leda 1, leda 2, leda 3
by Lucille Clifton
Some years ago, while teaching a graduate poetry workshop at the University of Memphis, I was describing the volta to the students as rhetorical and structural turning points we can identify in many poems, not only in sonnets. I was suggesting that, more broadly defined, the volta consists of instances where a poem swiftly shifts gears and careens around a curve, creating surprise…when one of the students interrupted to admit that as I had been saying “volta,” over and over, she had been hearing “vulva” each time. This was a class of all women and we had been having a raucous time in some of the previous class sessions. For the rest of that semester, we kept the joke going, repeating that each poem had a vulva to be discovered.
Now that I teach primarily undergraduate, mixed-gender classes at a small liberal arts college, I’m not inclined to share this anecdote with my students. But that Freudian slip of hearing my student experienced has stayed with me in the dozen or so interceding years, affirming the beauty of accidents. The misuse of “vulva” we perpetuated in the class amusingly pinpointed the essential nature of the volta: those seemingly small moments that, on closer inspection, dramatically alter the poem’s unfolding and meaning. The volta is a tiny thing but a fount of power.
Lucille Clifton’s three short poems that riff on the figure of Leda showcase this understanding of the volta. To start, like most good poems in response to myth, they each offer a surprising take on a familiar narrative—not only Leda’s but Mary’s and Eve’s as well. Mary and Eve are the focus of the second and third poems in the sequence and function as incarnations of Leda or as analogous figures. With quick and deft moves, Clifton’s poem sequence challenges traditional interpretations of the significance of all three of these mythic women.
A famous example in literature of a retelling of the myth of Leda is W.B. Yeats’, “Leda and the Swan.” Particularly in its diction, Yeats’ poem foregrounds the “glory” inherent in Zeus’ coupling with Leda. While the poem’s final question considers Leda’s point-of-view for a moment, the poem derives its authority from the idea of Zeus’ rape of Leda as symbolic.
Clifton’s “leda 1,” seems to almost react against Yeats’ poem. It opens with the lines, “there is nothing luminous / about this,” taking the position that rape is not a figurative act and that to cast it in such a light is a problem. In this poem, we meet a Leda who, in her own voice, describes her life as an outcast since the event. The time period of the poem is years after her encounter with Zeus, but Leda is haunted by it, still “dreaming” in nightmarish fashion of the act and its aftermath. “leda 1” asks readers to reckon with a flesh-and-blood woman, so that we cannot sidestep the psychological damage wrought by rape.
After “leda 1” recounts the story in personal terms, the subsequent poems in the sequence more directly address the cultural implications of myths of women. The images in “leda 2,” for example, conflate Mary’s story with Leda’s, prodding readers to connect Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Ghost with Zeus’ rape of Leda. In “leda 3,” a similar gesture occurs: the images of the first half allude to Eve, linking both women to each other and to the poem’s complex portrayal of heterosexual female desire within a ‘patriarchal’ society.
Beyond turning away from conventional depictions of Leda and her mythic sisters, Clifton’s sequence employs the volta in formal ways suggestive of the sonnet. Each section of the poem might be read as a quasi-sonnet. The poems are shorter than a sonnet’s traditional 14-lines but reminiscent of the form in their succinct, argument-driven structure. More saliently for this discussion, the first and third poems each offer an identifiable “turn.”
Typical of the sonnet, the volta in each of these two poems occurs at the very end. That placement heightens our reaction to the new information introduced. The silence that follows the poem’s closing intensifies our response to whatever in the poem has shifted, allowing us to linger over its implications and lending the “turn” even more significance.
In “leda 1,” profanity is introduced in the final line: “and at night my dreams are full / of the cursing of me / fucking god fucking me.” As accompanies most variance in levels of diction, the insertion of the word “fucking” punctuated by its repetition, dramatically alters the poem’s tone. The volta in “leda 1” transforms the speaker’s attitude toward her lot in life from one of lament to anger.
In “leda 3,” the closing line involves a play on the verb “come” (meaning both “to arrive” and “to orgasm”): “this skin is sick with loneliness. / You want what a man wants / next time come as a man / or don’t come.” As with the checkmate-like move at the end of “leda 1,” the pun introduced here causes the poem to zigzag. A moment prior, the speaker of the poem has seemed to be pining for god, who is depicted at the end of this poem as her lover. But this changes suddenly when she considers his ineptitude as a lover (in narrative terms alluding in a loose sense to his “disguises”—swan, serpent, angel), her feelings becoming mercurial.
The volta in “leda 3” shows how muscular a “turn” can be. With one word, the poem shifts the speaker’s manner from contemplative and wistful to comic, almost sardonic. The new tone introduced cannot be anticipated from what has come before, not in the single poem nor in the sequence. This is why the humor catches us off-guard and why “come,” for all its overuse, is an effective pun in this context. But the “turn” also does not feel arbitrary or capricious, since it expands the characterization of “Leda,” as well as complicates the ideas about women and myth on which the sequence has centered. As a result, even as the pun surprises and amuses us, it does not feel gratuitous but, instead, true. When the volta is well executed, as it is in each of Clifton’s Leda poems, we are able to see a poem suddenly push away from what is comfortable and expected, deepening its engagement with its subject matter and fortifying its own logic.
Originally from Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of four books of poetry: The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems, This Strange Land, Song of Thieves, and The Water Between Us. She has received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry and a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. She lives with her family in Pennsylvania, where she is Director of the Stadler Center for Poetry and Professor of English at Bucknell University.