The Power of Adjectives: Two Poems on Imagination by Patrick Lane and P. K. Page

“Albino Pheasants” (1977) by Patrick Lane 

At the bottom of the field
where thistles throw their seeds
and poplars grow from cotton into trees
in a single season I stand among the weeds.
Fenceposts hold each other up with sagging wire.
Here no man walks except in wasted time.
Men circle me with cattle, cars and wheat.
Machines rot on my margins.
They say the land is wasted when it’s wild
and offer plows and apple trees to tame
but in the fall when I have driven them away
with their guns and dogs and dreams
I walk alone. While those who’d kill
lie sleeping in soft beds
huddled against the bodies of their wives
I go with speargrass and hooked burrs
and wait upon the ice alone.

Delicate across the mesh of snow
I watch the pale birds come
with beaks the colour of discarded flesh.
White, their feathers are white,
as if they had been born in caves
and only now have risen to the earth
to watch with pink and darting eyes
the slowly moving shadows of the moon.
There is no way to tell men what to do…
the dance they make in sleep
withholds its meaning from their dreams.
That which has been nursed in bone
rests easy upon frozen stone
and what is wild is lost behind closed eyes:
albino birds, pale sisters, succubi.

Sestina for Pat Lane After Reading ‘Albino Pheasants’  (1978) by  P. K. Page 

Pale beak…pale eye…the dark imagination
flares like magnesium. And but, pale flesh
and I am lifted to a weightless world:
watered cerulean, chrome-yellow, light
and green, veronese – if I remember – a soft wash
recalls a summer evening sky.

At Barro de Navidad we watched the sky
fade softly like a bruise. Was it imagination
that showed us Venus phosphorescent in a wash
of air and ozone? – a phosphorescence flesh
wears like a mantle in bright moonlight,
a natural skin-tone in that other world.

Why do I wish to escape this world?
Why do three phrases alter the color of the sky
the clarity, texture even, of light?
What is there about the irrepressible imagination
that the adjective pale modifying beak, eye and flesh,
can set my sensibilities awash?

If with my thickest brush I were to lay a wash
of thinnest water-color I could make a world
as unlike my own dense flesh
as the high-noon midsummer sky;
but it would not catch at my imagintion
or change the waves or particles of light

yet pale can tip the scales, make light
this heavy planet. If I were to wash
everything I own in mercury, would imagination
run rampant in that suddenly silver world –
free me from gravity, set me floating sky-
ward – thistledown – permanently disburdened of my flesh?

Like cygnets hatched by ducks, our minds and flesh
are imprinted early – what to me is light
may be dark to one born under a sunny sky.
And however cool the water my truth won’t wash
without shrinking except in my own world
which is one part matter, nine parts imagination.

I fear flesh which blocks imagination,
the light of reason which contracts the world.
Pale beak…pale eye…pale flesh…My sky’s awash.

———————————————————————————————————

I’m particularly fascinated by the role of adjectives in these poems, a role explicitly thematized by Page (“what is it about the irrepressible imagination that the adjective…can set my sensibilities awash?”). J. R. R. Tolkein, a philologist as well as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, discusses the liberating power of adjectives in his short essay, “On Fairy Stories,” from which I will quote at length. Speaking of mythology, after declaring that “Müller’s view of mythology as a ‘disease of language’ can be abandoned without regret,” since truly it is “modern European languages [that] are a disease of mythology”, Tolkein writes:

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

As Page and Tolkein both attempt to articulate, the human imagination makes us potential sub-creators – participants in the ongoing poetry of creation. The magic of our incarnate minds is borne principally through language, which skillfully crafted, can shift not only our thoughts about the world, but our very perception of the world. An imaginative phrase can “change the waves or particles of light” not of some other fantasized world, but of this world.

I’m reminded again, in connection with the creative power of adjectives, of Alfred North Whitehead‘s eternal objects. In human beings, whose mental capacities “rise to the peak of free imagination” (Process and Reality, 161), adjectives like green or pale allow us to bring forth novel perceptual worlds not determined by past actualities. See HERE, HERE, and HERE for some of my other recent reflections on eternal objects.

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