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Old 12-20-2003, 02:03 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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On a painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper

Vanity is such a silly vice.
She drapes herself in velvet and brocade.
Her long blonde hair and rope of pearls cascade
below her waist. She doesn't ask the price
of cutwork oversleeves stiffened with braid
or diamonds glinting on her hands and brow,
not stopping to consider when or how
or in what coin the piper must be paid.
At first her upturned chin and downcast eyes
suggest that she's embarrassed to be scanned,
an icon of reserve and modesty--
until, on close inspection, you surmise
she's glancing at the mirror in her hand.

The man I live with thinks she looks like me.

Susan McLean


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Old 12-20-2003, 08:48 AM
Rhina P. Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat is offline
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This ekphrastic poem is so good at what it does that I have the illusion of having seen the painting on which it's based, although I haven't yet. The details focused on are described in crisp, clear terms, in verse so deft and graceful it's a pleasure to follow, as when "the pearls cascade/below her waist," and that appearance of modesty is revealed to be a glance into the hand-held mirror.

The form is beautifully used, and the final line tellingly separated, like the thought of the viewer who remembers, outside the painting, her private life and the comments of her lover. That final line opens up the poem to the reader: we're back in the world of the real now, beyond the frame, and the "silly vice" turns out to be one of those little fishhooks that enliven, tighten and embitter relationships. The first line acquires a new context--new meaning--when it's reread. And it remains ambiguous: is this "she" the model who posed for the painting, or the image of "Vanity" itself?

One question: does the metrical risk taken with "stiffened" in line 5 pay off? I know the word really "stiffens" the line with that concentrated clump of consonants that wants to be a spondee, but would it be better softened to "made stiff"? That's less interesting, but draws less attention to that spot. Good thing or not?


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Old 12-20-2003, 09:07 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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As we all know, Susan is an extremely epigrammatic artist. And it is fun to see her stretch her legs in this amazing sonnet. Rich in detail, perfectly balanced, it achieves its power through mouth-wateringly charged language. And a last line to die for, where that white space is, as Rhina observed, the ideal set-up. One of the best new sonnets I've seen in years, it should be a candidate for the Nemerov Prize. (I think I prefer made stiff.)
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Old 12-20-2003, 09:10 AM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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Location: New York
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Maybe "made stiff" instead of "stiffened"?

(Tim, we cross posted, and I didn't note that Rhina already said it. A consensus is building.)

[This message has been edited by Roger Slater (edited December 20, 2003).]
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Old 12-20-2003, 11:10 AM
Bruce McBirney Bruce McBirney is offline
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Great poem, Susan! Of course, the poem stands on its own, but the painting that inspired it can be found on the net at:

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Old 12-20-2003, 12:47 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Location: New York, NY
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It's startling the difference a small revision like "made stiff" makes in this. It's so much better.

Interesting contrast between her alleged modesty and her spendthrift ways, too: a provocative aspect of this sonnet. (Seeing the painting though, I can't agree she appears modest, even on first glance.) That vanity can be reprehensible, even destructive to oneself and others, is a truth contained in the painting and the sonnet (the painting has more of a sense of humor about it); however the sonnet intimates we all have this vice and, as unattractive as it is, in beautiful people it's much more understandable. (And this thought becomes irritating to me after a moment or two!)

So I enjoy this as well for the discourse it opens on the quality of modesty (and/or vanity).

I've been asking myself why I object to the final line. I understand the speaker is comparing, through her house-mate's opinion, her own vanity with that of the subject, but it seems as if the speaker's own reflection on her vanity (or lack thereof) is missing.

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Old 12-20-2003, 01:55 PM
Richard Wakefield Richard Wakefield is offline
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I love the way the lines and phrases work together and against each other. The first two lines are perfect end stopped sentences, and then in the third line we get an enjambment on the perfect word, "cascade," which pushes us cascading down to line four. Later lines have similar lovely effects. Finally, the last line, all single syllable words, is one of those sentences that would look utterly prosaic out of context but sings in its place.

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Old 12-20-2003, 03:35 PM
Charles Albert Charles Albert is offline
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It's an interesting concept that using "stiffened" instead of "made stiff" stiffens the line, but in the end, for me, it just distracts from the thrust of an otherwise excellent portrait and fascinating final line.
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Old 12-20-2003, 04:58 PM
Henry Quince Henry Quince is offline
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Location: Australia
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I don't know how I missed applauding this in TDE, but I like it just as it is.

On stiffened/made stiff, I seem to be in a minority of one, or two if we count Susan herself (who must have weighed the option). I don't think the change would be an improvement. The reversed foot there is no real problem in reading the line, and surely "stiffened" is the more natural, idiomatic way of saying it. Imagine the item described in a clothing catalogue, or a personal letter to a friend. Would anyone write "sleeves made stiff"? The general tone here is conversational; it's set from the first line and reinforced by the word choices throughout, including three contractions.

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Old 12-20-2003, 06:35 PM
William A. Baurle William A. Baurle is offline
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Location: Arizona, USA
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I think I agree with Henry in that I prefer "stiffened" to "made stiff", for the reason that it does indeed, "stiffen" the line, as Rhina said, and I didn't find it distracting in the least. It's a small and slightly comic relief in a poem that is otherwise perfect standard IP, excepting the first line; and I liked the choice even more when I saw the painting, the subject of which does look rather stiff, coyly glancing down into the mirror.

I don't know why, but I was bothered a tiny bit by the headless IP line beginning the poem; but after a few reads that feeling went away, and now the first two lines seem perfect, with those soft v sounds making the strong f sound of "stiffened" even more effective.

It's almost impossible to find fault with this sonnet. It's a pleasure to read and read over again.


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