|James Tate (born 1943)|
On first read, The Wheelchair Butterfly may be difficult to understand. The lines most quoted from the poem are in the fifth stanza where the boy plucks the butterfly from the air. It is an image we can pluck from the juxtaposition of images in this poem and make sense of. It’s important when reading a poem like this to allow the mind to go where it will. Our mind has a way of taking dissimilar things and putting them together into a pattern.
But that means reading this poem out of the corner of the eye. It requires a surrendering of logic in our minds. That’s one of the underlying statements of surrealism. The only way to speak to some problems is through the imagination. To see me, reason pollutes the process, it says. The analytic, linear part of the brain normally used to work through the world doesn’t work here. The right side of the brain, the intuitive side, the side that sees things as a whole and not in parts becomes what we need to work through a poem like this. Surrealism says, that’s what needs to be reinforced in people to solve some puzzles in life.
By the age of five, a teacher told me recently, most children have already been discouraged from using their imaginations in their artwork. Elephants can no longer be purple, and clouds can no longer have eyes. That kind of reinforcement debilitates people from using a part of their brain they need to learn, they need to have a certain dexterity of thinking in this world. The right side of the brain has different information we can use to make sense out of life.
Many of Tate’s poems like The Wheelchair Butterfly marry together what seem random images. My interpretation of this poem may not be what he intended at all, but that’s the beauty of surrealism. In its playfulness, it gives the imagination a moment to tinker and have fun.
|Blue Morpho butterfly|
I see image after image in this poem as panes of stained glass which allow a variety of colors. Mice, wheelchairs, the pregnant girl, bicycles, poppies, hornets, bifocals, garages, attics, ice-cream trucks, fleas, honeysuckle, dandelions, trumpets, tabernacles all give me an impression of suburbia. And with that, the poem begins to fit together more easily. The girl who is always pregnant and bruised like a pear is in a setting now. The camera is panning in on something I understand. In a line like Beware the trumpet wants a glass of water! I see a marching band walking down Main St. and a young boy asking for a glass of water. The mayor urinating on the sidewalk brings to mind small town U.S.A.
I don’t know if Tate’s writing of this poem had that much planning behind it. But something about it itches at our minds. We want to understand what this is about. The images seem aware and responsive to each other. Perhaps the images aren’t concerned if we understand them or not, but the reader is conscious of their placement next to each other and how they inform each other with new meaning.
Our curiosity is stirred from the beginning by the title. Those are two objects we wouldn’t normally place together. A butterfly couldn’t use a wheelchair. It flies in the air. It doesn’t have hands or arms to work the wheels. Wheelchairs are mentioned several times in this poem as if the people in this world are all handicapped. The butterfly will also be handicapped now that the boy has handled it. He will bruise the delicate wings and tear the body and prevent it from flying. It will be as bruised and beaten as the young girl.
Humans are locked in place in this setting, not free to fly around like dandelion seeds or butterflies. They sit in an orange garage full of daydreams. These aren’t men but the mice of men contemplating suicide. The garage color is the only cheerful thing in their lives. It expresses something about what they want. They want to get off of the spinning wheel of this assembly-line existence, which has plucked them from the air and made them captive to a prefabricated paradise.
The Indian pony is an image of that captivity, mustangs that once roamed the plains in the U.S. The 1961 movie The Misfits with Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Thelma Ritter illustrates how the animal was domesticated and slaughtered for dog food or shot from airplanes. The wild west as we know it, symbolized by these free-roaming horses, was paved over for condos, shopping malls and parking lots. We’re urinating on the sidewalk now, not the earth.
In the end of the poem, the warden of light marries an old piece of string. I see in this odd coupling an evangelist and a church lady as connected to the tabernacle in the preceding line. The trumpet wanting water could be a Salvation Army band banging next to them.
I love the appearance of a trolleybarn in this poem. These repair stations, used for electric streetcars, are a symbol of urban decay in our country and are now in the hands of historic preservation societies. The buildings remain in the fragmented parts of cities left behind for urban sprawl. Throughout this poem, we are receiving fragmented images of urban life. Abandoned people and places, no longer accessible by any other means of transportation, are fixed together in these disjointed images. The girl is on a bike, but she is pedaling backwards, the man is in a car but he can’t get out of his garage. The boy, the mayor, the warden of light and the pregnant girl are left behind on ground overgrown with dandelions. These are landscapes void of ponies or the poetic language of Sanskrit.
The Wheelchair Butterfly
O sleepy city of reeling wheelchairs
where a mouse can commit suicide if he can
concentrate long enough
on the history book of rodents
in this underground town
of electrical wheelchairs!
The girl who is always pregnant and bruised
like a pear
rides her many-stickered bicycle
backward up the staircase
of the abandoned trolleybarn.
Yesterday was warm. Today a butterfly froze
in midair; and was plucked like a grape
by a child who swore he could take care
of it. O confident city where
the seeds of poppies pass for carfare,
where the ordinary hornets in a human’s heart
may slumber and snore, where bifocals bulge
in an orange garage of daydreams,
we wait in our loose attics for a new season
as if for an ice-cream truck.
An Indian pony crosses the plains
whispering Sanskrit prayers to a crater of fleas.
Honeysuckle says: I thought I could swim.
The Mayor is urinating on the wrong side
of the street! A dandelion sends off sparks:
beware your hair is locked!
Beware the trumpet wants a glass of water!
Beware a velvet tabernacle!
Beware the Warden of Light has married
an old piece of string!