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On "Her Lips Are Copper Wire"


Barbara E. Brown

Cane’s most dazzling moment of regeneration is enabled by another image of connection: the tongue. Like roots and curls of smoke, the tongue can be pictured as a winding line, and it is in this form that it becomes the center of "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," a poem which must be Cane’s most stunning single piece:

Whisper of yellow globes
Gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
Like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog

And let your breath be moist against me
Like bright beads on yellow globes

Telephone the power-house
That the main wires are insulate

(her words play softly up and down
dewy corridors of billboards)

then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent (p. 54)

This is Toomer’s display of real virtuosity. His control of assonance and rhythm—in the third and last lines, for instance—produces a poem that is at once startling and seductive. Like the metaphysical poets, Toomer here transforms a technological instrument into an image for emotion or eroticism.

At the same time, the image of copper wire lips unites the Northern and Southern sections of the book, combining technology and sexuality. With the union of North and South comes the only true possibility for sexual consummation in the book. The "incandescence" of the poem's last stanza is the regenerating sexual union—and perhaps the promise of a black Messiah—that Cane's narrators can never achieve. And the union, if it is possible, will be enabled by voice: lips and tongue. "Then with your tongue remove the tape," the speaker urges, "and press your lips to mine." If in "Esther" and "Box Seat" the discovery of voice produced a vision of renewal, in "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" it provides the renewal itself. The final stanza, then, with its deep eroticism, is a description of finding voice. Like Barlo and Dan, the poet is listening for a response: he asks the woman literally to empower his voice by removing the tape which keeps him silent. Thus the confidence and power of the closing line is as much a display of new-found voice as an expression of sexual fulfillment.

from "Untroubled Voice: Call-And-Response in Cane" Black American Literature Forum 16 (Spring 1982), 12-18.


Barbara E. Brown

Cane’s most dazzling moment of regeneration is enabled by another image of connection: the tongue. Like roots and curls of smoke, the tongue can be pictured as a winding line, and it is in this form that it becomes the center of "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," a poem which must be Cane's most stunning single piece. . . .

This in Toomer's display of real virtuosity. His control of assonance and rhythm - in the third and last lines, for instance - produces a poem that is at once startling and seductive. Toomer has learned from the Metaphysical poets how to transform a technological instrument into an image for emotion or eroticism; his sensuous telephone wires owe much to Donne's 'stiff twin compasses'. At the same time, the image of copper-wire lips unites the northern and southern sections of the book, combining technology and sexuality. With the union of north and south comes the only true possibility of sexual consummation in the book. The 'incandescence' of the poem's last stanza is the regenerating sexual union - and perhaps the promise of a black messiah - that Cane's narrators can never achieve. And the union, if it is possible, will be enabled by voice: lips and tongue. 'Then with your tongue remove the tape', the speaker urges, 'and press your lips to mine.' If in 'Esther' and 'Box Seat' the discovery of voice produced a vision of renewal, in 'Her Lips Are Copper Wire' it provides the renewal itself The final stanza, then, with its deep eroticism, is a description of finding voice. Like Barlo and Dan, the poet is listening for a response, he asks the woman literally to empower his voice by removing the tape which keeps him silent. Thus the confidence and power of the closing line is as much a display of new-found voice as an expression of sexual fulfillment.

From "Untroubled Voice: Call and Response in Cane." In Black Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Copyright 1984 by Metheun.


Nellie McKay

In "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," the narator as persona is more intimately involved with the culture and addresses it as an agent providing love and care. Earlier values now rejected, this poem is a companion piece to "Rhobert" and "Calling Jesus," and what is important to the speaker is what he sees. He concentrates on the mechanistic attributes of his object of affection: the gleam of yellow globes of which she whispers, the instant contact with the "power-house," and the flashy billboards. Like Rhobert, he welcomes and craves the attentions of the automaton whose lips he wants pressed to his own until they become as bright and glowing as hers. The poem satirizes the adoption of the values of the mechanized, industrial world.

From Jean Toomer: Artist—A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936. Copyright 1984 by The University of North Carolina Press.


Michael North

"Her Lips Are Copper Wire" . . . is one of two or three poems in the book that represent Toomer's earlier imagist period. It is prosodically irregular, syntactically discontinuous, and devoid of punctuation. The pronoun references shift from second to third person abruptly and without explanation, and there is a queasy inconsistency of mood: "telephone the power-house" is almost certainly in the imperative, but "whisper of yellow globes," the first line of the poem, could be indicative or imperative. As in many modernist poems, these formal discontinuities are meant to mimic the jaggedness of modern urban life, in this case the on/off patterns of the lights on the city signs: "(her words play softly up and down / dewy corridors of billboards)." Here Toomer is apparently describing the same Seventh Street scene that appears in "Gum":

STAR
J E S U S
The Light of the World

. . .

WRIGLEYS

eat it
    after
                    every meal
It Does You Good

Intermittently, their lights flash
Down upon the streets of Washington

In "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," Toomer's words play up and down in the same way, flashing on and off with the electrical current that is the gathering metaphor for the whole poem.

The reconnection of a circuit, the jump of electricity across a gap, is, in fact, a gathering metaphor for most of this, the second, section of Cane. For much of this section the sexual tension between the characters crackles across a physical or social gap. In "Theater" John silently watches Dorris dance while Dorris watches him watch, until a "shaft of light goes out the window high above him" and somehow sweeps both of them up into the same dream. In "Box Seat" Dan and Muriel yearn for one another, but they remain separated by the intrusive Mrs. Pribby, so that "Muriel's lips become the flesh-notes of a futile, plaintive longing." In "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" the restrictions are stripped off and the electricity fairly hums:

then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent

Until this moment of release, "the main wires are insulate," but once that insulation is stripped off, lips touch, lights light up the city street, and words flow.

The incandescence is not simply sexual because its glow is the glow of words released from inhibition and restriction. In "Box Seat" Dan is wooed not just by Muriel's physical lips but also by "Lips, flesh-notes of a forgotten song. . . ." This song emerges from the black urban culture of street and theater: "Dark swaying forms of Negroes are street songs that woo virginal houses." In "Her Lips" these songs break free and "play softly up and down / dewy corridors of billboards." The energy is released when it jumps a gap, like a spark, or overcomes resistance, like an incandescent filament. It almost seems as if the songs require a prior moment of forgetting or the obstacle of repression so as to release all their energy. And this does seem to be the way Toomer looks at the relationship between the "forgotten" songs and their urban re-realizations, as if the discontinuity of modern life were not the death of an old organic existence but the release of it in a new form.

Thus Toomer defines the form he himself uses in most of the second, urban section of Cane, where even the prose is choppy and asyntactic: "Stale soggy wood of Washington. Wedges rust in soggy wood . . . Split it! In two! Again! Shred it! . . the sun." Like Williams, Toomer uses ellipses to suspend ordinary syntax and to mimic the action of splitting or breaking indispensable to creation. Out of these breaks in the ordinary, leaping across them, comes a speech and a poetic, both associated with jazz. It is not really an accident that the idiom used for jazz improvisation is "tore it down," that when the piano player does this in "Bona and Paul," "the picture of Our Poets hung perilously." Like Cane itself, jazz has an old, rural basis, but it mobilizes that influence against standard European forms in a way that makes it seem both simple and complex at once.

If jazz provides a general formal model for this section of Cane, imagism provides the specific metaphor of electricity. "Her Lips" was written around 1920, before most of the poems in Cane; in fact, it was composed when Toomer was preparing a response to Richard Aldington's essay on imagism entitled "The Art of Poetry." In that essay, which used examples from Pound and H.D., Aldington declared that a successful imagist poem included "phrases which give me a sudden shock of illumination . . . . " This is Aldington's metaphor--not a particularly lively one--for Pound's doctrine of the image as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. . . . It is the presentation of such a 'complex' instantaneously which gives that sudden sense of liberation . . . which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art." Toomer copied Aldington's electrical metaphor into his notebook and literalized it in "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," and in so doing he puts the doctrine of the image to work in an urban American setting.

From The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. Copyright 1994 by Michael North.


Robert Jones

In "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" desire generated by a kiss is compared to electrical energy conducted between copper wires, here imaged as lips. The evocative and sensuous opening lines, addressed to an imaginary lover, well illustrate Pound's Doctrine of the Image:

Whisper of yellow globes
gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog

and let your breath be moist against me
like bright heads on yellow globes . . .

from "Jean Toomer as Poet: A Phenomenology of the Spirit." Black American Literature Forum 21 (Fall 1987), 253-273.


Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr

Using city imagery reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's early poems, Toomer in "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" again touches on themes of social connection and interchange. Toomer claimed in his autobiography that he was a (sic)"a natural poet of man's artifices. Copper sheets were as marvelous to me as the petals of flowers; the smell of electricity was as thrilling as the smell of earth after a spring shower." Unlike Eliot, Toomer does not satirize the mechanical image. The two cities in Cane’s middle section, the city of law (the insulated wires) and the city of vision, contradict one another—before vision is achieved, some kind of empathetic connection beyond the law must be made between human beings. When the lover in the poem asks to have the "tape" removed from his lips, he asks for the spark that a kiss will create, that will turn his lips to an "incandescent" glow.

Each of the paired sketches and poems of Cane's middle section presents contrasted elements; "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" is intentionally contrasted with "Calling Jesus." The lovers' ecstatic meeting in "Copper Wire" is set against the "scared" isolation of Nora in the sketch.

from Jean Toomer and The Terrors of American History. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P.


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