Monday, May 30, 2005


As I was reading through Victoria Chang's Circle, a half-forgotten term from my U of T English Literature years -- my god! it's twenty-five years ago -- kept nudging its way persistently into consciousness: Synecdoche. My allergic reaction to the overly systematic use of terms like synecdoche, repetend, hypallage -- all part and parcel of the jargon-filled structuralist (it wasn't yet post-s.) criticism so much the academic rage in those days -- was one of a number of reasons I decided not to persue a post-graduate degree in English literature. Now, for all I care, synecdoche and its little brother, metonymy, could be wingers on the Czech Republic hockey team. (I can just hear it: Synecdoche, he passes the puck to Metonymy, back to Synecdoche, he shoots, he SCORES!) But here I kept thinking as I read Victoria Chang's poetry: "synecdoche".... "good synecdoche"... hmm.

How weird, I thought.

Here's a simple example, from a simple poem (well, not so simple!) that I very much enjoy. I copied it from her website.


Before the pork buns steamed
in the pot, moisture in their

white folds, before the dried tofu
was trimmed into thin strips,

my father raked long-grain rice
out of the mesh bag, poured a bowl

of porridge, spread dried pork
shreds and salted peanuts into

a heap on top. Each morning
my grandmother listened for steam

rising up the stairs. She reclined
on her bed with the blue hydrangea

pattern I wanted. I handed her
the tray, glanced at the expanding

brown mass on her face. Day
after day, my father told me not to

wear white in my hair, not to leave
chopsticks vertical in a bowl of rice.

I did it anyway. One by one, the raisins
I stole from the box on her bedside table.

Don't you love that image of the vertical chopsticks in a bowl of rice? They stick persistantly into memory -- as I made dinner this evening (and it wasn't even rice), I thought of them. As I went to bed last night (no, I wasn't thinking about sex...), I thought of them. That they would be interpreted as bad, rude, whatever, and that she would be told not to leave them that way, but that she persisted in doing so anyway... isn't that emblematic of venerable Chinese custom, of restriction, of her nascent rebellion? And what of those little raisins she keeps stealing, "one by one"? The atmosphere -- her father's role is so deftly described, her grandmother, the expectations, the restraint, the self-regard.... The only thing that gives me pause (in a doubtful way) is the "expanding brown mass on her face". What is that? A smile? A cancer of some kind? I suppose the porridge...

But those chopsticks. Those raisins. Morning porridge -- morning being the beginning of life, + the pabulum we are all fed with... so emblematic! Yet so limpid, so simple...

Synecdoche. Synecdoche...

Because I am rusty on my rhetorical terminology I actually looked up synecdoche in my yellowing (and yes, dust-covered) Holman's Handbook to Literature, to see if I was remembering right. I am sure that many of you are also rusty -- or perhaps virgins to the intellectual rape that is hard-core structuralist criticism (please allow me the luxury of hard-won prejudices) -- so here, at the risk of being charged with a major offence, it is:

Synechdoche: A form of METAPHOR which in mentioning a part signifies the whole or the whole signifies the part. In order to be clear, a good synecdoche must be based on an important part of the whole and not a minor part and, usually, the part selected to stand for the whole must be the part most directly associated with the subject under discussion. Thus under the first restriction we say motor for automobile (rather than tire), and under the second we speak of infantry on the march as foot rather than as hands just as we use hands rather than foot for men who are at work at manual labor.

So I was right. More or less.

Question : how the can one critically apply this stuff every day, have it uppermost in mind, and still write passionate, groundbreaking poetry?

Nope. Still not obvious to me. After all these years.

Answer that one for me if you can...


Brian Campbell said...

Readers of this blog may have noticed the sailor who first ended this post has been replaced by a proper, polite professorial poet type. Civility reigns... at least here. O:-)

Brian Campbell said...

Actually, on reflection, I was taking out my anger on quite an unrelated matter... (:-&

Lorna Dee Cervantes said...

I try.

Seriously. I'm one big synecdoche. Always have been. Born that way as I was born into an extinct tribe. But any oppressive power is reversible. That's the secret of its power. That's the essence of Xicanisma: to take a marker that has been a liability and change it into an asset. Synechdotal hell, that's what we, "US minority" types have to liberate ourselves from. Especially when the marker becomes a target, and you're the bunny.

And, btw, thanks so much for the head's up on my messed up template, speaking of minority browsers. This stuff is way way over my head and when I finally had the time to read your post & especially A.D.'s comments I figured out that I moved & deleted a lot of html code without knowing it - "oh, what's this little div thing doing here anyway, it doesn't seem to be necessary. . .". I'll have to come back to it.

Good post. Great poem. "Brown mass," indeed. Yes, cancer. Perfect synechdochal shift right there. Right on about the chopsticks.

Brian Campbell said...

I got that message, by the way -- because messages here are rerouted to my e-mail address. Thanx, Lorna.