Friday, March 6, 2015

Analysis of "To the Mannequins" by Howard Nemerov

Poem found here: "To the Mannequins" by Howard Nemerov




"Mannequins," I feel, automatically hold a symbolic quality -- aren't they just the physical representation of a human being to show something off?  So when I read this poem, I automatically was trying to figure out what the "mannequins" represented and in what context.  The first stanza's shift in perspective brings the idea of symbol to the forefront.

"Adorable images, / Plaster of Paris / Lilies of the field" Note how these descriptions start out general "adorable images" then to something put on a higher level, "Lilies of the field" -- but these are just another names for mannequins which are promptly brought down with the concept of, "You are not alive, therefore / Pathos will be out of place."  Emotion -- we look at these figures without them and just look at them physically, but also note if we go along this thought train, should we look at these figures through the lens of ethos?  Is ethics involved here?

These philosophical ruminations have to wait since the speaker ordains the self as an oracle, "But I have learned / A strange fact about your fate, / And it is this"  I'm not sure about the last line punctuating the point of knowing a mannequin's fate, but this is a set-up that brings a narrative component to the poem:

     After you go out of fashion
     Beneath your many fashions,
     Or when your elbows and knees
     Have been bruised powdery white,
     So that you are no good to anybody—

     They will take away your gowns,
     Your sables and bathing suits,
     Leaving exposed before all men
     Your inaccessible bellies
     And pointless nubilities.

     Movers will come by night
     And load you all into trucks
     And take you away to the Camps,
     Where soldiers, or the State Police,
     Will use you as targets
     For small-arms practice,

I quoted both stanzas since this is the core of the poem as it is the conceit for the final lines, so it's very hard for me to separate them as far as continuity is concerned.  The first stanza sets up more of how these mannequins are discarded along with a judgment call.  Note that the play on words with "fashion" adds more of a humorous quality to the reason and the "or" is the huge pivot towards something more human, "when your elbows and knees / Have been bruised powder white" this changes the perception of the mannequins to something a little more human physically by labeling parts.  And so when the judgement comes, "So that you are no good to anybody" then there's a small hit.

With the next stanza the key is "exposing" -- and what acts are done to do so.  Note that the speaker is focusing mostly on the physical clothing, "They will take away your gowns, / Your sables and bathing suits," which seems to reference women mannequins.  This might be a "duh" point, but note how this contrasts with, "Leaving exposed before all men / Your inaccessible bellies / And pointless nubilities" the men who see them.  This could easily be a poem that can be analyzed in the gender manner.

However, for me, the violent political force comes to play with the stanza after with, "Movers will come by night / And load you all into trucks / And take you away to the Camps."  Maybe the analogy is a little overblown.  But this depends, in my opinion, on how seriously you take the conceit that the Mannequins are symbolic for something more.  "Camps" definitely have serious implications along with what happens to the Mannequins, "Where soldiers, or the State Police, / Will use you as targets / For small arms practice,"  but I think the rumination the poem is making isn't the connection between this situation and violence like the holocaust or exposing to the male gaze.  Rather the last three line brings a different spin to such analogies: "Leading me to inquire, / Since pathos is out of place, /
What it is that they are practicing."

The last line should be a rhetorical question but is punctuated as a rhetorical statement.  What is it that they are practicing if pathos is out of place.  If there is no emotion appeal to the conceit and the situation could they just be using mannequins as they were designed to do?  Could there be a bigger inference there?  It's up to the reader.  There are some strong images and ideas here, but the speaker, as the oracle, shows his interpretation then begs the question with his statement.

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