Mary Cassatt: "The Letter" by Joan I. Siegel. Corina Moscovich

The Letter by Joan I. Siegel
All day it is with her like a song
even as she slices a breakfast orange,
brushes her hair,
shuts a window.
She is listening to it
when company calls
and she talks about yesterday's news,
pours tea,
says good-bye at the door.
Then, alone with it finally
in late afternoon,
she puts it on the desk,
arranges it
as though she were putting flowers in a vase.
Then she slips it into the envelope,

seals it with her tongue.
A critical essay on Joan I. Siegel´s poem. Formalist approach
As formalists focus on the text, the first step will be to analyze the poem and look for formal principles, paying attention to images and patterns. The subject of the poem, as the title denotes, is a letter. It is a modern poem written in third person. The perspective of the narrator is one of an invisible witness. The tone of the voice is smooth.
“The Letter” is a short poem of 16 lines or stanzas. It does not follow a rhyme pattern but it has a rhythm when reading it because of the use of the verbs. They are short verbs, the longest is “arranges”, but the rest has no more than five: “is”, “slices”, “brushes”, “shuts”, “calls”, “talks”, “pours”, “says”, “puts”, “slips”, “seals”.
“The Letter” is divided into two parts: The first one from “All day...” to “the door”: the second one from “Then...” to “tongue”. “All day”, “breakfast”, “yesterday”, “then” (twice), “finally”, “afternoon” are time markers. The poem, although it is divided into time sequences, it is all in present. A long present, a never ending present.
This suggests the narrator is waiting for someone to come back. But there is a reversal in the two final stanzas. One can realize that the letter in question is not one she received but one she is going to send. All day she has been listening to her interior voice, to what was she was going to write in that letter. The letter is a motif. The letter is all day with her like a song. She listens to it - She wants to think about it as a way of escaping reality: “company calls” (bills to pay), “talks about yesterday´s news”-.
The first part of the poem is more active, the second one is more concrete. As regards the formal properties of the text, in the first part there are words related to sound: “song”, “shut”, “listening”, “calls”, “talks”, “says”. There is a nice choice of words: “a breakfast orange” suggests a light breakfast for a woman who is waiting for someone who is about to come back soon. There is alliteration first of the br sound with “breakfast” and “brushes”, and then of the sh sound with “brushes” and “shuts”. The use of the pronoun it combined with she throughout the poem is worth to mention: There are six “She” and seven “it”.
The time span of the poem is from morning till evening and it is clearly shown by the words “all day”, “breakfast”, “afternoon”. There is a comparison in the second part “as though she were putting flowers in a vase”. Such a detail near the end of the poem gives it strength in its feminine aspect. It shows the narrator´s intention. As regards the ending of the poem, the last sentence is very powerful in imagery. The words “alone with it, finally” suggest the narrator was waiting for this moment. The naming of actions makes more evident the state of solitude of the character in the poem. Domestic activities in an everyday setting (having breakfast, brushing her hair, shutting a window, answering the phone, poring tea, etc) are contrasted with one material but emotional thing: a letter. The poem is like a soap opera in a four well-designed sentences.
Correspondence or letter writing seems to be very important for the narrator of this poem. It describes how a letter may keep accompanied a person, especially a woman.
The urge of having something to say is expressed in this poem. The private realm of a woman is explored here. One could assume the letter is a love one, but the poem does not transmit a romantic view. Moreover, it has a very real surrounding. The routine can be broken only if we have something else to do, someone else to care for. 
Corina Moscovich

Intertextual criticism approach
I came across “The letter” (a poem written by Joan I. Siegel) in the March 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, where this poem and a print by Mary Cassatt occupy half a page.
When dealing with the Formal Criticism School I chose Siegel´s poem and thought only about analyzing the poem and not the print as it was a formal approach. Now I come back to this poem, but this time with an intertextual perspective. I am going to analyze the poem “The Letter” by Joan I. Siegel in relation with the print “The Letter” by Mary Cassatt.
Did the print inspire Joan I. Siegel to write this poem? Yes, it did. If I think of the relationship between the image of the print and the images that the poem evokes, the only “match” I can find is in the last stanza: “Then she slips it into the envelope, seals it with the tongue.” But then, the order is different. Although it is hard to establish time order in a print, we could say that what comes first is the image of a woman sealing a letter. In the poem, this image comes last.
Through the entire poem we find action, shown by verbs. In the first stanza, they are mechanical actions: “she slices a breakfast orange, brushes her hair, shuts a window.” We see her alone. In the second stanza, we find again mechanical actions, but actions that should not be mechanical, as now she is relating to other people: “She is listening to it/when company calls/and she talks about yesterday´s news/pours tea,/ says good-bye at the door.” In the third stanza we find intended actions. She arranges the letter as though she were putting flowers in a vase. In the fourth stanza we see a concrete action: it is here when the poem and the print coincide. The print may enrich or limit our perception of the poem as we see the print as another text.
“The letter” is a “snapshot” of a subject and a moment in time. There is a Japanese woman who looks young, around her twenties. She is sitting in a desk with a letter in her hands but at the same time she is sealing that paper with her tongue. The wallpaper design matches her costume design: This woman “fits” her domesticity. She is an everyday life person. She doesn´t have any ring or jewelry. She looks like a simple but interesting person. Cassatt created in “The letter” a sense of closeness by compressing the space she depicted. The setting of her work is usually an interior room with women doing some sort of domestic chore or duty. She rarely used models, instead choosing to paint those people who were close to her.
The way this Japanese woman concentrates in what she is doing... Her look... The contrast of the very white paper with the rest of the elements in the print... a collision of Background patterns... All these factors contribute to make the print more powerful. It is not what we can see on it but what the print suggests.
Why is the name Mary Cassatt written so big and “by Joan I. Siegel” so small? This suggests the poet wanted to place more importance on the painter´s name rather than herself as a writer. (But The Atlantic is a magazine for poetry, not for painters...) Here is when the poem comes into play. Joan I. Siegel made an intertextual work. The word “letter” takes importance in the poem by its omission. In the print the first element we notice is the letter. In the poem, since the beginning “the letter” is replaced by “it”: “All day it is with her like...” “listening to it...”, “alone with it...”, “she puts it...”, “arranges it...”, “slips it...”, “seals it...”. This intertextual approach gives the poem a unique richness.
The print depicts a reflective moment of a woman´s life which demands the observer contemplative thought. The poem adds meaning to the image we see.
The image is familiar because it is universal: We have all sealed a letter. It is a hand-made process we generally enjoy: She “arranges it/as though she were putting flowers in a vase”. It is not an e-mail, it is not a call. It is not something automatic. It is like a ceremony. We can “see” that idea in both: the print and the poem. In an intertextual context, “any work must be understood by analogy with other works that employ similar conventions”.
Regarding the formal characteristics of “The Letter”, we find a short poem composed by 4 stanzas. There is no pattern for rhyme. The use of vocabulary is simple. There is a comparison at the beginning of the poem: “...it is with her like a song” and a metaphor at the end: ... “as though she were putting flowers in a vase”...
Intertextual criticism “directs our attention away from reality and places the work instead in the context of literature as a whole, it stresses the artifice or conventionality of all literature”. As I said, I saw the print and the poem at the same time. Even if I wanted to pay more attention to one or the other, both were there. I “read” both and I know I built the meaning with the print and the poem. One contributed to the other and vice versa. A meaning is not a single meaning signified only by a text, but instead, by two texts. We understand the poem by “reading” another work of art. We find the answer in art: both literature and painting are a mean to achieve a purpose: express feelings, tell a story...
Corina Moscovich


The other world by Robert Wrigley (Corina Moscovich)

The other world
So here is the old buck
who all winter long
had traveled with the does
and yearlings, with the fawns
just past their spots,
and who had hung back,
walking where the others had walked,
eating what they had left,
and who had struck now and then
a pose against the wind,
against a twig-snap or the way
the light came slinking
among the trees.

Here is the mangled ear
and the twisted, hindering leg.
Here, already bearing him away
among the last drifts of snow
and the nightly hard freezes,
is a line of tiny ants,
making its way from the cave
of the right eye, over the steep
occipital ridge, across the moonscape, shed-horn
medallion and through the valley
of the ear's cloven shadow
to the ground,
where among the staves
of shed needles and the red earthy wine
they carry him
bit by gnawn bit
into another world.
Robert Wrigley

Few emotions are more complex than those dealing with death. “The other world is a poem about a dead buck. The setting is very important: Since the beginning the word “here” marks territoriality. Visually, the word “other” in the title makes a contrast with the word “here” in the first line. It is a cyclical poem which starts with the title “The other world” and finishes almost with the same words. The title is quite open as it may be interpreted as a world after life, a world underground or an underworld. Both the title and the ending talk about another world we don´t know. Wrigley discusses two possible worlds: The world of the dead and the world of the alive, the world of the people and the world of the animals.
There are simultaneous meanings to be read in this poem. And there is no absolute meaning. The meaning is relative. What the reader brings to the text of the poem is important in deconstructing meanings and their positioning. The authority for meaning lies nowhere specifically; this encourages the reader to value multiple perspectives, meanings and interpretations. Through his strategies of imagery, personification, and the use of tone, the author is able to take an event such as finding a dead buck, and interpret this to be seen as analogous to life itself. Just as the deer met its death, we too will one day meet our death. Unlike the deer we are aware of mortality. Human beings may care about a dead deer but they care more about mortality.
The narrator describes the animal using dramatically different terms. The deer is now dead. He is no longer an animal. The dominant reading of the poem is the real description of the dead animal. While the reader can sense some sympathy for the deer, the narrator seems to speak objectively as he is not overly emotional about the situation. Throughout this naturalistic poem, the tone of the poet seems somewhat indifferent. The words “where” and “what” make me think of a piece of news. There is a reported speech form where an event is being told. The poem also goes from general to particular. There are many references and details. Most of the words refer to nature, either to vegetation or animal life. To understand a part of nature is to understand a part of ourselves.
The other world is composed by 30 stanzas, divided in two parts. The taste of this poem depends primarily upon a series of contrasts, not only in the state of the dead animal, but also in technical aspects of the poem such as mood and rhythm. It doesn´t have a rhyme pattern. However, there is a rhythm in the reading achieved by alliteration and monotony in the reporting of past actions.
The use of the relative pronoun along the first part of the poem gives a unique relevance to the mutilated buck. We get the feeling after so much crude, real description. The first part of the poem focuses in the past life of the old buck. It is a continuing naming of actions. There is a well-achieved contrast between these actions and the rigidness in death. In the second part there are words such as “moonscape”, “ground” and “earthly” with a common connotation. The first part of the poem talks about the deer as a whole. The second part is like a division of the same animal into many parts. We find a contrast of dimension with the “tiny ants”, “making its way”. The visual image that description gives to the reader is very powerful. These ants make the deer another deer. They highlight the change of biological status of the buck. There is a transformation. The last three lines of the poem are very powerful in meaning. This is thanks to their shortness. It is like an abstract of the whole poem: The personal pronoun “they” appears here for the only time in the poem.
Just as we learn from the buck, death is a part of life, without death, there would be no life; it is inevitable. In one´s journey through life, one will encounter hardships along the way; although these may impede our progress, we always move forward.

Corina Moscovich


On First Looking into Chapman's Homer BY JOHN KEATS. The impact of a book...

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
   And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
   Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
   That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
   Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—

   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

What book has had an impact on you comparable to Homer´s impact on Keats?
Reading and analyzing John Keats´s poem was an important part of the process. Then, I deeply thought about the books I have read in my life. I have chosen “Kane and Abel” by Jeffrey Archer. That book has had an impact on me comparable to Homer´s impact on Keats. I have read the book twice, the first time I was a teenager and the version was in Spanish. It was really amazing. Being so young, the book has opened my eyes. it helped me to understand, to be more curious, to want more. Not only did I learn about other people´s lives but I also learnt geography and economy. The second time I read it was like a reassurance, like a deep breath. It was 10 years later and the version was in English. It was a review of the book and of the things that happened to me. I gave the book another meaning, perhaps more complete. (Probably, if I read it every decade, it will be a different book each time).
Specific topics caught my attention: First, the story about two brothers being so different and so similar at the same time. Second, the way to face human life, from birth to death. Third, ambition, which is shown to the reader as different shades of an apparent bright color. Since then, I started to believe that basically, there are two kinds of people: One who looks for opportunities. Other, who waits for things to happen. No matter which one we are in, we always need perseverance.  
I felt inspired to create... I intended to convey in a poem the nature and meaning of the book´s impact. The reason I have chosen the shape of a poem and not a short story is because of the strong feelings that the book produced on me: I could only express them in a poem. I have tried to use words related to books and play with them regarding disposition. The structure of the poem itself and the movement I gave to certain stanzas has to do with the meaning I wanted to transmit.
What was challenging for me was to put together my “impact”, taking into account “John Keats´s impact” and at the same time feel the poem as an artistic creation. For the author, there is always a challenge in the artistic creation. The ones who will read or see the product: It may be the reader; it may be the critic or the need to be understood. In my opinion, artistic creation should be free of fears or worrying about who or how is going to interpret it/to be interpreted. But there is an inner critic inside the artist and the balance between them has to be reflected in the artistic creation.

Looking at the index
of my own biography,
I have found pages
with nothing to hide.

Following a canon
did not know which one
simply following it
did not where

I have been smelling,
touching, tasting,
counting, searching
until one day
I realized
I have not been reading

I have not been reading
I realized

An archer shot an arrow
at the target of my age.

My life made a twist
in the less

I discovered a tool
that gave sense
to my entire history.

The language of literature
was in me
waiting to be clicked.

The arrow left behind
came back
to give another shot.

When there was no need
of reading again
the same biting chapter,
a highlighted character
invited me there
for just one more time…
To navigate through seas of words
and endless
                                       of experimentation.

To open a door
I always wanted to open.
A desert island.
A tempting dessert.
A door I will never close.

Corina Moscovich