Metaphors matter. They shoot the right smile, the right handshake, the right colors, posters squirreling. They eye the right clock, ready their knees to implode with the right cascade of balloons. Screams pitch-perfect. No bipartisan bonding. Mixing. Wining. And critics everywhere—from the classroom to the acquisition room—print, push, and praise; say swimmingly, in lights: “Breathtaking!” and “Spellbinding!” and “Superb!” and “Gloriously inventive!” And we all gush and croon in awe and die of envy and wait for next year’s darling to party. Same flag. Same grin. Same kind of animal.
But there’s only one problem: it’s too Greek; it’s too neat.
Surely, Ariosto would agree. Surely he’d smile and side with me, suggest a little schmoozing, a little bonding, a little covalent bonding. Yes. The Greeks were too taut, too concise. Too unwet. Anti-satiety. Their metaphors swung in homogeneity. Likeness. Sameness. An imbalance consisting solely of repulsive forces. No one is suggesting, of course, an axe to persuasiveness and clarity which are essential to eloquence. No. What I’m suggesting—Orlando Furioso underarm—is the bonding of both attractive and repulsive forces, the making of “shared pairs” in the scrawling of metaphors.
Surely there is a place for opposing forces within the atoms of the metaphor. Surely the twilit corners of sensibility can share a bungalow with the dark, demented heels of menace. In effect, such bonding produces a stable balance of opposing forces, a shared electron pair.
And I do not, of course, suggest making a mindless bond, an unwarranted connection between two images, committing the sin of non sequitur. No. I’m simply saying don’t discard the repulsive. Keep it. Use it. Work it. The stability of metaphors depend on such bonding. And certain writers get this right.
“Dying,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is a wild night and a new road.” Yes. She could have chosen to hide the repulsive and jotted “Dying is a new road”—but that would have made the metaphor unstable, and she knew it. Shared pairs, after all, are two electrons with opposing spins. So let’s look at her spins more closely:
Spin #1: wild night
Spin #2: new road
Spy the opposition? A wild night conveys the dark, the terrifying dark, the painfully seedy dark. Yet a new road conveys a new chance, a fresh opportunity, a bright future ahead. These opposing spins, shared and paired, satiate and add dynamism to the page.
Good writing needs water; and covalent bonding is what gives water its wetness. Imagine a world without water. Parched. Unpretty. Gigantic. The fragrance of death at every turn. No Tequila with a twist. No teatime at two. No “I Owe You”s. Only rich, ragged thirst. Forever. For our bodies, plumbed of 70% water—and our brains, need water to function. Our words are no different. So, give the brain what it wants, what it needs: that funky-sweet we call covalence, be it rapid or slow.
The ancient Greeks loved rapid movement. Consider Homer’s Iliad. A rash, imprudent guy called Achilles. Wham. Bam. Battlefield. Cut to scene off battlefield: see Hector at home with wife and child. Pivot back to battlefield. Wham. Bam. Suppliant old man. Choked back tears. A softening. A different kind of wham.
Impressive. I’m all for movement. Stampeding stallions is my kind of dream. But the truth is I also like it slow. Something magical happens in the slowing down. Because every journey needs a wineskin. A swig of something wet. Mouths moving to emotion, savoring the exhale, as if Zeus himself was discharging Olympus. Because we owe such beautiful epithets—the “rosy-fingered” dawn; the “loudly-resounding” and the “wine-dark” sea; the “ambrosial” night; the “long-shadowing” spear—to the work of many generations of anonymous poets (ah, likely boys at Oxford), I won’t fuss. Because Homer made his men like gods and his gods like men, I won’t fuss. Because Homer’s work was written to be recited and not luxuriated on the page, I won’t fuss.
But I will tell you this:
I am a gang of trees
With kid leaves carving
Streets of gore green into dumb
Air, staving off record downpours—
Rain! wrap sheets cruel as Christ
Loosely tacked to lime-cuffed
Walls of junkies, juvenile
Branches huddling in the sweet
Dark, praying for a nation of non-smokers,
For Americans who despise wood,
For tribes with good memories,
But I will tell you this:
Metaphors matter. Stable metaphors matter. They matter the way Emerson’s fascination with self-reliance matters; the way Dostoevsky’s fascination with the extreme matters; the way Flaubert’s fascination with stupidity matters. Like the slashing of a bad painting matters. Yes. The slashing of a bad painting by a woman in a partyhat.
Camus would agree. “In the depths of winter,” he wrote, “I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” Visuals satiate, entrance, invoke the swirling ballerina. Yes. Covalence matters. It lends experience to words. And readers need this, folks. Because “words without experience are meaningless,” warns Nabokov. Because it’s time to get out of the party animal business and time to get into the experience business. Vlady, one of the greats, certainly understood this. Consider a line from his classic novel Lolita:
“I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t’aimais, je t’aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller.”
This is experience. This is experience making every second a slave. This is a large seabird. This is a large seabird swooping in slow motion calling his prized prey a stinking carat. There is delicious movement here but it is not partial. It is all covalent bonding and hella-good bonding at that. So let’s see what lies at its essence:
Spin #1: I’m capable of tenderness.
Spin #2: I’m a monster.
Here Nabokov not only masters metaphor but also the literary device of repetition. In effect, he says “I love you, I’ll hurt you” three times! His use of tricolon crescens—a three-segment climax employed since Pharaonic times—is brilliant.
But hey, who am I fooling? The real author of the Iliad, whoever the hell he was (likely some kickass Ethiopian women), was genius; and his story, though über-rapid, crazy dazzles. How could it not? The son of a sea-goddess, girded with demi-divine gifts—brave, beautiful and eloquent, hellbent on revenge. Because you know as well as I that these good-looking Greeks, these fine ‘fire and light’ people of Negroid range with sunburnt (xanthē) complexions and sunburnt hair (not ‘blond’, Ms. Aitken), fly mane helmets made of African ivory and African gold, were hot and witty—Etruscan-like, the destroyers of Trojans. Because if I don’t give it to you straight, the attractive and the repulsive, the gods’ll have my head, party-style. Because go ahead, say it: I dare you.
Linette Marie Allen is earning an MFA in creative writing and the publishing arts at the University of Baltimore, where she resides as a Turner Fellow. A native of Washington DC, she’ll drive 40 miles anywhere for single-origin coffee and fatally dog-eared books.