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Imagery (part 3)

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2. Intuitive imagery

Intuitive imagery takes advantage of and often mimics the way our brains can hold many things together at once, or bounce around between different memories and ideas.
Scarecrow on fire – Dean Young

We all think about suddenly disappearing.
The train tracks lead there, into the woods.
Even in the financial district: wooden doors
in alleyways. First I want to put something small
into your hand, a button or river stone or
key I don’t know to what. I don’t
have that house anymore across from the graveyard
and its black angel. What counts as a proper
goodbye? My last winter in Iowa there was always
a ladybug or two in the kitchen for cheer
even when it was ten below. We all feel
suspended over a drop into nothingness.
Once you get close enough, you see what
one is stitching is a human heart. Another
is vomiting wings. Hell, even now I love life.
Whenever you put your feet on the floor
in the morning, whatever the nightmare,
it’s a miracle or fantastic illusion:
the solidity of the boards, the steadiness
coming into the legs. Where did we get
the idea when we were kids to rub dirt
into the wound or was that just in Pennsylvania?
Maybe poems are made of breath, the way water,
cajoled to boil, says, This is my soul, freed.
(poem suggested by Peppermental. Thank you!)

Take a minute and think about what happens in you when you read this poem. Don’t look down at my half-baked explanation just yet. Let it sink in, read it again. Take a breath.

Okay, now you can continue.

This poem doesn’t have a straightforward narrative. The way I like to think about it, the first line is the “real” title: it tells me what the poem is about and lets me enter the stream of ideas, images, glimpses of story. The different ideas presented by the poem all feel like they’re spoken by one person experiencing a very particular emotional state, and that’s what ties them together; the images describe the state, because it cannot be properly named. These are the thoughts that come with the desire to disappear into the woods or into a back alley door and enter someone else’s life: what comes before the disappearance, the fear and excitement of what comes after, and perhaps a little bit of sadness for what that desire makes us leave behind. That’s what I get out of this string of images, and it feels strange to paraphrase it this way: mostly I feel like I got a few beautiful minutes inside the poets head. You could construct some kind of narrative or meaning that puts all these together, but you don’t have to. The fact that the connections are not explicit and are left up to you the reader, helps the images to stand on their own.
Love In The Orangery - Aimee Nezhukumatahil

When you see a seventy-pound octopus squeeze
through a hole the size of a half-dollar coin, you

finally understand that everything you learn about
the sea will only make people you love say You lie.

There are land truths that scare me: a purple orchid
that only blooms underground. A German poet

buried in the heart of an oak tree. The lighthouse man
who used to walk around the streets at night

with a lighted candle stuck into his skull. But winters
in Florida—all the street corners have sad fruit

tucked into the curb, fallen from orangery truckers
who take corners too fast. The air is sick with citrus

and yet you love the small spots of orange in walls
of leafy green as we drive. Your love is a concrete canoe

that floats in the lake like a lead balloon, improbable
as a steel wool cloud, a metal feather. This is the truth:

I once believed nothing on earth could make me say magic.
You believe in the orange blossom tucked behind my ear.
This poem has a more straightforward narrative, and both conceptual and linguistic connections that can be followed: sea truths and land truths, truth and lies, magic. The images that illustrate these things are very different and are tied together by the bent and illogical scaffolding of the speaker’s thoughts on belief and disbelief. I can’t image the play back and forth between the two as a philosophical discourse, but the speaker makes it real to me, makes it feel strange and paradoxical with a non-linear combination of images and experiences that show what its like to experience something and not know how to believe it.

The strange but believable nature of the images becomes the connection, as do their colors: the orange of the octopus against the imposing blue of the ocean, the purple of the orchid against the citrus and green of wet oranges in Florida. This poem is also a good case study in the effective use of colors: the colors are specific and pointed enough that they help us imagine more clearly, but are not slathered on so thickly that the color names lose meaning. And many of the colors, just like the ideas and connections, are imagined – the poem suggests them, but doesn’t name them.
Mirrors - Tada Chimako

The mirror is always slightly taller than I
It laughs a moment after I laugh
Turning red as a boiled crab
I cut myself from the mirror with shears

*

When my lips draw close, the mirror clouds over
And I vanish behind my own sighs
Like an aristocrat hiding behind his crest
Or a gangster behind his tattoos

*

Oh traveler, go to Lacedaemon and say that in the mirror,
Graveyard of smiles, there is a single gravestone
Painted white, thick with makeup
Where the wind blows alone
The space for suggestion is also an important feature of the three poems above. The poems state some things, but leave the ends open. There is no one way to interpret or imagine what’s happening in these poems, even though they were probably written with very specific images and ideas in mind.

I think the success of intuitive imagery depends upon the unspoken, ghostly connection between the different elements of the poem. A poem of random images or things thrown together because each was interesting or beautiful individually won’t work. People like to solve puzzles, find connections, and understand what they read (thus why its so exciting to realize the heavily made up actor in a bad movie is also on your favorite show). There’s a connection that underlies everything in “Scarecrow on Fire” and “Love in Orangery”, though it is difficult to verbalize what that connection is. “Mirrors” depicts the same subject in wildly different ways. We don’t need connections to be linear, simple, or even explainable to sense that they exist – but they do need to exist for the poem to make sense and for it to communicate something to a reader.

I also think that the realness of intuitive imagery is important. Though the combinations of images are strange and a few of the images are surreal, all are grounded in reality. Each individual image starts as sensual imagery drawn from the world that we share. Just as surrealist paintings often used techniques usually used to depict the world in realistic detail, these poems use realistic details like train tracks disappearing into the woods, an orange blossom behind a lover’s ear, a crab, in order to convey the non-real realms of our thoughts. When you try to convey something non-linear, surreal, or intuitive try to give readers something that they can use as leverage in the poem, something familiar that will help them navigate the unfamiliar.

When you start using intuitive imagery, think about the way dreams hold together. There’s often some shadow narrative or logic that makes everything in the dream make sense and feel real, even if the individual events don’t make conventional sense – your house isn’t your house, your boyfriend suddenly is a teacher you’ve always admired, you’re driving a bus through a tunnel in a glacier. Also think about the way your mind wanders when you’re bored, or riding in a car/driving. A song comes on the radio – you remember hearing it when you were ten, and where you heard it. You were with a friend. Now you think about her – she dyed her hair, she has kids, she plays the saxophone, you can’t imagine her face. Do faces change that much, does she look the same as when she had a wispy side ponytail in a pink scrunchie? You check out your face in the rear view mirror. There’s a cop following you, lights off. You wonder: your face has changed, or has it? Would she recognize your mug shot?

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