By Melanie Anne Phillips
Can you be, a
'twixt handle, crank and cog?
A particle that rides the waves,
upon the cosmic dog?
Or are you
doomed to be marooned,
along that furry shore?
And strain against the handle,
'til crank turns cog no more?
When I first presented this poem to my peers, it became quickly obvious that I had made its allusions so obscure that all meaning had been lost somewhere between the author and her reader. So, I thought I might do something with this particular piece that an artist seldom does: explain her own work. In a sense then, the poem itself now becomes but a part of the work itself, and the explanation of the poem becomes included in the work. Go figger.
Can you be, a Cosmic flea
This first line sets the mood by comparing something "infinitely" large (the Cosmos) to something "infinitely" small (a flea). The coldness of the sterile, unknowning Cosmos is offset and contrasted by the organic muskiness of life. The choice of flea, however makes it (and us, by use of the word "you") something of a Cosmic pest. The selection of "Can you be" rather that "Could you be" indicates that we are not yet Cosmic fleas, but might someday become them. And finally, the notion of a flea itself, especially one whose playground is the Cosmos, gives rise to speculations of the magnitude of its jumps, already legendary for ordinary fleas. Are we talking light-years here, or travel through time?
'Twixt handle, crank and cog?
The handle, crank and cog (in the context of the Cosmos) refer to Celestial Mechanics, in a sense to the laws of physics. In electrical terms, "handle" would be the resistance, "crank" the current, and "cog" the power (the ability to do work) produced at the end. But note that the Cosmic flea is "'Twixt" (or between) all this. It is not actually a part of the laws of physics, but does its jumping BETWEEN the laws of physics, apparently unbound by them.
A particle that rides the waves,
"Particle" and "Wave" both refer to light, the one universal constant, but also the key to Einstein's Relativity. Light sometimes appears as one, sometimes as the other, but is always really both. Here, the Cosmic flea is cast as "a particle that rides the waves", hinting that it might be seen as only half of the paradox, but intimately related to the other half. The Relativity concept further enhances the belief that our Cosmic flea can fold space and distend time. "Riding" the waves adds a touch of the California surfing culture to the activity, once again portraying the flea as a fun-loving free spirit, unbound by restrictions.
Upon the Cosmic dog?
Here we limit the flea's domain for the first time. It is apparently not given full range of the Cosmos, but merely the extent of the Cosmic Dog upon which it frolics. The Cosmic dog gives us our second allusion to an organic (or at least self-aware) being in the Cosmos. Note that the word "dog" spelled backward is "God". In this line, God is cast as something less than universal in size, rather just another inhabitant of the Cosmos, along with the flea. But the differences in size are such that the Cosmic dog is completely unaware of the Cosmic flea (until it becomes a pest).
Or are you doomed to be marooned,
The primary words "doomed" and "marooned" are both references to frequent biblical descriptors of the concept of hell; "doomed" referring to one's personal death and "marooned" referring to an individual isolation. Note also that the term "are you" is used (in contrast to "can you" in the first line. This delineates the real question of the poem: we ARE now doomed, but CAN we be a Cosmic flea (and hence escape to eternal happiness)?
Along that furry shore?
Obviously returning to the concept of the Cosmic dog, which has now been changed in our appreciation from a foundation for freedom to a desert island in the Cosmic sea. And our poor, surfing flea shall surf no more, shorebound, grounded.
And strain against the handle,
Note that in the second line, Resistance, Current, and Power are described as Handle, Crank and Cog. But what of Potential? What turns the handle? Here we come 'round to realize that something MUST push the handle or Celestial Mechanics (the Cosmos itself) cannot function. The words "stain against", especially in the context of the gear metaphor, conjures up images of an eighteenth century sweat shop, or perhaps Hamlet musing, "To grunt and sweat under a weary life".
It is we, ourselves, who must provide the motive force to keep the Cosmos working: a noble function attached to a dishonorable role. We are the Prime Movers of the Cosmos (not the Cosmic dog, who remains aloof) and yet we are but a pest, stripped of hope and bound by slavery to turn the handle round and round. What images does this conjure up of the servitude of our own poor and the starving populations of third world nations?
'Til crank turns cog no more?
Easily the end of the universe; the collapse of everything into nothing. The laws of physics freeze, and the poor flea, after an eternity of service is given rest only when there is no time left to enjoy it. The concept of a reward is nowhere mentioned at all. Again, in a more immediate sense, what government and corporate goals chain us to the handle, sapping our strength and our happiness, rewarding us with death? And more: with what PERSONAL goals do we enslave ourselves? To what are we chaining ourselves?
A rather bleak end, to be sure. And yet, recall that this ultimate failure is not stated as the definite end of us all, but rather one of the two alternatives, the other being the carefree Cosmic flea of the first verse. And so, the poem is not intended to arrive at a conclusion, but only to pose the question for further argument.
I have often wondered how many things that an audience perceives in works of art were never seen nor intended by the author consciously. Perhaps an author's "undermind" supports his work with patterns and comparisons of which he is not aware. So, in a sense, this has been an opportunity to find out. What I have described is what I saw in my own work. (And to be honest, only half of what I have described I saw at the time I wrote it). Yet, the "feelings" behind the creation of this poem contained the seeds of all these interpretations. But are there others? Did I put them there? Did YOU put them there? How much of the work is the author, how much the audience? You tell me.
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