Some authors can take our breath away when we least expect it. C. E. Morgan did just that when I first read the following two sentences in her novel All the Living:
The school carried her into a deeper cleavage of the mountains than the one she had known at her uncle’s trailer, which jagged out like an aluminum finger from a limestone wall topped by firs, bone out of bone. There the night carried on and on until ten in the morning, then the tip of the finger finally burned with its first sun.
In this short paragraph, Morgan breathes life into the main character’s (Aloma’s) school, her uncle’s trailer, the mountains, and the fir trees. She presents vivid, lifelike images that draw me in and help me connect emotionally with the scene while also enabling me to imagine it with clarity. It’s easier to be more closely entwined (on an emotional level and an artistic level) with cleavage, fingers, and bones than the objects being personified. These sentences are intimate and carnal and establish a sensual, bodily tone in the work. When I see the picture of the mountains, the school, the trailer, and the trees; Morgan’s personification and description help me imagine specific details of this story’s place that I wouldn’t imagine if she wrote, “The school was deeper in the mountains than her uncle’s trailer by the limestone wall and fir trees.”
When describing Aloma’s interactions with her piano instructor, the narrator includes Mrs. Boyle’s explanation for the purpose of silence in music:
She said the music was found in the silence as much as sound. The pauses birthed the phrase and funeraled it too, the only thing that gave the intervening life of rising and falling pitch any meaning. Without silence there was no respite from the cacophony, the endless chatter and knocking, the clattering pitches.
Associating musical pauses with birth and death not only personifies music and the silences contained within, but it also encompasses the entire cycle of life—the beginning and the end and maybe even a new beginning. It’s almost impossible for me to see the words “birthed” and “funeraled” without being moved on a deeper level beyond the text at hand, thinking about my own connections with life and death and giving life and witnessing death. And silences in music become more meaningful for me outside of their mention in this novel. All the Living’s narrator becomes a narrator of my own story when I listen to music and notice the silences in a new way.
The dust breathed up off the soil on the sides of the road and whispered out onto the blacktop, swirling into tiny eddies which the wind moved, but barely. She spied a tree that had begun to turn early in defeat. Her eyes were wide to the miscarriage of the summer, the ruth and pity of it.
Breathing and whispering are excellent word and image choices here because they present a picture of the dust waking up while Aloma wakes up to her own reality. It’s a sort of fairy dust effect. Trees that feel defeated and a season that has miscarried and not had the opportunity to become all it was meant to be are also appropriate for the mood Morgan is establishing. This use of personification gives me a sense of blurred lines between the physical setting of the road and Aloma’s internal state. Is she experiencing a stirring up within her while also coming to terms with the fact that she has certain dreams and desires that might never be realized? Is there a blurring and mingling of her current circumstances and her hopes for what might be?
Whenever I read All the Living and follow Morgan’s winding trail with stunning bits of personification dropped along the way, I can’t help but think the author has led me to places I would have never encountered without her employment of this literary device.
Here’s an example of adding personification to my own work:
I’m euphoric; the sun is brighter, the sky is clearer, and colors are bolder. There’s a photo waiting to be taken everywhere I look, so I’m constantly snapping pictures with my iPhone. But I’m also paranoid and hallucinating. There are too many connections and coincidences which provide evidence of a conspiracy. My husband, Tim, is in on it. My daughter and son are, too. My brain is engaged in a game of tug-of-war and insanity is winning.
I’m euphoric. The sun is brighter and seems more awake. The sky is clearer—it has bathed itself in the bluest of blues. All colors are bolder like dancers on a stage basking in their spotlights. There’s a photo waiting to be taken everywhere I look, so I’m constantly snapping pictures with my iPhone. But I’m also paranoid and hallucinating. There are too many connections and coincidences running around the playground of my mind, providing evidence of a conspiracy. My husband, Tim, is in on it. My daughter and son are, too. My brain is engaged in a game of tug-of-war and insanity is winning.
Rewrite a couple of paragraphs of one of your own scenes with more personification and see what happens.
Photo by Martyn Fletcher, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Charlotte Donlon.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish