In spite of the gallery shows of Keith Haring, Banksy, and others, the vernacular manifestations of graffiti survive. Riding my bicycle under a nearby underpass, I saw the poem above. Apart from the setting – the underpass with its associations of underground and underworld -- and the basic black spray-paint medium, the work asserted its outlaw status by use of a taboo word. Though intellectuals are untroubled by other vulgarisms, the gender-based insult implied by “bitch” remains unacceptable and retains some shock value.
Taking the final epithet as an aggressive jab, one might read the phrase as a slightly misspelled sigh of disappointment for a love gone wrong, a sour grapes dismissal of the unobtained object of desire. Why are you depressed? “Aw, some bitch.” In this case the vague “some” implies that all women are the same.
However, much like the even more forbidden “nigger,” “bitch” has uses which are affectionate, even tender. (In addition it is used by the militant feminists of Bitch magazine.) In fact, the initial sound “aw,” rather than being a sad sigh, could mark admiration beyond words, a judgment affirmed by the completion “some” to make the most popular adjective of praise in our day: “awesome.” The harsh plosive and fricative of the concluding “bitch,” then, intensify, rather than reversing, this expression of wonder before his own encounter with the ewige Weibliche.
In the precise balance thus outlined between elevation and denigration of the woman and between joy and distress for the persona, this text exemplifies the tendency of poetry to suggest ambivalences, contractions, and dialectics.
MOANS OF PASSION
LACK OF TRUST
The site for these lyrics was a freight car resting on a siding. Since the locomotive that intruded on Thoreau at Walden, railyards and trains have been antithetical to the beautiful though they were painted by Italian Futurists in the 20s. Railway equipment implies a gritty industrial setting with ponderous, unforgiving machinery associated with hobos and film noir dodges and chases.
The simple and direct narrative is clear in the spatial arrangement of the verses. The first pair of lines was painted on the front end of the car and the latter two on the back end at the same height, clearly constituting one unified work. The progression is linear from love to suspicion and then to breakup, both of the couple and the persona’s state of mind.
The initial “moan,” of course, though of ten used in a sexual context, may sound ominous as it more often denotes misery. Merriam Webster in fact defines all moans as arising from “pain and grief.” Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” is a lament for lost love.
Indeed the passion is instantly succeeded by distrust. In the spare economy of the text, the reader knows nothing of the specifics of the case. They cannot matter. The crisis occurs offstage or unrecorded and on the rear of the car the story continues: “love asunder.” Here one can only just barely imagine the wielder of a can of spray paint using the word asunder. One finds the word in Caedmon’s Genesis, and Chaucer’s Summoner says that “Freres and feendes be but litel asunder.” Its choice here is extraordinary and, by itself alone, lifts the diction to a lofty, almost dizzy, level.
The tumbling syllables of “abandonment” (one’s only clue to the nature of the separation) end with the single impotent syllable: “rage.”