Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Pleasure of Interpretation in Poetry: A Case Study

In the first of this series of posts on poetry (May 12), the pleasure of interpretation is compared to working a puzzle, playing a game, or solving an elaborate code. What is puzzling about "The Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor Window"(see previous post)?

It might appear at first glance to be about a suicidal woman at the moment of decision--whether to let go or climb back up--because it fits the popular image of a "jumper" from an urban skyscraper or high rise. But is she really suicidal or is this image a metaphor of hanging by a thread from her life circumstances? Why is she described as "her father's son"? Why is she depicted as a kind of earth mother ("She sees Lake Michigan lapping at the shores of/herself")? Why is it the 13th floor?

Is this a social commentary on a poor, urban, Indian welfare mother? Is it about women in general caught between victimization by nature and society on one hand and self-empowerment on the other? Is it about mother nature hanging in the balance between destruction and recovery? Is it about the universal human experience of being caught among the conflicting forces of chance, fate, and choice? One pleasure of interpretation is discovering the multiple dimensions of meaning and their interconnections.

At one level the poem encompasses all of the above interpretations. But, at another, it poses an unresolved (perhaps unresolvable) question: to what extent is the poor, Indian woman a victim of class, race, and gender oppression and to what extent is she a free agent capable of taking responsibility for her own life? To what extent is mother nature doomed to destruction by human exploitation and to what extent is she capable of resiliency, recovery, and renewal despite human destructiveness? To what extent is human fortune and misfortune the result of mere chance in a random universe, to what extent of pre-determined fate, and to what extent of our own free will and effort?

The first two questions situate us in the center of contemporary political debates about government and community support vs. personal responsibility or about environmental crisis vs. environmental resiliency. The third is an enduring philosophical debate going back to the beginning of human thought. Your interpretation may vary depending upon your political and/or philosophical beliefs. To the extent that one takes pleasure in controversy and debate, the openness of poetic interpretation can provide hours of enjoyable and stimulating argumentation.

Another pleasure in interpretation is uncovering so-called "hidden meanings." One highly speculative method of doing this is through psychoanalytic theory. "The Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor Window" might bring to mind the Freudian theory of a universal "death wish." Whatever one might think of this theory it is consistent with Freud's notion of the "pleasure principle." It seems counter-intuitive to associate death and pleasure, but the counterpart to the pleasure principle is avoidance of pain, and death is sometimes, at least in fantasy, a relief or escape from pain. Life circumstances or mental pain (depression) can somethimes be so unbearable that death becomes desirable.

Not only is the dangling woman, whether suicidal or not, flirting with death, but the poem repeatedly references her desire for escape, whether it be into fantasy ("She thinks she will be set free"), memory ("When she was young she ate wild rice..."), dreams ("That's what she wants/to have another child to hold onto in the night, to be able to fall back into dreams"), or nature ("She thinks of...waterfalls and pines...moonlight nights, and cool spring storms"). It also repeatedly hints at the pain of her life: "13th floor," "tenement building," "the two husbands she has had," "dizzy hole of water," "asphalt," "worn levis," "dangling,""cats mewing and scratching at the door," "scream," "cry," "lonliness," "discordant," "teeth break off." Sleep, dreams, oblivion, and death seem perferable to the waking reality of daily suffering.

Images of falling (into death, sleep, dreams, darkness) contrast with images of getting "up," pulling "up," folding "up," and climbing "up," just as the universal death wish is in a continual conflict with the life force, Eros, and the desire for power. Read this way, the poem becomes an allegory of the human psyche in constant tension between the desire for oblivion and the desire for consciousness.

Interpreting poetry through various theoretical lenses, whether psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminsim, or deconstruction, is the most intellectual level of pleasure afforded by the study of poetry.

"The Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor Window"

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor
window. Her hands are pressed white against the
concrete moulding of the tenement building. She
hangs from the 13th floor window in east Chicago,
with a swirl of birds over her head. They could
be a halo, or a storm of glass waiting to crush her.

She thinks she will be set free.

The woman hanging from the 13th floor window
on the east side of Chicago is not alone.
She is a woman of children, of the baby, Carlos,
and of Margaret, and of Jimmy who is the oldest.
She is her mother's daughter and her father's son.
She is several pieces between the two husbands
she has had. She is all the women of the apartment
building who stand watching her, watching themselves.

When she was young she hate wild rice on scraped down
plates in warm wood rooms. It was in the farther
north and she was the baby then. They rocked her.

She sees Lake Michigan lapping at the shores of
herself. It is a dizzy hole of water and the rich
live in tall glass houses at the edge of it. In some
places Lake Michigan speaks softly, here, it just sputters
and butts itself against the asphalt. She sees
other buildings just like hers. She sees other
women hanging from many-floored windows
counting their lives in the palms of their hands,
and in the palms of their childrens' hands.

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
on the Indian side of town. Her belly is soft from
her childrens' births, her worn levis swing down below
her waist, and then her feet, and then her heart.
She is dangling.

The woman hanging from the 13th floor window hears voices.
They come to her in the night when the lights have gone
dim. Sometimes they are little cats mewing and scraching
at the door, sometimes they are her grandmother's voice,
and sometimes they are gigantic men of light whispering
to her to get up, to get up, to get up. That's what she wants
to have another child to hold onto in the night, to be able
to fall back into dreams.

And the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
hears other voices. Some of them scream out from below
for her to jump, they would push her over. Others cry softly
on the sidewalks, pull their children up like flowers and gather
them into their arms. They would help her, like themselves.

But she is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window,
and she knows she is hanging by her own fingers, her
own skin, her own thread of indecision.

She thinks of Carlos, of Margaret, of Jimmy.
She thinks of her father and of her mother.
She thinks of all the women she has been, of all
the men. She thinks of the color of her skin, and
of Chicago streets, and of waterfalls and pines.
She thinks of moonlight nights, and of cool spring storms.
Her mind chatters like neon and northside bars.
She thinks of the 4 a.m. lonliness that has folded
her up like death, discordant, without logical and
beautiful conclusion. Her teeth break off at the edges.
She would speak

The woman hangs from the 13th floor window crying for
the lost beauty of her own life. She sees the
sun falling west over the gray plane of Chicago.
She thinks she remembers listening to her own life
break loose, as she falls from the 13th floor
window on the side of Chicago, or as she
climbs back up to claim herself again.

--Joy Harjo