Sunday, January 10, 2010

Mrs. Porter: Constrained (Part II)

This is the second in a series of blog entries inspired by Paul Hoover’s Sonnet 56, which offers 56 variations of Shakespeare’s sonnet 56. Mrs. Porter is the nominal hostess of Les Figues Press’ salon series. For several years, I have been presenting my research on Mrs. Porter, a real Cairo-based brothel owner who appears in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. You can read my first variation here.

Once again, I took as my source-text 14 lines from “The Fire Sermon:”
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.
But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!

Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d.
Tereu
In this variation I have arranged all of the words in this excerpt in alphabetical order:

Alphabetic
At And A

And And
Bring Back bodies
By Bright Bones

But
Cast Ces chantant coupole
dans damp daughter
Dry d’enfants

Et
forc’d Feet From foot
garret ground
Hear Her Horns

In I In In
Jug Jug Jug Jug Jug jug
Little la low Low
Mrs. Moon
My Mrs. Motors
naked

O O Of on On On
only
Porter Porter

rat’s Rattled Rudely
Soda Shone
spring Shall Sound So Sweeney

the Time The Time
The Twit The Twit To twit
The They to To
Their Tereu

Voix
Which White water Wash
Year year
A poem composed of fragments adjusts quite well to a rude, alphabetic box. To be forced to encounter The Waste Land through this new lens allowed me to better view the semantic building blocks of this High Modern masterwork whose themes – water, sex, urban grit, time – are echoed throughout the poem. The melancholic tone is, oddly enough, still there, perhaps impossible to dislodge, even when the words are piled into such a mean heap.

Given the fragment of French in the original, I was quite proud of my "At And A" (Attendez!) in the first line. The Waste Land could be considered Eliot’s clarion call to the decadent masses – reflect on your own sterility! Beware!

The lines
Cast Ces chantant coupole
dans damp daughter
Dry d’enfants
are especially appealing to me since they capture the gist of the original and amplify the contradictions that Eliot hopes to bring into stark relief with his jarring juxtapositions. In the original passage, Mrs. Porter’s daughter is “damp” because her feet have been washed in soda water – a glancing reference to a dirty ditty about a whore’s daughter who cleans her genitalia in order to avoid contracting (and transmitting) syphilis. Eliot contrasts the two whores with the chaste voices of children singing in a church. Whether he’s lamenting the fate of Mrs. Porter’s daughter, who was dragged into prostitution, or casting aspersions upon young boys, ripe for homosocial bonding, Eliot finds a way to emphasize what’s grim in both the seedy and the transcendent.

I was also delighted with the J-N passage, which recalls the snide, lilting bawdiness of the original ditty about Mrs. Porter, which was sung by her grimy military clients. And how can our post-Nabokov ears not hear “Lolita” in the line “Little la Low Low?”

The line “Hear Her Horns” also resonates for me. The motor horns in the original text are Eliot’s winking nod to the pastoral hunting horns that announced the arrival of spring. In this new context, they’re further degraded, calling to mind a bawd’s big breasts and the horny clients who hear her siren call. Oddly enough, I think Eliot would approve.

1 comment:

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Joan Stepsen
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