The Black of Noir

January 7, 2013

Contributor’s Marginalia: Peter Kline on “Noir” by Kathleen Winter

Interrupting guilty silences, Noir is the heart’s black thud in the chest of every human being.  It is the mourner’s tabulations, the teacher’s contempt, the brother’s conniving.  It is the bridegroom’s furtive leer, the hesitation in the host’s welcome, the penitent’s wink.  Seen through its mirrored smoke-colored glasses, a common kindness is transformed to a cheap come-on, or else an evolutionary glitch.  Noir leaves a greasy fingermark in grandmother’s sugar bowl.

We think of ardor as irony’s enemy, but Noir’s sense of irony is passionate.  Today’s predominant irony is one of mixed discourse, akin to sarcasm, in which we do not mean all that we say, undermining passion by turning our language against itself.  Noir’s irony is more cosmic.  It holds up the prevailing archetypes of good and evil, punishment and reward, so flattering to the society that cherishes them, and mocks them for their flimsiness and vanity by calling attention to their unfulfilled promises.  The alderman pumps poison into the well to pay off a bet; the judge takes a tidy commission from the juvenile prison; the hero demands a piece of the action, or else; the doe-eyed daughter pulls out a snubnose revolver from her garter.

Noir may be disenchanted with the world, but it is never disenchanted with language.  One of the hallmarks of Noir is its delight in the cryptic ingenuity of its vocabulary.  The black of Noir exists as a shadowy alternate to the world of full color; this different way of being demands a different way of speaking, one that allows its furtive denizens to recognize one another and communicate.  Noir names a secret world.

Eve Offering the Apple, The Elder Lucas Cranach

Adam, too, was a namer, one of the many reasons I found Kathleen Winter’s application of Noir to the Garden of Eden so delightful and unexpectedly apropos.  In Winter’s “Noir” it is not Adam who is doing the speaking, however; the poem gives Eve a chance to defend her wayward behavior, and she shows herself to be serpent-subtle, a linguist as masterful as Adam.  Her words immediately impose her authority (even as she’s trying to wriggle out from under her deed), not just naming the animals but also claiming them for her side:

All the animals in the garden
knew the score: Rat knew,
Gnu knew, even Gnat
knew Snake was telling me
what to do.

True to the spirit of Noir, this Eve seems never to have been innocent.  The music and slangy eloquence of her defense only serve to emphasize her compromised moral position.   It is as if, with the bite of the apple, she has gained not just knowledge of good and evil but a cynical understanding of her role as one of the great patsies in the history of the patriarchal world.  She’s resigned; she’s not trying to make a stink about it.  But that doesn’t mean she thinks she got a square deal.  With a flicker of rage and a shimmying coo she asks, blinking, “what could I do?” and we sympathize.  The mother of mankind is no jingle-brained frail.

—Peter Kline

Peter Kline’s poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, Poetry, Antioch Review, and other journals, and has been anthologized twice in the Best New Poets series and online at From the Fishouse.  He is the recipient of a 2008-2010 Wallace Stegner Fellowship and the 2010 Morton Marr Poetry Prize from Southwest Review.  His first collection of poems, Deviants, is forthcoming in the fall of 2013 from Stephen F. Austin State University Press.

Previous post:

Next post: