Unnecessary poetic epigraphs are a pet peeve of mine—particularly quotations from other poems. They tend to juxtapose the poem at hand with a better poem by a famous poet, with unfortunate results. They can suggest a lack of faith in readers’ ability to catch an allusion or influence. At worst, they are simultaneously pretentious and obsequious.
Anna Evans, though, knows how to make an epigraph work for her. Looking up the origins of the English nursery rhyme that Evans cites in the epigraph of “To Light You to Bed,” I learned that like other old children’s rhymes (e.g. “ring around a rosy”), it has a macabre history. Condemned prisoners at Newgate, awaiting execution by beheading, met their deaths as London’s church bells struck nine o’clock. When the bells finished ringing, the executions were completed until the next morning. Here is a common variant:
Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
Some versions end “Chip chop, chip chop, the last man’s dead.” The phrase Evans takes for her title is thought to refer to the warden’s candle, as he made his rounds the night before the condemned were to die.
“To Light You to Bed” opens with New Orleans crooning a contemporary Siren song to the tourist: not Tomorrow you will die but You can have anything at all you want. Like the nursery rhyme, like Mardi Gras, the poem mixes light tones and dark, pleasure and fear. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but Evans’ poem makes me feel surrounded by the sights, tastes, sounds and smells of Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street,
…. where drinks are three for one,
and breasts are two a penny after dusk;
where even matrons leave their shirts undone,
their bare breasts soaking in the city’s musk.
Formally accomplished and controlled, in cross-rhymed iambic pentameter quatrains, the poem plays with the desire to surrender control, to feel “a little roughly handled / by fresh desire.” In the first stanza the speaker catches a snake-like string of metallic red Mardi Gras beads, presumably thrown from a carnival float. As she walks the thronging streets–by turns vaguely uneasy, voyeuristic, nauseated, fascinated–she fingers the beads like a pagan rosary. An “angel” is led by her pimp; handmade signs threaten the crowd with eternal damnation; the smells of Cajun seafood, cigarettes, sex and nervous sweat fill the air. The poem’s neatly strung stanzas are like that Mardi Gras rosary for the reader, each representing not a prayer but a temptation, a come-on by the streets of the city. Replacing the London church bells, the streets of New Orleans speak, seductive and occasionally condemning: You have your needs (Bourbon Street), You’re all going to hell! (Toulouse Street), What d’y’all want for dinner? (Conti Street), Everyone turns tricks (St. Ann Street).
In the next to last stanza the warden’s candle, signifying the last night of the condemned, fuses with Millay’s candle burned at both ends: “I want to light my body like a candle,” says the narrator, “and burn out on an ancient pagan shrine.” In this fantasy of sexual desire as self-immolation, she imagines extinguishing the self that stands aside, self-consciously watching the parade. But by the end, the narrator is no longer sure what she wants, only that she hasn’t found it. Watching two strangers kiss (strangers to her and maybe also to one another), fiddling with her strand of beads as the cheap red glaze flakes off on her fingers, she is implicated with “the other sinners” in the carnival of excess all around her, even as she can’t quite lose herself in it.
Catherine Tufariello’s poems have been featured on American Life in Poetry, Writer’s Almanac, and Poetry Daily. Her first book, Keeping My Name (Texas Tech), won the 2006 Poet’s Prize. Her poem “Testament” appeared with Anna Evans’ “To Light You to Bed” in 32 Poems 10.1.