March: The Long Blue Shadow
While you are preparing this drink, consider listening to a wonderful rendition of this month's poem set to music by Pauline Paris. You can watch it on YouTube at:
Curious about that hat? Watch it all the way to the end (past the credits) for a clue.
Like what you hear? You can find this and twelve more in the book Renée Vivien, Treize poèmes with accompanying CD from ErosOnyx. ISBN 978-2-918444-41-1
How to make a Long Blue Shadow
Step 1: First, make the tea. Pour 3 cups of barely boiling water on ½ cup of dried butterfly pea flowers* and ½ cup of sugar. Let it steep, stirring gently to dissolve the sugar, then strain to remove the flowers and set it aside to cool. (Best if you do this ahead of time.)
Step 2: Place 4-5 ices cubes in a tall glass.
Step 3: Cover with iced blue tea .
Step 4: Add 1.5 oz Opihr (turmeric infused) gin and stir gently.
Step 5: Slowly add the juice of half a fresh squeezed lemon. The acid of the lemon will slowly turn the blue of the tea purple.
*The Latin name of this flower is clitoria ternatea. No prizes for guessing why.
"Chanson pour mon Ombre" (A Song for my Shadow) by Renée Vivien (La Vénus des aveugles, 1904)
Droite et longue comme un cyprès,
Mon ombre suit à pas de louve,
Mes pas que l’aube désapprouve.
Mon ombre marche à pas de louve,
Droite et longue comme un cyprès.
Elle me suit, comme un reproche,
Dans la lumière du matin.
Je vois en elle mon destin
Qui se resserre et se rapproche.
A travers champs, par les matins,
Mon ombre suit, comme un reproche.
Mon ombre suit comme un remords,
La trace de mes pas sur l’herbe
Lorsque je vais, portant ma gerbe,
Vers l’allée où gîtent les morts.
Mon ombre suit mes pas sur l’herbe,
Implacable comme un remords.
Straight and long like a cypress,
My shadow follows, stealthy as a wolf,
My footsteps that the dawn disapproves of.
My shadow walks stealthy as a wolf,
Straight and long like a cypress.
She follows me, like a reproach,
In the morning light.
I see in her my destiny
That narrows and shrinks.
Across the fields, in the mornings,
My shadow follows, like a reproach.
My shadow follows like remorse,
The trace of my footsteps on the grass
As I go, carrying my spray of flowers,
Towards the path where the dead reside.
My shadow follows my footsteps on the grass,
Implacable, like remorse.
A few things to think about in this poem (by Melanie Hawthorne)
Music is an important element of Vivien's poetry. Many of her poems have the word "chanson" (song) in the title, as this one does, and the idea that poetry should have a musical accompaniment was part of the legacy of Sappho and other Greek women poets that Vivien reclaimed (see the Introduction to Treize poèmes, referenced above, for more). The "Lyric" genre gets its name from the fact that the words were meant to be accompanied by the lyre, it was an inherently musical genre.
This poem "for my shadow" is written in octosyllables (eight syllables) rather than the more traditional, but also more ponderous, twelve syllable alexandrine line. There are three verses, but what's interesting is that they are of unequal length. The first verse has only five lines, while the other two have six (an even number).
The first verse has a rhyme scheme of ABBBA, while the second has CDDCDC, and the third EFFEFE, the point here being to notice the repetition and the symmetry between the first and second lines of each verse and the last two lines. There are only minor variations in the repetitions. Thus, for example, in the first verse the first and last lines are identical, while the second and fourth lines are nearly identical (mon ombre suit à pas de louve v. mon ombre marche à pas de louve). In other words, the verse imitates the relationship of the subject and her shadow, mirror opposites joined at the feet with minor differences (shadows are sometimes more elongated than their person, as is this shadow, "droite et longue," straight and long). This same basic relationship is repeated in verses two and three.
The narrative center of the poem is not a particularly original observation: our shadows follow us. But this shadow follows and also judges. To follow "à pas de loup" (first verse; though note the feminine "louve" here) is to follow silently, but the image of the wolf adds a slightly sinister note, made more explicit in the second verse in which the shadow is compared to a reproach ("comme un reproche"), and then, in the third verse, remorse ("comme un remords"). What does the narrator have to reproach herself with? What is the source of this remorse? The poem keeps the reader in suspense until the end of the third verse, where we learn that she is headed to the resting place of the dead ("l'allée où gîtent les morts"), carrying flowers presumably intended for a grave. The verb "gîter" means to reside, but it also evokes the verb "gésir," often seen on tombstone inscriptions in the formula "ci git" (here lies...).
As always, it is tempting to think about the biographical referents that Vivien's poems evoke. This reference to visiting a grave, especially in the context of regret, suggests that Vivien might have been thinking of a visit to the grave of her close friend Violet Shillito, who was temporarily laid to rest in Saint-Germain-en-Laye before being repatriated to the family grave in Cincinnati. The reproach and remorse that the shadow embodies might refer to the guilt Vivien experienced that she neglected her friend in her dying days in order to pursue her relationship with Natalie Barney.
But wait, there's more. Before we learn where the speaker of the poem is headed, the first two verses impart certain ideas. The time of day (morning) is highlighted. In the first verse, it is "dawn" who "disapproves," while lines 2 and 5 repeat the time of day, referring to the light of day (line 2) and even "mornings" in the plural (line 5). Before we know that the speaker is headed to a grave, we know only that the speaker is out and about in the early morning (dawn) and has something to reproach herself for. One could be forgiven for concluding that she has been out all night, and in the light of morning is reproaching herself for whatever it is that she spent the night doing.
One final observation. Almost in the dead center of the poem is a couplet that comments directly on the relationship of the shadow to the speaker: "I see in her my destiny, that narrows and shrinks." On the one hand, then, a simple observation about how shadows change as the source of light moves. Shadows are longer and thinner when the sun is lower in the sky and shorter and squatter as the sun rises. As the speaker looks at her own shadow, she sees it diminish. But in this observation, the speaker sees her destiny, her future. It is both literal and figurative, in the sense that as Vivien slowly starved herself to death, she did indeed shrink in size, and her shadow alongside her. And socially she cut herself off, the world around her shrank away until she was living the life of a recluse. This poem appeared in La Vénus des aveugles of 1904, but perhaps Vivien was already aware of what lay ahead for her. In just five years' time, she would be little more than a shadow of her former self, bed-ridden and unable to summon the strength to move in the final days leading up to her death in 1909.