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Essay

Alessandro Porco on Carolyn Smart's "Frangipani"

(How Poems Work, March 2005)
Carolyn Smart’s “Frangipani” is as close to a perfect poem as I can imagine. The poem is firmly situated in the imagist tradition, yet distinguished by how it subverts such a tradition–historically, a tradition overly concerned with the beautiful–by inscribing its central image, that of the frangipani in all its various conditions, with a subtle but unsettling touch of the macabre. The macabre recalibrates notions of beauty, while also intimating an underlying humor.
The opening stanza’s function is two-fold. First, it is expository: the speaker is paying her respects at a wake. The speaker’s experience is entirely sensory, as she immediately recognizes the “odour.” Second, it establishes a governing poetic style, one in accordance with Pound’s oft-cited direct treatment of the thing. Also noteworthy in the first stanza is its detached tone, which suggests the speaker’s disassociation from a pained reality; perhaps this is a defense mechanism….

Carolyn Smart’s “Frangipani” is as close to a perfect poem as I can imagine. The poem is firmly situated in the imagist tradition, yet distinguished by how it subverts such a tradition–historically, a tradition overly concerned with the beautiful–by inscribing its central image, that of the frangipani in all its various conditions, with a subtle but unsettling touch of the macabre. The macabre recalibrates notions of beauty, while also intimating an underlying humor.
The opening stanza’s function is two-fold. First, it is expository: the speaker is paying her respects at a wake. The speaker’s experience is entirely sensory, as she immediately recognizes the “odour.” Second, it establishes a governing poetic style, one in accordance with Pound’s oft-cited direct treatment of the thing. Also noteworthy in the first stanza is its detached tone, which suggests the speaker’s disassociation from a pained reality; perhaps this is a defense mechanism.

This notion of disassociation extends itself fully in the second stanza, which begins: “If I were a girl”–the speaker has extracted herself from her body, from her reality, and re-surfaces in the conditional land of “If.” Reality, for the speaker, is now but a time and space defined by her own mortality–that is to say, physicality–and, so, she indulges in the idyll and idle prospects of a fantasy-time and–space:
bq. I would marry you again
with garlands of this
at my breast
in my hair
To indulge so is an act of desire: to recapture youth; to avert Death’s stare. To indulge so is, also, the first example of the macabre touch I suggested earlier as defining in the poem. The macabre is effected by a counterpoint technique. Consider the scene at its most basic: a woman at a wake staring at the deceased (lines 1–3) who has incited her harlequin-toned daydream (lines 4–8).
Counterpoint is used to great effect again in the third and fourth stanzas. The aesthetic beauty of “heavy petals” is subverted by the violence of “bruising;” “skin” and “sand” are smooth and granular combatants, respectively. And, finally, the pastoral peace of “the ocean at night” exploded by the figurative “tree on fire.”
Finally, let me here draw your attention to the ubiquity of the frangipani in the poem, alluded to in each verse paragraph:
bq. Stanza 1 — odours, waxen flower
Stanza 2 — garlands
Stanza 3 — heavy petals
Stanza 4 — tree
p. Such ubiquity in a short lyric such as this generates a powerful density. It also emphasizes just how much emotional potential our images contain in terms of signification: not one but many frangipani exist as contrapuntal emotional and intellectual complexes. For Carolyn Smart, frangipani is simultaneously spiritual (stanza 1), romantic (stanza 2), violent (stanza 3), and sublime (stanza 4).