Poem: Between Walls
Poet: William Carlos Williams
In: The Voice That is Great Within Us (ed. Hayden Carruth)

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where
nothing

will grow lie
cinders

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green
bottle


This is a poem that has rewarded re-reading, and I am pleased that it was chosen to represent Williams in this collection, in place of the comparable but dramatically more famous poem about the red wheelbarrow. (It is not the only Williams selection, to be clear, but it is the only selection in this particular mode.)

At its core the poem is an image: the broken pieces of the green bottle lying amid the cinderblocks of an industrial dead zone. Indeed, this image is very nearly the poem itself. I say “very nearly” because there is one bit of editorializing on the part of the narrator. This is the implied comparison between the description of the setting as one in which “nothing // will grow” and the greenness of the broken glass, which, against that background, clearly suggests that we are to take it as a sort of industrial plant.

But beyond that, the poem tells us nothing about how we should feel about the image. And indeed, the justification for the implied comparison between the absent plant life and the present bottle is that it gives shape to the uncertainty of what to make of the scene described.

What, exactly, are we to make of this image? One might read it as a celebration of what is not often celebrated: a dead, ugly looking place—but wait, for there is life here, too, the broken bottle is the vegetation appropriate to such a place, and furthermore, is evidence that humans live here, that there is life even here. It is the task of the poet to find signs of life even where others see only ugliness and decay, and that is the virtue of this poem.

One might equally see in the comparison of the bottle to a plant a statement on just how different they are, how pale an imitation of true life the bottle is. The similarity then serves only to draw our attention to just how dissimilar the two really are. And what sort of life is evidenced by this bottle: a drunk, skulking about hidden places—no life at all. Such a reader might also note a feature of the setting I have thus far left unremarked: that this occurs around a hospital building. The whole setting is one of death and disease.

Well, there are two readings. Does the poem tell between them? Not in the slightest. Both are the impositions of the reader. In the end, there is only the broken bottle amid the cinder blocks. Make of it what you will.

“Fair, fair,” cry the ospreys
On the island in the river.
Lovely is this noble lady,
Fit bride for our lord.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must seek it.
Shy was this noble lady;
Day and night he sought her.

Sought her and could not get her;
Day and night he grieved.
Long thoughts, oh, long, unhappy thoughts,
Now on his back, now tossing on to his side.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must gather it.
Shy is this noble lady;
With great zither and little we hearten her.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must choose it.
Shy is this noble lady;
With bells and drums we will gladden her.


Above is the first poem in the Shijing (The Book of Songs, trans. Arthur Waley, ed. Joseph R. Allen). The interpretation of it that I shall offer does not pretend to accurately capture the intent of its author(s). Or, more precisely, there is an inflection point in the interpretation, which I will try to signal clearly, where I shift from fairly secure to quite uncertain ground.

Let us start with what appears to me beyond dispute. The first stanza introduces us to a lord and his (presumptive—hold the thought) bride. But where the first stanza suggests a poem of celebration, the second introduces a sorrowful note: he seeks her day and night, but she is shy, and evades him. This note is amplified in the next stanza, which confirms (if it was in any doubt) that, though he seeks her, he cannot find her.

Interestingly, the second stanza compares the lord’s search to the search for the water mallow, which grows in patches “to left and right.” I suspect, though I do not know, that “to left and right” is an idiom that means “everywhere” or “all over.” In this case, however, the literal meaning is important, too (here I am trusting that “to left and right” is something like a literal translation). For we see, in the third stanza, the lord’s sleep troubled by his grief: “Now on his back, now tossing on to his side.”

The power of this image comes from the parallel between the search for the water mallow (“to left and right one must seek it”) and the lord’s tossing and turning: he seeks her in his sleep. The water mallow is not a generic image of searching for what is difficult to find, but an image that matches his particular search.

At this point I leave firm ground behind. On a first reading of the poem, the final two stanzas appear straightforwardly to suggest that he has found her, and that now he (and those around him) “hearten” and “gladden” her with zither and bells and drums. The modification of the image of the water mallow (from “seek” to “gather” and “choose”) especially suggests this. Ultimately, I think this is probably the most plausible reading of the poem. But I detect an undercurrent that enriches the poem.

There are a few elements of the poem that speak against the reading just offered. First is the continued description of the lady as shy. She is still evasive, still in need of reassurance, of being heartened and gladdened. And at this point we may recall that the first stanza tells us, not that she is his bride, but that she is fit to be his bride, which is something quite different.

But what most encourages me along these lines is that we are never told that he has found her. The third stanza ends with him seeking her in sleep. It is never indicated that he wakes up. Thus there is the possibility, impossible to rule out, that he has found her only in sleep, that he heartens and gladdens her only in sleep. It is even possible that the zither and drums and bells are not the happy conclusion of a successful search, but tools of the search itself, the means by which he attempts to draw her out of her shyness.

There are thus two possible readings of the poem. On the first, it captures the truest and most poetic of moods, exuberance flecked with sorrow. On the second, the sorrow predominates, the flecks encroach upon and overtake the whole. Were I forced to choose between them, I would likely take the first. But I would resent the choice, for the richness of the poem, as I read it, lies not in either reading but in the antagonism between the two.

In an early scene in Moonlight, Juan tells Chiron that he will one day have to figure out who he is, that no one else can tell him that, or force him to be someone he is not. This early scene looms over the end of the film, where a now “hard” Chiron returns to Miami to see Kevin, his first and only lover. Kevin tells Chiron, among other things, that his carefully cultivated appearance of toughness is “not you.” I’ve been thinking about this ending since I saw the film last night.

My initial reaction was confusion tending toward dissatisfaction. The first two-thirds of the film was characterized by an expertly sustained atmosphere of dread. The last third is not. It seemed somehow more dissolute, less unified, an abandonment of what the film had been building. And a similar dissoluteness characterized the storyline, with the fundamental question of who Chiron is being left unanswered. It seemed a cop-out.

But this first impression was, I am increasingly convinced, a mistake. The ending of the film does have an element of dissolution, but this is not the product of evading the question raised by what came before. It offers instead a very definite answer to that question.

The middle third of the film culminates in Chiron’s moment of self-discovery on the beach (with Kevin). At this point it can seem that Chiron has figured out who he is. The question of self-identity was raised earlier in the film in the context of Chiron being called a faggot and asking, in the heartbreaking manner of a child, “am I a faggot?” Juan’s answer — that he might be gay, but is not a faggot, and that he doesn’t need to know now if he is gay — sets up puberty as the obvious time at which Chiron will discover who he is. And the beach scene appears to confirm this. Then it can seem as if all that is left is the question of self-reliance: now that he knows who he is, will he be honest about it? Or will he cover up his true self with layers of deceit (not just to others, but also to himself)?

But to think in this way is to misunderstand the film. First, because it is only half the story. Chiron struggles not just with his sexual identity, but also with the question of whether he is hard or soft. By the normal standards, he is clearly soft (sensitive, withdrawn, not aggressive), though this is complicated by the fact that Kevin affirms to Chiron early in life that he (Kevin) knows Chiron is hard. And there is a toughness to Chiron that shouldn’t be overlooked. Nonetheless, by the normal use of the term, and by general perception, Chiron is unambiguously soft.

Still, it might seem as if Chiron has a clear identity (black, gay, soft) that he can either embrace or deny. The ending of the film is designed to show us that this is too simplistic, and its dissoluteness is in service of that end. Chiron, in Atlanta, has made himself into someone hard, at least someone with the trappings of hardness, though several scenes indicate to us that the soft interior is not vanished. We also learn that “no one has touched” him since that night with Kevin. So a first pass reading of these changes is that Chiron has been dishonest with himself, has abandoned his knowledge of who he is. That is certainly the impression I got from the very first shot of the film’s final third. But it is a mistake, a mistake the film deliberately encourages in order more thoroughly to undermine it.

If it were truly the case that Chiron in Atlanta is living a lie, a denial of who he is, then the return to Miami to see Kevin again should be a cathartic stripping back of the lies with which he has gilded himself. But it is not. It is much more ambiguous.

The basic reason is simple: human beings are not static, identity is not static. Chiron, in making his exterior hard, has changed himself. I do not mean that he is no longer fundamentally soft, but he is at least someone who, though, soft, has learned to survive in a world that demands that he be hard. Thus, when Kevin tells him that all of this is a lie, is false to who he is, it is not the voice of Chiron’s own self that speaks through Kevin. It is rather the cry of the past, of the Chiron of a decade ago. But the claim of our past selves on our present is always complicated, and cannot be trusted. The return to the old environment brings back old habits, old memories. It tempts Chiron to return to who he once was. But the attempt to be who one was previously is no less a lie than the attempt to be hard when one is soft.

Thus the ending of the film is ambiguous. Chiron goes to Kevin’s home, in a scene clearly meant to parallel the beach scene. But is this parallel to be read as a true parallel, or as a contrast? Is Chiron returning to who he truly is? Is he having a moment of rediscovery with Kevin? Or is he merely being tempted by a past that is no longer open to him? It could be either. One would need to know what happens next to be sure. What the end of the film does here is re-open the question, to throw Chiron back into a state of not knowing who he is, who he wants to be. The ending of the film is dissolute because Chiron himself is dissolute.

In The Book of Forms—which, when I was teaching myself the rudiments of meter, was perhaps the most helpful source I encountered—Lewis Turco includes a few “rules of scansion in English” (p. 19). Here is one of the rules:

In any series of three unstressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through promotion and will be counted as a stressed syllable.

There is a corresponding rule for three stressed syllables in a row: one of them will fail to take a stress. Turco calls these “rules of thumb,” an appropriate designation since they have exceptions. The famous exception to the rule for stressed syllables is Tennyson’s Break, Break, Break. The heavy pauses between each “break” allow each stress to emerge fully, without the middle being demoted.

Can something similar happen with the rule against three consecutive unstressed syllables? It can. The poem Fabliau of Florida by Wallace Stevens is a nice illustration:

Fabliau of Florida

Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

The lines range from monometer (are dissolving) to trimeter (foam and cloud are one), though many lines can be scanned in multiple ways, depending on just how heavy the stress is. For this particular poem, I prefer to count only the heaviest, clearest stresses, for reasons detailed below.

The lines I am most interested in are the last two lines. To satisfy the rule forbidding three consecutive unstressed syllables, the lines must be scanned as being at least trimeter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

—and perhaps even as tetrameter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

But both of these ways of scanning the line fundamentally mishear it, and miss the rhythm of the poem. Let us drop immediately the fantasy of stressing the first syllable of each line: they both clearly open with anapests (there will nev-; to this dron-). The entire poem is lightfooted, giving each stress space to breathe, except where it takes a heavier hand for a specific, local effect: “fill your black hull / with white moonlight.”

The only real question concerns “be” and “of”, syllables that are naturally unstressed, but which seem to be likely candidates for promotion as the middle occupants of a string of three unstressed syllables. Read the lines aloud, however, and listen. Each falls into two natural units:

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both “be an end” and “of the surf” are natural anapests, and this comes out in reading the line. The key is that, in reading the lines, there is the slightest of pauses where I have placed the “|”. That pause eliminates the need to stress “be” and “of”. Thus the proper scansion is (with the vertical bar now indicating a break between feet):

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both lines are anapestic dimeter, with the first anapest of each line containing what might be called a mid-line feminine ending. This is the only reading of the lines that does justice to their lightness.

Why insist on this? It reveals a more general point about meter. While there is a clear distinction between heavy stresses and the complete absence of stress, there is a whole range of intermediates whose proper treatment is less clear. A system of meter should introduce some ordered way of approaching them. That is what Turco’s rules do, and they do it ably, in a way that works for the majority of metrical English language poems. But there is nothing inherent in the language that requires that syllables that take a light stress count toward a line’s stress count. It really depends on the sort of regularity one is trying to create. Stevens, in Fabliau of Florida, was writing in a loose, light meter where it is only appropriate to emphasize the heavier stresses, and that creates a context in which the very slight stresses placed on “be” and “of” should not be counted as proper stresses.

In the end, the ear is the supreme judge, and will tolerate system only so far.