It happened by accident. Geryon’s grandmother came to visit and fell off the bus. / The doctors put her together again with a big silver pin. / Then she and her pin had to lie still in Geryon’s room / for many months.
Today’s Quote from Anne Carson‘s Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse could also have been an excerpt from a prose piece. (I talked about the structure of her novel in verse in Dark Smell of Velvet)
A few observations without knowing any context:
- Four sentences, four (or more) facts.
- The tone is emotionless, straightforward.
- There is an awkward, creepy feeling between the lines.
A bit of context explains some of the above: Geryon is a small boy, who is also a red-winged monster; the close third person narrator is saying why Geryon had to move out of his room and into his brother’s. The Quote is heavily filtered through this unusual boy’s mind, with the purpose of not only providing the back story, but more importantly, providing insight into his worldview.
What makes the Quote quiver?
Figurative language delivered as fact.
The Quote has three quoins (read: interesting features; I introduce the concept here).
- fell off the bus: it’s not likely. I’m imagining Geryon’s granny falling off an open-air double decker. It’s a line you might tell a child, or a child might say. Alternatively, it could be a gross exaggeration for humour, but that is not the intention here.
- The doctors put her together again with a big silver pin: a sentence of many nuances. Firstly, there’s an echo of the last two lines of the nursery rhyme Humpty-Dumpty, All the king’s horses and all the king’s men / Couldn’t put Humpty together again, which Carson might have conflated into a positive resolution for the patient. Secondly, the word pin carries a bouquet of meanings: a cork-board pin, a sewing or fabric pin, a hair pin, a safety pin, a brooch pin … Also, the fibula, one of the two long bones in the lower leg, get their name from brooch, and from resembling a safety pin clasp together with the tibia. But even if that is not a well-known anatomical fact, pins in the context of accidents recall metal pins used to support the healing process of broken bones. In summary, this sentence conveys meaning on three levels: as a safety or hair pin to collect loose things, as a pin to support healing, and as an echo of a nursery rhyme (convenient because Geryon is a small child).
- and her pin: emphasise the importance of the pin. Again, a line you might tell a child, or a child might report.
What is at the core of the Quote?
- fell off the bus is a hyperbole: an exaggeration, not meant to be understood literally.
- with a big silver pin is a metonymy: the action of healing Granny is referred to by an associated object.
- and her pin had to lie still in Geryon’s room is a personification of the pin because, well, you would expect the pin to lie still anyway, so the only way it wouldn’t do, and you’d have to “make it”, is if it were a living thing.
Metaphor comes in many guises, three of which we have seen in the Quote. Simile, with its telltale like and as indicators of comparison, is deceptively easier to write. Here are two more separate quotes from Autobiography of Red, both using similes to paint a picture of another grandma (that of Herakles). The bold emphasis is mine.
She / stumbled then and Geryon / caught her other arm, it was like a handful of autumn.
Herakles was standing in front of her / and he lifted her towards him like snow. Geryon saw her legs were asymmetrical, / one pointed up the other down and back. / Goodnight children, she called in her voice like old coals.
One day I hope to become a handful of autumn,
before being thrown into the air,
to become nothing at all.
- Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, Anne Carson.
- Dark Smell of Velvet, QQ. On synesthesia in Carson’s verse novel.
- QQ articles featuring metaphors.