Poetry is about emotion -- not only the emotion displayed in the many layers
of a poem's language, but also the emotional layers created in the reader.
Some poetry can be light and happy, other poetry can be ecstatic and ethereal;
and at the opposite extreme, poetry can be dark and downright threatening. Such
a poem is "Cellar Stairs" by the contemporary poet Thomas Lux.
"It's rickety down to the dark," states the first line. The poem starts out with
an image of darkness, compounded by the feeling of instability ("rickety"). The
lack of any physical room or area leaves us feeling disoriented and groundless.
All we know is that we are going into "darkness." The sound of the language
itself contributes to the feeling. Starting with the "ih" sound of the "It's"
and "rickety," the vocal frequency itself also moves down, to the "ow" of
"down and "ah" of "dark." Not only does the line tell us we are moving down,
but the words themselves are moving down, too. Down, of course, is where a
threat lies: the generally accepted location of Hell.
The second and third lines produce a feeling of downright fear.
The skates are hanging (2), which provides us an image of dangling objects,
in the style of the hanging man. Not only this, however, but the skates are long-bladed.
Not short, or curved, but long -- threateningly long; the bigger the weapon, the
more the damage. The third line cements the threat: "... want to slash your throat."
The long blades hanging are now regarded as weapons capable of inflicting specific
bodily harm. The further personification given by ...
... middle of paper ...
...ge, the way the words sound, the way they feel in
my mouth when I say them -- these all contribute to a sense of foreboding, a sense of
fear. Will I make it back upstairs one more time?
This poem exists on two very different levels. On one hand, the speaker is a child, sent to the dark, scary basement for a bag of frozen vegetables. But on the other, more sinister side, the very obvious correlations between the dark basement and Hell are directly meant to terrorize and intimidate the reader. It is not easy, these days, to be scared. This poem does an admirable job of making itself engaging and frightening in less than half a page. The intent is achieved.
Lux, Thomas. "Cellar Stairs." Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry. Ed. John Frederick
Nims and Charles Mason. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 541-542.
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