Poles: Fourteen Hours at the Edge of the Sidewalk

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Shoes, mules, what’s next? Metal, wooden, tall and thin, ever-present, holding out lights, signs that warn us, ropes that connect us: poles.

Full-blown personification of non-human entities is usually the province of children and the insane, but it shouldn’t be. It’s an essential imaginative method for enriching any environment, even if you do not intend to write a story about it.

Beyond providing private, in-brain entertainment, it develops perspective-switching, awareness of surroundings, discernment of cause-and-effect, and ultimately, I believe, it enhances empathy.

(What does the world look like from the point of view of that paving stone I just stepped on? What’s it like to be trodden on physically? Metaphorically? Now that you’ve thought about it would you do it to a fellow person?)

Of course, separating reality and fiction is crucial when you act, but otherwise, in your head, the knots in a wooden table are free to unknot overnight and straighten out their poor backs, and nightingale floors can be made of flattened vampire birds that attack assassins bent on taking the emperor’s life. Or maybe they’re zombie birds? You decide.

Writers have it harder: their personifications have to be crafted sensibly, to be understood and enjoyed. But in return, they get to spawn an animated object in someone else’s mind  based on their ideas.

There’s a bit of Frankenstein in every writer, and a bit of the slice-and-sew monster in every heavy personification.

As a reader, my curiosity is piqued whenever I sense a full-blown personification approaching in a text. It’s not a competition, but a comparison it certainly is. Will the writer reanimate Frankenstein’s monster the same way I would? Is the monster actually more human than human? And finally what does this monster say about its creator?

So. Do you know what the nearest pole is up to with its pals when you’re not looking? What’s going through its head now? Or is it a she? Animate that spindly roadside forest.

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Here’s how Adán’s poles make their way through the world.

The poles, along these streets of low and nitrous walls, have the rather violent appearance of pedestrians. The day, with its invariably rainy mood, holds them for its fourteen hours at the edge of the sidewalk. Soon after nightfall, the poles begin to walk. Summer nights poured like black beer with gray, star-studded foam . . . The poles were working very hard, they grew tired, were widowed, their only son went to Guatemala . . . By now their arms are falling off from just plain old age. And if their backs are not bent, it is only because their bones are made of wood. Aged electricians with hands dried and corroded by the gutta-percha and balata gum, by leaking batteries, and greasy tools . . . They are retired and have acquired, along with the pleasure of a full pension and the right to frolic, the lines of certain former public officials who have fallen out of favor with the present government, survivors of distant battles, eccentric old uncles who gather herbs and collect postage stamps . . . Between one pole and the next there is a distance of eighty feet that never decreases or increases — the poles neither love nor hate one another . . . misanthropy, misogyny, at the most a grumble of irritation or a greeting from one to the other, and this only because they can’t not do so . . . At night the poles go for walks. On a street quite far away, I recognized a pole that spends the whole day at the door of my house with hat in hand, stiff and thoughtful, as if suffering quietly from a pain in the kidneys or doing arithmetic in its head. The poles never gather. During these strange walks the distances between them remain constant; they tie ropes around their waists: mountain climbers on the mountain of their lives at twenty-five degrees below zero. We attribute to them the reckless daring of men without families or trite pleasures […] The following morning (mornings always follow) the poles return to their assigned places. And there they are while fourteen gyrating hours mutate the color of the air — long, skinny, erect, rigid, wondering whether or not it will rain.

— The Cardboard House (translated by Katherine Silver)

Now I know why someone left an umbrella and a mitten next to the lamppost outside my door. Spending winter outdoors can be unpleasant.

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Ideal weather for poles?


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.

On Figures of Speech:

  1. Sun: Turning Dogs into Gold Ingots
  2. Sky: The Dirty Cup Filled with Sugar
  3. Idea: A Rugged Rope

On Personification:

  1. Shoes: One Soul in Two Bodies
  2. Mule: All Things Emanate From Her
  3. Poles: Fourteen Hours at the Edge of the Sidewalk

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