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On "Opal"


Melissa Bradshaw

[T]he white Lowell uses to describe the beloved is an eroticized, kinetic, flashing white. Here is a reminder that white is not the absence of color, but the conjoining of all the visible rays of the spectrum; white is color in extremis, the color of ice, but also the color of molten heat. "In Excelsis" pictures the beloved’s shadow as "sunlight on a plate of silver," in "Wheat-in-the-Ear" she is a "spear-tongue of white, ceremonial fire," while in "After a Storm," she is "more dazzling than the ice flowers" (211, 213). The paradox embedded in this hue—what Lowell describes in "The Weather-Cock Points South" as "of no colour, and of all" (211)—is best dramatized in "Opal":

You are ice and fire,
The touch of you burns my hands like snow.
You are cold and flame.
You are the crimson of amaryllis,
The silver of moon-touched magnolias.
When I am with you,
My heart is a frozen pond
Gleaming with agitated torches. (214)

"Opal’s" repetitive pairing of clashing sensory images makes the imagery hard to visualize—it is slippery and fleeting; "comprehension" hinges on the reader being able to savor, but not necessarily reconcile, the poem’s paradoxes. The tone, as well, is slippery. Is it euphoric or pained? Does the "narrator rejoice or suffer? Is this a love poem or a grotesque? Appearing exactly halfway through Pictures of the Floating World’s "Two Speak Together" section, a sequence of forty-two love poems, this brief lyric encapsulates the excesses and tensions found in the rest of the poems. Whereas the poems preceding "Opal" are ecstatic celebrations of love and intimacy, several of the poems immediately following reflect the beloved’s absence, a separation marked by morbidity, fear, and self-doubt. The final image of the narrator’s heart as a "frozen pond/ Gleaming with agitated torches" is especially telling in this regard as it suggests both rapture and peril: the frozen pond of the speaker’s heart gleams because it is beginning to melt from the heat of "agitated torches."

From Modernizing Excess: Amy Lowell and the Aesthetics of Camp. Diss. State University of New York at Stony Brook, 2000. Copyright 2000 by Melissa Bradshaw.


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