Imagine you’re reading about two people having an awkward night-time conversation. One of them says: this isn’t a question it’s an accusation. You then read:
Quote: Something black and heavy dropped between them like a smell of velvet.
My first thoughts: Fine line, weird line, I’m not sure I understand it, but I do actually, it’s neat, it passes.
What are your thoughts?
The Quote is from Anne Carson‘s Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998), a mesmerising, modern re-creation of an Ancient Greek myth as a coming-of-age story featuring a red-winged boy called Geryon. Its form is unusual; its content, unforgettable.
An example of a typical verse novel, according to Wikipedia, would be Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is mostly written in the iambic tetrameter of Onegin stanzas that follow the rhyming scheme aBaBccDDeFFeGG, with the lower-upper case letters designating feminine-masculine endings. A restrictive form.
I recently reread Onegin, and the experience is nothing like that of reading the Autobiography of Red. Carson follows no rhyme or stanza scheme, no obvious metre; typographically, her lines alternate regularly between long and short lines. Whereas Onegin is written in corseted language of colloquial register, Autobiography of Red is written in loosely structured narrative verse while balancing poetic metaphor and plainly stated fact.
You’ll have a chance to see what I mean over the next few posts. But today’s poser is: What is black and heavy and can drop like a smell of velvet?
What makes the Quote quiver?
The answer to the poser isn’t anything concrete, and can’t be, because the left side of the comparison involves one sense, touch (conveyed by the word drop), while the right side involves another sense, smell.
It may seem random, but it isn’t. Try comparing the first two sensory experiences that come to mind …
The apple dropped on the floor like the smell of perfume.
… and you’ll see it’s not easy to make such cross-sensory comparisons work well. (Even though our brains are wired to search for meaning in even the most nonsensical word combinations.)
Here’s the element breakdown from the Quote:
- Something black and heavy: It’s night-time, so the adjectives fit naturally. Two people are arguing, so ominous overtones are to be expected.
- dropped: If something is heavy, it’s likely to drop.
- between them: A reference to the division an argument can create.
- like a smell of: This is the first weird element, and the reader is shocked for two reasons: the first is the touch-smell disparity, the second is that smells usually float, waft, disperse, they are light, not heavy.
- velvet: Velvet is a fairly familiar fabric that conveys at least partly its Latin root meaning tuft, down. On the one hand it’s thought of as soft and shiny, so compatible with idea of something floating, luxuriating in the air, like smell; on the other hand, if you look at the most common colours of velvet, they tend to be dark and heavy. Also, velvet has an aura of historical gravitas, as an erstwhile fabric of choice for ornamentation and royal garbs.
Naturally, one might ask what is gained by the second point and why couldn’t the quote have been: Something black and heavy dropped between them like
a smell of velvet?
Velvet doesn’t naturally drop. Perhaps like a velvet curtain, or: like velvet copper-ore would have worked. Taking that second idea further, how to add weight to a concept? Either by staying within the story frame and reaching for a stone or a sin, or—this is the imaginative leap—by stepping out of the story frame and poking the reader in the mind! A shock to the senses adds a particular kind of weight to whatever is being said. And smell is the best sense to achieve the synaesthetic shock.
What is at the core of the Quote?
Synesthesia is a real, neurological phenomenon experienced by certain people, where stimulation of one sense leads to the stimulation of another. It can involve seeing letters as being coloured, hearing colours, feeling sounds and so on. In rhetoric, synesthesia is figure in which a metaphor, simile or word uses terms associated to one sense to describe another sense. In its extended form, it allows physical senses to perceive the abstract.
Smell best combines for shock-effect because of the so-called “adjectival transfer” in English whereby adjectives describing one sensory experience are transferred to another over time (by and large) according to a certain pattern. For example: touch lends itself to all senses (smooth fabric, smooth cream, smooth guitar, smooth yellow) except for smell. Smell takes adjectives from taste but struggles to appropriate them from any other sense. Smells are usually labeled by their source, but in the Quote it is not clear what the smell of velvet would be, which is why Carson says a smell of velvet. She is piggy-backing her meaning on the reader’s associations to velvet.
Now let me try to come up with an example of my own (this is me thinking aloud):
Something bright and fluffy floated up between them like the smell of cotton.
Not quite synesthesia, because smell can float up, and it’s the smell of cotton, a vital difference.
The cotton clothes smelled bright and fluffy.
Not a synesthesia, but sounds like bad writing, like I was trying to say Her cotton clothes looked bright and fluffy.
The dress smelled like summer.
Extended synesthesia because it’s referring to an abstract concept. But let me try for a more concrete example.
The dress smelled of the clicking, rustling summer grasses.
No good because clicking, rustling are participles acting as adjectives of summer grasses. I need them to be gerunds, in other words, nouns.
The torn dress smelled like the clicking and rustling of summer grasses behind the derelict farm.
There! An okay synesthesia. Because it’s out of context, I had to buttress it with torn and derelict farm, so that there’s more compatibility between parts of the simile. Likewise, summer in summer grasses helps bring out the association to smells on the right side of the simile. Were the context provided elsewhere, the sentence could have been paired down (for a nostalgic feel, say):
The dress smelled like the rustling of grasses back home.
You wouldn’t write it in a job application or a report on summer allergies, but it would work as a stroke of poetic inspiration somewhere …
She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.
I’d settle for writing the way the Taj Mahal looks by any light.
- Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, Anne Carson.
- Biography of Anne Carson on Poetry Foundation.
- The Little Sister, Raymond Chandler.