One of my teachers once pointed out that Percy Shelley’s poems never tire of attempting to say what something is “like”—as if it’s impossible to say what something “is.” Or as if simile is a good choice for a poet if your intention is to show the mind wrestling with what it perceives. Simile seeks out analogies, parallels, repetitions, and semblances, often in ways that extend, supplant, and reassemble original points of comparison. It exposes perspective—the opinion at work in any attempt to speak truth. And it assimilates parts of the world into figures of language that reflect perception and the movements of thought.
For Shelley, perception has a particular genius for, and obsession with, forging likenesses between unlike things. The mind gravitates towards similitudes, enforcing them even as they may have abysmal consequences for reality, a point he demonstrates in his poem, “The Sensitive Plant,” where he uses similes to call attention to the visionary—and therefore poetic—aspects of seeing. In this section of the poem, an Eve-like figure seems to have abruptly and inexplicably died, and her garden, “Like” her body, begins to fall into decay:
In these stanzas, Shelley’s similes are hyperbolically dark, intentionally unsettling. While much of his imagery is conventional—what is more archetypal than a garden with roses and lilies, summer and autumn, noon and midnight?—here, traditional lyricism only magnifies the effect of the gruesome de-composing figures that creep into the poem through the speaker’s morbid reflections. The autumn garden is compared to a reeking, putrid cadaver. Hibernating botanical forms become a shapeless mound of dead human flesh. The fallen rose petals are reimagined, feverishly, as flecks of frozen blood. The many lilies dramatically condense into the singular, sagging head of a man wrapped in pale skin, dying right in front of us. This isn’t a garden scene converted into a graveyard. It’s much, much worse. This is bad vision at work, “the spoil of the secret night” of the mind corrupting everything it looks at. It defaces the literal and metaphorical garden, and therefore dis-figures the poem itself by forcing exaggerated, unstable affinities.
In fact, this section of the poem becomes downright Gothic, reminiscent of those nightmarish scenes in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where in a state of deluded enthusiasm, the novel’s protagonist-creator forms his own likeness from pieces of the desecrated, exiled, thieved, and bestial dead, and the result is inhuman monstrosity. Arguably, inasmuch as Mary Shelley’s novel is a commentary on failed sympathy, it is also, then—and I don’t say this lightly—a devastating critique of malignant, visionary figures that arise from the mind’s warped mirrors, and of how those figures wreak ruin on the world as they suture together ideas that brutalize reality. In that sense, Frankenstein’s creature is nothing more, and nothing less, than a truly rotten, but fully realized, simile. There’s a danger to this life “Where nothing is, but all things seem” (298), as Percy Shelley observes at the end of “The Sensitive Plant.” It is a life lived as it appears, as it comes into view, ever existing, and speaking, in unreal conditions—in memory, in fantasy, in assembled ideas, in apprehension—and hence is expressed so often, of necessity, as seeming, as looking like, as being as if.
I say all this by way of introducing Carl Phillips’ “The Moonflowers,” a sonnet that opens, somewhat characteristically for Phillips, in the middle of a thought that is, of course, a simile:
Something has just happened—we’re not sure, at first, what—that has raised the attention and sent it looking for correlatives (“saucers,” “cream,” “fists,” “mask,” “sea”), most of which might remain impenetrable for the reader, if not for the centralizing image of the poem’s title, which prompts us to imagine a lush garden scene of night-blooming moonflowers unfurling, collectively, their white petals in the dark.
This tiny event, alluded to but not explicitly described, is the gravity at the heart of the poem. From here, we are immediately moved towards the idea that darkness seems to allow “vulnerability,” or openness, to take place, and we recognize the erotic ambiguities in the images that follow: the dominant/submissive exchange between lovers, the moment when mutual vulnerability shifts to become feigned apathy in the face of “unthinkable” nakedness, and the aftermath, later, when the recurring “will forward” of desire reveals its own exaltedness, and therein, as well, its subsequent loneliness.
If Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant” maintains the illusion that it is a poem about a garden—even if that garden is allegorical—Phillips’ “The Moonflowers” makes no such pretense. Instead, it probes something profoundly interior and subjective, so much so, that the point of its similes is not to express what objective reality is like, but to implement figures of language that achieve the likeness of thought. Insistently, images open and close—fist and unfist—revealing, discarding, disclosing, and retracting the restless perspectives of the poem. It is a strategy that by way of negation chips away at closed systems of meaning while exposing, and even abolishing, the mind’s gods and monsters.
Significantly, at the end of the first stanza, just as the sonnet’s volta occurs, the main simile also turns and extends, creating complication and a sense that thought has now impossibly exceeded conceit. The mind runs up against the inadequacies of language, and we watch as it casts around for a new image—“that sea” (9)—before also rejecting it—“that is finally not a sea” (10). The attempt to say what is by way of saying what it seems to be concludes in saying what it is not in an effort to say it is beyond what it might be called.
What Phillips does here reminds me of apophaticism, a contemplative practice associated with “negative theology,” or “via negativa.” It approaches something that we attempt to know by way of identifying what we know it is not, and often ventures through entire anaphoric litanies of titles, similes, or even locations before rejecting each as insufficient, and arriving, ultimately, at a mystical revelation. The poetic qualities of apophatic writing are beautifully demonstrated in this well-known passage from I Kings of the Hebrew Bible:
Here, as in Phillips’ poem, negation has the paradoxical effect of creating presence even as it discovers absence in the things it examines. In the tradition of apophatic writing, this paradox is figured as the illumination of darkness, as if to indicate that light and dark are inseparable. Marsilio Ficino writes that the soul ascends to God through both darkness and light—darkness, because we need “particular negations” that help us deny that “God is this thing or that thing or some other thing”—and light, because “we attain the clearest truth about God in no other way than through negation” (11). In my view, though “The Moonflowers” looks into the workings of the psyche rather than into the workings of the soul, nothing less than this paradoxical revealing takes place in the opening of the poem where “the dark” goes on to disclose the presence of the speaker, in relationship and in solitude.
There are countless, breathtaking moments in Carl Phillips’ poems where a thought turns, clarifies itself, looks for a new image or simile, investigates a parallel situation, and/or negates an initial claim. Often—as in “The Moonflowers”—all of the above happens in a poem that is comprised of a single sentence. And often—as in “The Moonflowers”—all of the above happens in a poem that also achieves end-rhymes so “delicate,” you might miss them. Phillips’ poems have taught me to use simile more carefully. Through his work, I’ve become more and more aware that, in my writing, I have the power to disfigure the world through metaphor, but I also have the potential to use similes hesitatingly, humbly—forwarding and retracting their claims at once—so that I can begin to see that the world isn’t precisely coterminous with my perceptions.
Below is a poem I wrote in response to Dante Rossetti’s painting of the Annunciation. Rossetti’s somewhat infamous portrayal of the angel Gabriel approaching Mary while she cowers in her bed has always made me reflect on the nature of faith and volition, particularly for someone in Mary’s position. The girl looks as though she’s seen a ghost. She looks as though she doesn’t believe her senses. Which is not too far from how she initially reacts in the Biblical story. But ultimately, she chooses to converse with the angel as if the experience hasn’t raised dark doubts for her. She chooses to see what presence might arrive in the world if she is open to it.
Because the poem thinks of the painting as a kind of simile in its own right (the painting is a likeness of the Biblical scene), I wanted to play with negation, here, the way Phillips does, in an attempt to explore what this work of art seems to present versus what it might actually reveal.
Begin a poem with a simile, using the words “like” or “as when” or “as if.” Begin with an actual object or event, but try to extend the simile, in the course of the poem, towards thoughts, questions, or insights, so that the poem moves from the external world into subjective thought. Try to make the poem change its mind about something it claims by modifying, clarifying, redefining, or negating the claim. You might use negative language such as “not ___ nor ___,” “nevertheless,” “nothing more than,” or “no” to create playful repetitions and to turn your phrases.
Ficino, Marsilio & Dionysius the Areopagite. On Dionysius the Areopagite: Volume I, Mystical Theology and The Divine Names, Part I. Ed. and trans. Michael J.B. Allen. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Franco, Gina. The Accidental. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2019.
Phillips, Carl. Speak Low. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. 2nd ed. Eds. Donald H. Reiman & Neil Fraistat. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
The Holy Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Please note that Gina Franco’s essay arose from an email interview with Shannon K. Winston during the summer of 2019.
Gina Franco’s second collection of poems, The Accidental, was awarded the 2019 CantoMundo Poetry Prize and was published with the University of Arkansas Press. She is also the author of The Keepsake Storm (University of Arizona Press), and her writing has appeared in journals such 32 Poems, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Image, Georgia Review, Los Angeles Review, Narrative, and Poetry. She divides her time between Galesburg, Illinois, where she teaches at Knox College, and the West Texas borderlands, her family’s home.