I have just sown a few bulbs of freesias. Rain clouds are hovering. Soon a drizzle will ‘baptize’ them. Sowing a few bulbs and seeds in my balcony pots at this time of year is a ritual. It is also an act of vehement defiance since my balcony crisscrosses wind gusts from all directions plus I am not particularly green fingered.
Just as I get the job done, I recall how last Spring I woke up to a cluster full of magic.
A misty morning had welcomed my first bouquet of freesias adding dewy drops to the ballerina grace with which their blossoms half-tilt, half-wilt, half-droop, half-swoop.
Sinking my nose into their deep, delicate fragrance is scenting heaven. Always worth pressing pause on whatever you happen to be doing, or not doing. This year I also had the claret and purple blooms jostling with their yellow and white siblings – jewel colours adding vibrancy to zing and innocence.
I remember that as the morning chill hit me, my mind somehow recalled Ezra Pound’s 2-liner poem, ‘In a Station at the Metro’ which goes like this:
The apparition of these faces in a crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
I honestly cannot say how this Imagist poem came to my mind at that precise moment. Yet it would not let go, especially during my commute back home. We may never have a metro in Malta (a currently controversial topic); however, like any urbanised, millennial society, isolated, alienated faces are everywhere you look. More so, since everyone is constantly head-phoned and swiping their smart phones in total oblivion of what is going on around them. I get a daily double dose of such a scene since I use public transport. As if this is not enough, people of all ages hooked to their devices are everywhere wherever you go.
Given its focus on a crowd at rush hour, it is hard to believe that Pound published this poem in 1913. Its brevity is even more fascinating since apart from steering clear of conventional description, it shocks the reader with a perplexing bewilderment that invariably elicits ‘What is this poem all about?’ ‘What on earth is Pound saying?’
To begin with, this is an Imagist poem. Meaning a succinct poem that works on the reactions to the images it conjures. This poetic style is highly influenced by the Japanese Haiku poetry which Pound found utterly intriguing. Typical of Modernist literature, the reader is required to play an active role in bringing the text to life. Indeed, if the poem fails to jolt our imagination, it looms as a static blank. Though it does not make relaxed reading, such a poem beckons unexpected routes to take.
Like any titled poem, the title offers the road signs. In this case, the key words are: ‘In’, ‘Station’ and ‘Metro’, which prefigure Pound’s fascination with the blur of ghostlike figures in an underground station. The difficulty to take in the telling blankness of their facial expressions is conjured by the ghostly connotations of ‘apparition’. This in turn is reinforced by the metonymic image of ‘faces in the crowd’; for these are disembodied persons whose faces are disturbing the poet… and us.
Moreover, homing in on their faces suggests his struggle to recognise how different and similar he is to them. He can do so because he is assuming the detachment of an observer. But being at the station makes him one of the crowd too. Being underground also has all commuters submerged bereft of natural light. The brief reference to faces, and nothing else, also emphasises how disembodied they appear. This is an important point to reiterate because it suggests a spiritual sterility and links to the poem’s feeling of something cut off and broken. I find this most resonant with our godless world.
The realisation that ‘these faces in the crowd’ are also trapped in a soul-deadening routine gains more weight in the second verse because ‘petals’ suggests a plucked flower severed from the lifeline of its stem. Furthermore, the ‘petals’ have fallen on a ‘wet, black bough’, that in turn suggests a dank and burnt out setting. Consequently, the ‘petals’ are another metonymic rendition of the crowd. Once again, we can relate to the tedium of our humdrum lifestyles in which it has become a challenge to dare to stare.
Yet, the association of fragile beauty evoked by ‘petals’ also hints at the poet’s empathy for the conscious and subconscious feelings of angst that torments the soul of the ‘faces’ Pound is looking at. Similarly, the ‘wet, black bough, is also a metonymic image evoking spiritually aridity. The petals’ decay is therefore, quickened by the corrosive and corroded bough. Is this the natural decay of a life’s cycle? Possibly. But I think it is more of an analogy to a rudderless society rotting away. If so, can we prevent such decay?
It is also significant to note that the metonymic images in the poem work in combination whose impact creates a metaphor for a glimpse of a spiritually sterile society. The shoving crowd heaves with people who cannot and do not care about each another. Locked in their own private world and possible abject loneliness recalls a line in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ where he states: I had not thought death had undone so many.’
That such isolation and alienation continue to hound us over a hundred years on should halt us in our tracks and make us rethink on how we are unravelling our thread of life. What I find even more chilling is that we are infinitely more isolated and alienated primarily because the safe harbor of the nuclear family is no longer sacred in a world where everything and everyone is labelled and regarded in terms of ‘exchange value’. Also, because our smart phones and laptops (and I have not even considered AI) have become the centre of our actions rendering lives lived in virtual, segregated, disconnected bubbles.
What has become our point of reference? Have we really turned our back on the warmth and support of living in families and communities? Do our young people especially know what a community is? What kind of home do they go to? How many families still gather around a table and speak/listen to each other without a gizmo gadget in sight? Aren’t our chat groups voicing a hunger for ties that bind?
Nor are young people the only fallen petals ’on a wet, black bough’. One of the 40+ managers where I work, who ‘thrives’ on being driven and who regards a holiday as a hiatus, often declares that she has no time for love. Strangely, or not so strangely, she is always dressed in black. Her life is her choice. Who am I to interfere? Yet her words rank among the saddest I have ever heard.
If nothing else, this poem has made me look upon fallen petals as mirrors we may choose or not choose to face. What about you?
#millennials #alienation #isolation #spiritual sterility #community