Leavenworth is like “a giant mausoleum adrift in a sea of nothingness.”

– Inmate writing to his mother in 1929 (quoted in Pete Earley, The Hot House, 1992)

The Kansas tourism board most strenuously objects. Sea of nothingness? Those are the amber waves of grain out there, in a sea of plenty, which we sing about in “America the Beautiful.”

But the inmate’s metaphor is interesting for having two parts. The first part equates being in prison with being dead. The second part emphasizes how far removed the mausoleum is from the land of the living. “Far from where I want to be,” says Johnny Cash in “Folsom Prison.” Cash hears a passing train and imagines a fancy dining car in which people are “drinking coffee and smoking big cigars.” People in the land of the living “keep a-moving, and that’s what tortures me.”

In “1998,” a poem from Stone Hotel (2003), Raegan Butcher writes:

I used to sit and cry and hold a loaded gun up to my head,
but I chose a slower way of being dead.

Photo: Leavenworth Penitentiary/Wikipedia

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Your body is a battleground.

Gulliver is a metaphor for France (a great nation tied down by petty factions) in this 1830 cartoon by Ferdinand-Philippe d’Orléans; Library of Congress

The idea that you are a battleground where good and evil clash is as old as the story of Adam and Eve and as contemporary as the image of a micro-devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

In the song “My Body Is a Battlefield” (Tobias Jundt/Bonaparte, 2010), the devil versus angel conflict is expressed as a series of contradictory impulses and perceptions, negative versus noble, raising a question of true identity: Who are you really? The two sides shatter the self into “a thousand faces”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=859p9lW0Wws.

In Barbara Kruger’s poster “Your body is a battleground” (1989), the inner devils and angels turn political and the question is not which choice to make but who has the right to make it. Pro-choice and pro-life advocates battle in the courts, legislatures, and streets to determine who will own the “territory” that is a woman’s body: http://www.thebroad.org/art/barbara-kruger/untitled-your-body-battleground.

In the Book of Job, God and Satan use a man’s body as a battleground – leaving him with a bad case of boils.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus makes a battleground of his own body. He has himself tied to the mast of his ship so he can experience the thrill of the Sirens’ song without being drawn to his death, like a moth to flame. Odysseus-minded people nowadays go bungee jumping.

When it’s compared to something other than a battleground, your body may be a temple, a nation, a house, a shell, a suit of clothes, a machine with a control unit upstairs, or a gross weight carried around by the soul. Duality (or multiplicity) is built into all these metaphors. When there is duality, there will be a battle.

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Love shakes my heart like a wind sweeping down a mountain onto oaks.

– Sappho, fragment 47 (translated by Suzy Q. Groden)

“€—

It is surprisingly difficult to say what desire feels like. Sappho describes its invisible force in terms of another invisible force, a strong wind that races down a mountainside, accumulating power, thrashing limbs of the sturdiest of trees. The metaphor externalizes desire, making it a visual to be observed at a distance. But it also calls upon memory, encouraging you to recall a time when you stood on the flank of a mountain, holding onto your hat. You might think also of your first love and realize the mountain is your body and the limbs of the trees are your trembling arms and legs.

Songwriters typically compare the physical sensation of desire to a fire. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (1960, covered by The Guess Who in 1965) evoke the feeling with an itemized list of quaking bones.

Quivers down my back bone

I’ve got the shakes down the kneebone

Yeah havin’ the tremors in the thighbone

Shakin’ all over

For another “wind in the trees” metaphor, use the Search box to find “Like the moon needs poetry.” See also “kite dancing in a hurricane.”

Painting: Detail from Storm in the Mountains (circa 1870) by Albert Bierstadt; Museum of Fine Arts Boston (mfa.org)

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You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.

– Paul McCartney, “Two of Us” (1969)

The “Two of Us” lyric turned out to be literally true. The bullet that ended John Lennon’s life was eleven years up the road, while he and Paul looked back on a friendship that began in 1955. “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” they might have said, if the Grateful Dead hadn’t said it already.

The idea that a lifetime is a journey is as old as mythology. The stories of heroes – Theseus, Jesus, King Arthur – present themselves as adventures that occur during travels, revealing by stages the hero’s full power and true self. It’s interesting that life as a journey should take hold universally among humans, since most of us (historically) have lived all our lives within a few miles of where we were born. The journey is one through time rather than space and, arguably, from me-centered need to a sense of belonging in a community.

One of Paul’s worst songs, “Long and Winding Road,” pictures a meandering route of “many ways” that always returns “to your door.” The idea of losing one’s way and rediscovering the true path is a staple for sermonizers. But the journey metaphor allows for happy wandering too. In “Two of Us.” Paul recalls the best times were when he and John went “Sunday driving, not arriving.” They had fun as young criminals – mocking adults who insisted on the seriousness of life, cheerfully “spending someone’s hard-earned pay.”

Photo: Denali National Park; NPS

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She will laugh at my mighty sword.

— Randy Newman, “A Wedding in Cherokee County”

The troubling thing about metaphors for the male member and, by extension (ahem), for sex is their lack of exhilaration and gladness. It’s always a tool – nailing, screwing, drilling, tapping. Where’s the joy we hear in the language of sports – when a ball drops sweetly through the hoop? Swish. Or when it rockets into the net. Go-o-o-o-o-o-o-oal!

Pop music spends a lot of time and breathless energy on how good good-lovin’ feels and yet has little more of metaphor to show than:

Rubbing sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite. –“Afternoon Delight” (1976)

Which is at least more focused on pleasure than puncture.

The “mighty sword” metaphor from Randy Newman casts light on the fear that is the flip side of penis-tool imagery. Behind bravado, you always find a fear of appearing ridiculous. The specific fear in “A Wedding in Cherokee County” is premature ejaculation: “I will attempt to spend my love within her…” Timing is key for “skyrockets in flight.”

And though he is fearful and thus defensive (pointing out she has her faults too), the protagonist in “A Wedding in Cherokee County” loves his bride to be, and knows he would be worse off without her. As God says in another Randy Newman song, remarking on the crazy way we humans turn torment into adoration: “That’s why I love mankind.”

Lyrics to “A Wedding in Cherokee County”:

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To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar said in an MTV interview that the original title of To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) was To Pimp a Caterpillar, with the phonetic “Tu” plus acronym PAC forming a reference to Tupac, a guest performer on the album.

Lamar said he changed the title to express the “brightness of life” and make it clear he rejected being used as a commodity by the entertainment industry. So butterfly is the beauty of life, seen in the work of an artist. To pimp a butterfly is to exploit the artist.

Another American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, used a similarly symbolic butterfly to protest against the materialistic society of his time. The butterfly in the short story “The Artist of the Beautiful” is the creation of a watchmaker. It flies only briefly, but long enough to achieve what art achieves.

As a thought experiment, imagine a conversation between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Kendrick Lamar. It’s funny at first, but they might understand each other.

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You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond.

This line from Spectre (2015) has a metaphor within a metaphor.

  • Outer metaphor: Bond is like a kite because he is a solitary figure being driven by powerful forces.
  • Inner metaphor: The kite is like a dancer because its actions seem graceful and free of earthly bounds.

Dancing is not the same as dangling, or being buffeted by hundred-mile-an-hour winds, so the two metaphors are not an exact fit. But the sense they make together is apparent: Mr Bond is both vulnerable and beautiful. Like a candle in the wind.

The Elton John/Bernie Taupin song “Candle in the Wind” was about Marilyn Monroe when it was first released in 1974. In 1997, John and Taupin saw a comparison between Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana and released a new version of the song, extending the metaphor to sales of 33 million copies.

Wind metaphors are of special interest because wind is invisible. We know it only by its effects.

  • Soaring birds “ride” the wind, like boats on a river.
  • Windmills “harness” the wind, as if it were a plough horse.
  • Willows bend with the wind and oaks stand against it, though their leaves may shiver.

In the Disney movie Pocahontas (1995), autumn leaves blow insistently across the screen to illustrate the “Colors of the Wind” theme music and perhaps the winds of change coming to America. In The Revenant (2015), wind-driven snow and debris remind us that as long as there is breath, there is life.

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