A mule and its shadow lengthen themselves
down the track, carrying sacks
of darkness and oranges. The farmer casts
a giant insect before him, which leads him
as though he were blind. Their heads bow
in prayer or nostalgia, as the angelus tolls
from memories of shadows of a church in the valley.
Echoes of the bells ring from reflections
in the mirrors of neon-lit bars in town.
A gypsy lights a cigarette in the square.
He ascends and blows away with its smoke.
The moon gave him his silken suit.
His ivory eyes perfectly unbutton
his imperfectly lit lot. A telephone
in an empty booth hangs up on itself
Questions and Answers
What inspired “SHADOWS”?
We often think of shadows as just the absence of light, as negativities, as somehow not full-blooded parts of reality. But, as Impressionist painters can show us, shadows often have their own vital and dramatic colouring, that delights the eye: shadows cast by birches on the snow may be the colour of spilt honey. This poem was written as a tribute to the reality of shadows around us.
We even recognize people partly by the shadows they cast, which may be inseparable from their identities. Shadows can be as stuffy or as lively, as gloomy or as infused with colour or the sparkle of jewelry, as their owners. If people and buildings didn’t cast shadows, would we be able to recognize some of them? Wouldn’t it at least be very eery?
Sometimes, the dividing line between people and shadows blurs. People become shadow-like, perhaps pushed into this by a marginalizing society, like the Romany gypsy in Europe. Wider society disconnects them from itself, like disconnecting unmaintained ‘phones. Then it’s as though shadows are casting people, rather than the other way around. So the poem was also written as a tribute to the reality of such shadow-people among us.
What poetic techniques did you use in “SHADOWS”?
How to draw back shadows from being merely negativities for us? I’ve tried personifying them: endowing them with life and the characteristics of living things, whether people or animals. The mule’s shadow carries shadowy sacks of oranges. The farmer’s shadow, as long in the setting sun as a giant praying mantis, leads him down the track with the kindness of someone helping a blind man. Like the farmer, his shadow is wrapped in its own thoughts, perhaps bent in prayer.
I also try subject-object reversal. Our usual grammatical structure can unduly influence how we see things. What a subject-term refers to can seem the sole source of energy or activity in that thing’s relationship with what’s referred to by the object-term: “The gallows cast a long shadow.” If a word is almost always cast in the grammatical role of object-term, this can make us think that what it refers to is so uniformly passive as to be hardly there, hardly real. Smoke is most often put in an object-term role. It’s what’s produced by the activity of whoever or whatever is referred to by a subject-term: the forest-fire fills the sky with smoke; or the downed pilot carefully makes smoke-signals for help. Ordinarily, we might speak of a cigarette-smoking gypsy blowing out smoke-rings. But suppose we reverse the subject-object relation. Then the gypsy becomes as elusive and mysterious as smoke. It’s as if he’s produced by his own smoke-rings, dispersing with them. But smoke and gypsy are both really there, actively getting up and going from the square.