Sky: The Dirty Cup Filled with Sugar

Learning the tricks of effective metaphors by analysing Martín Adán’s descriptions of “sky” in “The Cardboard House”.


Look up.

Last time I looked up on this blog, I saw Adán’s sun; today, I see his sky.

Sky from Old Norse for cloud.

Welkin from the German for cloud.

The empyrean from the Greek for fire.

Firmament from the Latin for firm.

Cerulean, from the Latin for dark blue, dark green, as applied to sky—that would have been another appropriate synonym, but it’s not. It’s a colour smeared over our heads on clear evenings.

Beyond the synonyms, the obvious adjectives, and the troves of clichés, writers are left to portray the variations of sky as best they can. Like with descriptions of the ubiquitous sun, the task is formidable.

Once again, Martín Adán, in his lyrical fragments from The Cardboard House, shows us where to look for inspiration. Unlike with sun, which carries the essence of unique, compact shininess, the sky, has a vaster, more flexible (and nightly) presence.

Q1–8 are Adán’s descriptions related to sky (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver). Each exhibits a different tactic that could be used to describe any target object:

  1. Convert other objects to descriptors of the target.
  2. Use interactions of objects with the target as descriptors.
  3. Choose kooky words to bring interest into the description.
  4. Pick an original metaphor for the target then extend it to surrounding objects.
  5. State a metaphor explicitly, develop it over a couple of sentences, elevate the ending by combining unpoetic and poetic words.
  6. Sneak in a most original metaphor as a parenthetical aside.
  7. List the target alongside other objects, thereby creating a complex blend.
  8. Negate the target.

I’ve underlined the points of interest: sometimes they are whole constructions, sometimes they are quoins—the quirky, unexpected words that transform the ordinary into the interesting.

Q1: The vulgar epic poem of the summer, the red sky, the sun sky, and night as a shout.

Analysis: This is an enallage, or deliberate grammatical mistake, using a noun as an adjective.

Writing tip: Use nouns as adjectives. E.g. Paper on the breeze, flying paper, butterfly paper.

Q2: The air rubs against the sky and scratches it the way a diamond scratches glass.

Tip: Look for boundaries, personify them, and compare to analogous more common actions. E.g. The piece of paper slides its back under the pencil the way a cat rubs itself against a table leg.

Q3: A section of the sky collapses over a cornet of the sea, on this side of the island.

Tip: Slice up your object, look for kooky words to pad out the description. E.g. The fountain pen blotted the paper like a broken spigot.

Q4: The dirty cup of the sky slowly filled with sugar, cold water, and lemon juice — a thirsty cloud licked its lips.

Tip: Look for a metaphor, then extend it significantly to include surrounding objects. (Harder to do with my example without stretching it.)

Q5: This afternoon, the world is a potato in a sack. The sack is a small, white, dusty sky, like the small sacks used for carrying flour. The world is little, dark, gritty, as if just harvested in some unknown agricultural infinity.

Analysis: The metaphor is stated in the first sentence: world is identified as potato, sack isn’t identified explicitly, but could be interpreted as space, or sky. The constituents of the metaphor are developed in separate sentences (sack then potato), with the second sentence building on the first, and ending on a grand note (infinity) together with what is usually considered an unpoetic word choice (agricultural).

Tip: State your metaphor explicitly, then develop its parts explicitly. Unpoetic words can lend a surprising note in the finale.

Q6: Under the convex sky, a lemon peel turned inside out, sounds grow until they become visible, the trees sharpen their branches like cypresses, and an old man walking by pounding the cobblestones with his iron cane drags his shapeless shadow along the ground like a cloak.

Analysis: Convex or concave is a matter of perspective, and fairly uninteresting in terms of sky. Here it leads into the most original identification of sky with lemon peel. As we usually see a lemon peel’s yellow outside, Adán turns it inside out and gives us a sense of the uneven whitish pulp.

There is more to this Quote: sounds that become visible (synaesthesia, mixing of senses), the personification of trees only to identify them with other trees, the shadow that is compared to a cloak.

Tip: If you have thought of a whacky metaphor, prepare your readers for it (convex), and feel free to stick it as a parenthetical aside (commas, paired em-dashes, parentheses).

Q7: To bathe at eight o’clock in the morning in the sea is to bathe in the cold, in the sky, in the hour. A shower of fog, a massage of chills, sponges of indecision, and the nearby barge — a large marine bird with black, drooping wings of folded nets flies backwards. Hmmm . . .

Analysis: Sometimes an object is described by the association with the other items in a list. The same way that saying: it felt like velvet, like fur, like paper, tinges the paper with luxury, whereas saying: it felt like silk, like skin, like paper, tinges the paper with slickness. In Q7, sky becomes something to bathe in, like sea, something that is cold and something that is temporary yet recurring like hour.

Tip: Use the same form when listing elements that you wish the reader to view as similar, especially if they are inherently disparate. The form artificially imposes semblance (via isocolon).

Note that the quote has two lists:

I. in the cold, in the sky, in the hour. Here the elements are of the form:

in the [word].

II.  A shower of fog, a massage of chills, sponges of indecision. Here the elements are of the form:

[word 1] of [word 2],


[word 1]=(shower, massage, sponges)

are of similar type, whereas

[word 2]=(fog, chills, indecision)

 are gradated from concrete to abstract. This is a common segue. Reversing the list—making it run from abstract to concrete—can be used to render comedy, sarcasm, bathos.

Q8: A nighttime stroll. We have found a street hidden from the sky by dense, serious foliage. Now the sky does not exist; it has been rolled up like a rug, leaving barren the floorboards of space where the worlds walk, high society, slowly, silently, fastidiously […] And my love follows you through the skyless night of the street, like the memory of a dog you once had that died.

Analysis: Occasionally we carve out the background to show what is in the foreground; this can be done on sentence level by describing, like here, what remains when one rolls up the sky. This is a nifty trick, which reminds me of the paltering kids use at school: the teacher asks about Russian exports, the response is that Russia borders China, and therefore let me tell you all about Chinese exports. It only works if you know how to talk about Chinese exports. It seamlessly shifts the target of the description, but the shift itself can say a lot too: about the original target, about the mood, about the direction of the plot.

Tip: Negate, segue, invert, flip the targets until you find which target best suits your overall writing goals for that passage.

In case the last sentence of Q8 got lost in the discussion about Chinese exports, let me give it again:

And my love follows you through the skyless night of the street, like the memory of a dog you once had that died.

Death—the bookend of lives and poignant quotes. Or is the apotheosis?


This is part of a series about Martín Adán’s only novel The Cardboard House (translated by Katherine Silver). I analyse his vivid lyrical prose and learn from it.

  1. Sun: Turning Dogs into Gold Ingots
  2. Sky: The Dirty Cup Filled with Sugar


Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

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