Greetings! Welcome to Metaphor and More for July. For this installment, I wanted to look at a poem of James Wright's called "Gambling in Stateline, Nevada." I'd like to discuss the metaphors in this poem, particularly some that are constructed around interesting verbs and verb phrases.
Here's the poem:
Gambling in Stateline, Nevada
The great cracked shadow of the Sierra Nevada
Hoods over the last road.
I came down here from the side of
A cold cairn where a girl named Rachel
Just made it inside California
And died of bad luck.
Here, across from the keno board,
An old woman
Has been beating a strange machine
In its face all day.
Dusk limps past in the street.
I step outside.
I finger a worthless agate
In my pocket.
Before going on to read the rest of my commentary below, reread the poem another time or two and think about the metaphors. You might even want to jot down your thoughts.
Some of My Thoughts on the Poem
I like thinking about what Wright accomplishes with the verbs he uses to make some of those metaphors! In the first stanza, he creates a metaphor with the word "Hoods." That word denotes the action of covering (perhaps protectively, as a hood covers a head) "the last road." Or perhaps it is a hood in the sense of a shroud. The word "Hoods" creates a personification of the "cracked shadow," in that he gives the shadow the ability to take this action; I find this word also imparts emotion through the idea of the hood or shroud coming over the road. I think it's also interesting that the shadow is "cracked." So, all of these word choices add to the tone and emotions of the piece while creating a fresh metaphor. The sense of "hood" as a shroud has even more impact when one considers the second stanza, which mentions "a cold cairn" and a "girl" who "died of bad luck" – perhaps a reference to an old grave, maybe that of a girl who arrived with some people who took a gamble on a better life in the American west. Perhaps we all gamble in this business of living.
I find another striking metaphor in the third stanza where a machine – a slot machine perhaps? – is personified as having a face, and that metaphor is extended through the lines that describe the woman's actions: "An old woman" who "Has been beating a strange machine/In its face all day." With all its buttons, dials, and markings, the machine could well look like it has a face; and to someone who walked into the room and didn't know what was going on, it might look like the woman pushing on the buttons is beating it up. Or perhaps she actually is beating on the machine if she happens to be losing money! But it's a fresh metaphor, and seeing something like this as if we had never seen it before is one of our goals as creative writers – to see with fresh eyes, without our usual labeling, categorizing, and sometimes even dismissing of a thing as simply ordinary; to look at a thing as if we had never seen it before and describe it. If it helps you to do this, you can always take the role or viewpoint of someone who may never have encountered the thing in question, as Craig Raine does in his poem "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home," which we looked at in Mastering Metaphor.
Wright creates metaphor using another verb wonderfully in the fourth stanza of "Gambling in Stateline, Nevada" where he writes "Dusk limps past in the street." We may each have a different image of this particular dusk based on that metaphor/image (again, a personification) and I think that is not only fine, but good; his word choice is delightfully rich. It could be that by choosing "limps" he is painting an image of dimness – that it is very close to dark. Or perhaps on this night, the western sky is not particularly vivid – the color is not particularly saturated. Or perhaps he just wants to indicate that the dusk is passing slowly or unevenly – it limps rather than strides or strolls. The tone of his word choice relates to other words in the piece that indicate a tense, sad, or otherwise difficult situation. It makes us feel as if the day – or perhaps the speaker's spirit – after being witness to evidences of loss and violence, is limping away. It is an uneasy scene, with a speaker who is aware of numerous smaller or larger misfortunes.
As to the quality of this dusk, the short, end-stopped lines (i.e., short sentences, especially the first three lines) of the final stanza give me the feeling it was close to dark already. These lines are striking in that they represent a change from the previous lines and, moving from one line to the next, give the effect of dusk passing quite quickly: This. Then this. Then this. Notice how each line gets shorter, replicating, in a metaphor-like way, the waning light.
Dusk limps past in the street.
I step outside.
The speaker notices the dusk in the first line (which is interesting – he takes the time to look at the sky and, presumably, notice its colors). Then he steps outside. Then he notices the sky is going dark. This lends to the idea that the limping may refer to the dusk not being a particularly lingering or lengthy one in the first place, or that his timing was off – he missed out on the best part of the evening sky.
It's interesting to think about how all the images, metaphors, and the word choice work together in this piece, and where the idea of gambling and "luck" come in. Going back to the second stanza, where the speaker describes the grave site, the "cold cairn" of "a girl named Rachel" who didn't have good luck in that she died. Then we have the woman beating the slot machine "In its face all day" – imparting a sense of frustration and loss. The final two lines of the poem are interesting, especially in the context of the entire stanza. Near the beginning of the stanza the speaker steps outside, perhaps gambling on being able to see a richly colored sunset, but doesn't get there in time. For him, the agate in his pocket is "worthless" – so in the end, he can't get what he wants from nature, either. The speaker's mood and circumstances seem to be projected onto the landscape, giving us the sense that even nature is broke – or at least that the speaker might feel it is. These images and metaphors paint a portrait of a situation where the speaker, and perhaps others, feel out of luck, empty and/or impoverished (materially, emotionally, spiritually), and are unable to access even nature's riches.
But the poem is written with an "objective" tone. We don't exactly get the sense of a speaker wallowing in his misery; however, with the word choice in the phrase "worthless agate" I get a sense of what might be the speaker's disgust at his own lack of luck, and how little he has of monetary wealth in the human realm, although an agate is a thing of great beauty, made by nature over a great deal of time. It's also interesting that the speaker says "I finger a worthless agate" (italics mine; another verb) – perhaps a self-calming gesture? Or is it his lucky rock that he carries around, but which doesn't happen to be working right now and so is dismissed as "worthless"? It seems to be the only thing in his empty pocket – suggesting that, up to now, anyway, he has valued it enough to have at least that one thing. It perhaps also suggests he may have appreciated it as an example of nature's beauty, in spite of the fact that it isn't helping much on the material level of life.
Of course there is room for interpretation here, and you may have other thoughts about these things.
We can think about how the things mentioned in "Gambling in Stateline, Nevada" might indicate that this piece is also about perspective – how things seem to us under a given set of circumstances, and how they might be looked at differently. And of course we can also think about how all of this works with the idea of "gambling" – that what is a gamble for us has to do with where we stand in relation to other things, including what we want or need.
I hope you have found this interesting, and I encourage you to continue to think about what is going on in terms of metaphor in this piece and other works that you read.
Until next time, all best wishes with your reading and writing and everything else!
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Jennifer Burd teaches "Mastering Metaphor" through the Loft Literary center and writes a monthly blog, "Metaphor and More."