Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fools’ Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.
Vague as fog and looked for like mail.
Farther off than Australia.
Bent-backed Atlas, our traveled prawn.
Snug as a bud and at home
Like a sprat in a pickle jug.
A creel of eels, all ripples.
Jumpy as a Mexican bean.
Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on.
Of course everyone knows Sylvia’s poem is addressed to the child in her womb: “You are”-this, this . All in two stanzas of nine lines each.Nine refers to nine months of her pregnancy .The first stanza probably narrates the first phase of the fetal development and the second one relates to the next phase.
The plethora of metaphors do not connect within themselves but only expand the narrative giving it a visual feel. They are no extended metaphors but a series of metaphors all supplementing each other. Thus in the first nine lines ,the fetus is described in its likeness to a clown, a fish,a thumbsdown , a dodo ,a spool,a trawler,an owl,a turnip,a loaf.
Clown : A clown uses body language to elicit laughs.
Fish : The fetus floats in the embryonic fluid
Thumbsdown : The fetus appears in a hunched up position
On dodo’s mode : Dodos are supposed to be clumsy looking birds.
like a spool : The fetus is all tied up in the umbilical cord
Owl : Trawling darkness of the womb like an owl in the night
Trawling : A fishing metaphor to describe negotiating darkness
Mute as turnip : Fetus is conceived and grows from July to April
My little loaf : Delicious as a loaf and shaped like one.
In the second nine lines, the metaphors become more dynamic almost reflecting the growth of the fetus to the definite shape of a full-grown child. It now looks like a bent-back Atlas with an entire world on its shoulders.It is now vague as fog and looked for like mail. Farther than Australia. A travelled prawn,no longer a mute turnip. But snug as a bud waiting for a morning of blooming. Snug arises from a feeling of comfort within the womb.But it is now like a sprat(again a fish) in a pickle jar. A creel of eeels jumping about. Throwing around ripples. Jumpy like a Mexican bean, that jumps on frying. But it is now right, like an arithmetic sum whose answer comes right. Everything has worked out fine and the fetus is healthily kicking about against the walls of the womb. A clean slate , the baby has now a face of its own, apart from the mother’s. Clean slate because it is starting out in the world afresh with no history. The face has now a distinct formation of a persona.Now no longer moon-skulled with feet to the stars . A new actor on the world’s stage .
I love “moon-skulled ” to suggest a still forming mass of head, that will grow to a distinct face, a face of a new persona. I love “the feet to the stars” suggesting a head down and the feet up , the typical fetal position in the first few months. Gilled like a fish because being in aqua the embryo has to wear its lungs outside like fish. Everthing is fish till it comes out wearing a face to the world.
I love “trawling your dark” a fishing metaphor used to describe the fetus coping to exist in the darkest depths of the womb. The fourth of July is America’s independence but it is only on the All Fools day the baby will become independent,( nine months later) .That works a right arithmetic for a clown to appear with a face of his own.