 and the colon in line 13 (the latter also immediately follows a letter ‘a’)). While the bubble’s macro-manifestation thus remains sustained, the micro-bubble shows the inevitable direction all bubbles must travel in (down the ‘standing stair’ as it were). The ‘new now’ is thus both temporarily realised by the macro-poem on the bubble surface, yet remains only ‘hope’ on the micro level in the tangled representational hierarchy.
Webster and Terblanche propose a reading of the dot as a star, and the poem supports this more conventional reading too – but the full iconic reading of the bubble as creating a strange loop of representation and the represented hope is more motivated in the case of cummings’ poems 531 and 532.