An Allegory by David Ignatow

6 Dec

Ignatow writes about life as we know it.  Instead of visionary art, he is the poet of toil, of the every day, of the tiny victories and losses we gain over a lifetime.  His allegory is one example:

“I offer my back to the silken net/to keep it from falling to the ground”  We begin with images of labor, and a million questions.  Why is there a silken net?  Why shouldn’t it touch the ground?  One reason is because the net is delicate anyway.  I find very interesting his choice of the word offer, because it implies choice, and it also implies an offering.  So this man is supporting this net with his back because he feels he ought to.

The next part explains why the back “the smooth part of me,/silk would catch on my nails”   So this man is either standing or walking humped over with a silk net over his back, meaning all he can see is the ground.  I also see a sense that there’s more worth laid on the net than the man–something so delicate that his hands can’t touch them or he would rip it.  Also I find it interesting that the part needed for this work is not the front, which holds most distinguishing characteristics of an individual, but the back, smooth and formless.

“The skein spread as far as I could see/across humped backs like mine.”  So all this net is covering everybody, all humped down, all looking at the ground.  The nature of this allegory seems to relate to work and society.  Isn’t work like that? Whether you work on a dock or at a desk, aren’t we all hunkered down with the task at hand, with little meaning as to what this work is for or who it benefits?    In Ignatow’s Allegory work orders society so that everybody is looking down, (or most everybody as we shall see) engaged in pointless tasks, and that hunkering down connects everyone in a net.  Nobody is immune.

Those straightening up/through a rip and looking about/say “how everything shines.”  I think this last set of lines are written ironically–for those that praise the shining aren’t actually engaged in the work.  In our society, those who escape drudge work somehow have positioned themselves in a rip (and this poem does not indicate that they ripped it themselves), they happen to be positioned where they do not have to bend over.  They, of course, would praise the shining, because they have the means to see it.  Also they would be the least obliged to change anything, while at the same time they would be in the best position to because they can see what is actually going on.  Those who are working can’t see.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante has a similar scene where a group of people are squatting in a field of fire, perpetually punished because of sodomy or usury.  It’s usury that interests me more in terms of this allegory, because interest bearing banks create (to a large degree) the work culture we now live in.  And that’s the weirdest thing about America, while it very much lives in a work culture, it doesn’t really think about it to a great degree–movies are rarely about finding a terrific job, but life or a family–things worth having a drudgy job for, I suppose.  However joblessness is a huge blow to the ego in this country, where people who are jobless suffer from great emotional pain due to their state.   Is it discomfort about looking at the greater meaning of things that leads people into labor?  Does work make people happier, or make them not notice happiness in the first place?

Ignatow does not really answer this–his poem is not really claiming that the situation is good or bad, just that it is.  Another interesting thing is that this situation does not seem to be created by any human, but something that just evolved (I guess) over time.  Do the carriers even know why they carry anymore, or do they offer their backs because they feel they should (Ignatow does make it clear that this work is voluntary, nobody has to do it, nobody’s even thought about the possibility of NOT doing it.)   I guess if you are a carrier you at least know what you need to do.  Maybe that’s recompense enough.

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