Allegory governs the theme and structure of Sentence of the Gods, but it also figures in its texture. Unlike Symbolism, which heightens the value of natural details, or Naturalism, which drains them of symbolism, my in situ selection and subsequent heightening of the details of reality, as it transpires before one’s eyes, might be called “natural allegory.”
In The Black Swan, James Merrill’s debut book of poems, published when he was 21, the first word is “black,” the last, “white.” Long before I had seen this book and noticed JM’s strategy, I decided that as the first word of Sleep was “white,” so the last word of Life should be “black.” Here, however, the resemblance between MM and JM ends.
Unlike the symboliste (and Merrill’s swan might be from a poem by Mallarmé), I am interested in the way in which reality, observed as it unfolds in the panopticon, presents us with a panoply of details, colors especially, artfully arranged and therefore meaningful. It remains for us to interpret them; for me they are more engaging than symbols.
Here is a passage of “black” and “white” (among other colors) that occurred one summer's day in Kiruna, a town north of the Arctic Circle:
We mount higher, the sun casting author’s shadow sideways, as he crosses zebra stripes, planting his feet on the white lines. Two teenies cycling downroad, their black baseball caps on backwards, yield the right of way. Light burnishes the natural wood of a nineteenth-century house, cream pilasters at its corners, a red tiled roof above. So steep is the grade that we view the house from below its foundations. As we approach the center of town, three shivering fifteen-year-old girls precede us into Föreningsplatsen, where the flags of Italy [green, white and red], France [red, white and blue] and Germany [red, yellow and black] flap in the wind. Together we cross the little square to enter Brända Thomsens, the town’s hot spot, an ice-cream parlor. Author takes seat overlooking the refurbished scene. Two white sedans descend the hill. Within a triangular form on a rectangular sign the black silhouette of a man strides across zebra stripes, planting his feet on the black lines.
from In (Scenes from the Planet, p. 60)
My in situ writing is not entirely free of metaphor (“zebra stripes,” like “planting his feet,” is metaphorical), symbol (the three European flags) and allusion (their unnamed colors). Some colors appear on-stage, some off-stage, in the reader’s memory. Not all is deadpan description, for Brända’s name suggests burning, and her restaurant, I was told, is the town’s “hot spot,” where on this chilly day “ice-cream” and paradox are being served. Descending white sedans correspond to descending black (reversed) baseball caps. The sign in the final sentence is precisely a sign, composed of symbols and abstractions, a triangular emblem within a rectangular system of signs, and like the page of writing a natural allegory.