Sunday, January 14, 2018

"Language leading us up the garden path": a line from Mimi Khalvati's "In Search of the Animals"

In Mimi Khalvati's poem "In Search of the Animals" (from The Weather Wheel, Carcanet 2014), the speaker looks "at a daylight moon behind drifts / of cloud" and sees it as "a platinum sun":

a frieze of haunches, heads, ears and mouths
evening out, dissolving back to cloud

"Evening", here, is not the noun but the gerund form of the verb "to even"; this leads the speaker to comment on her own language and arrive at a line break that takes an idiom and makes it literal:

And look how morning becomes evening
accidentally, heuristically, in the miracle

of language leading us up the garden path
a white rabbit crosses, a badger, our local fox

"To lead someone up the garden path" is the idiom here, and before the line break, the sense is clear: "the miracle // of language" deceives us, plays tricks on us – here, the trick of seeing or hearing "evening" as a noun when, in context, it is actually a verb. The relative clause that follows the line break, however, turns "the garden path" into a literal path that the animals can cross.
            Enjambment often generates such a doubling of meaning, from figurative to literal (as here), or in other cases from general to particular. This particular doubling stands out because "the garden path" has a third meaning associated with language: the "garden-path sentence." Such a sentence sets up a word or phrase to be read one way but then turns out to require a different reading. And that, of course, is what happens with examples of enjambment like the one above: "leading us up the garden path" goes from being figurative to being literal; it has to be reinterpreted for the two lines to fit together.
            Hence, this particular enjambment provides a general way to think about enjambment: as a "garden path" effect in which one reading is replaced and often even displaced by another. The garden-path sentence is further related to the rhetorical figure of paraprosdokian, which means "against expectation" – and that is precisely how enjambment works: it creates an expectation and then adds something that works against that expectation. So enjambment could be seen as a form of paraposdokian. But more generally, it's the idea that enjambment behaves like a rhetorical figure that seems useful to me – particularly strikingly so in the case of Khalvati's poem, where the enjambment involves a figurative expression that is also a term for a rhetorical figure. Or has the pun just led me, too, up the garden path?

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