Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1735
The first thing to note about “The Alchemy of Day” is that it is an English translation of a French original. Because of this, and because critics note that Hébert’s poetry, like much of modern French poetry, is notably difficult to translate into English, one can best understand the poem by focusing on the conceptual meaning of the lines, as opposed to placing undue importance on single words, which may not be what the author intended.
The first line starts out with an address to an unnamed “you” character. The speaker in the poem tells this character: “Let no girl wait on you on that day when you bind your wild / wounds, bloody beast, to the black pine’s low branches.” Already, the poet has invoked the “day” from the title, but as of yet, one does not know what this day is. The “wild wounds” of the “bloody beast” invokes images of nature, as does the image of the tree, but it is still too early in the poem to know who the “you” character is, or whether this character is supposed to symbolize anything. The fact that the character is wounded and bloody immediately sets the mood for the poem. Whoever or whatever the “you” is referring to is obviously injured, so the poem begins on a sorrowful note. The second stanza introduces two sets of girls, one “around the rusty fire” and one “with violet hearts.” At this point, it is safe to assume that Hébert is speaking symbolically, since normal, human girls do not have “violet hearts.” Yet it is still too early to know who these girls are.
In the third stanza, the poet notes that “All seven of them will appear in your room carrying blue pities in / quiet amphorae hoisted on their hair.” Seven is a very spiritual number, which is found in many religions. At this point, one could guess that the number seven might have some sort of spiritual importance in the poem, too. Indeed, these seven girls are “carrying blue pities” in “amphorae,” a type of Grecian urn. Seven girls bringing flowers to the wounded “beast” invokes an image of compassion. But the description of the vases as “quiet” is curious. Generally speaking, when a poet uses an adjective such as “quiet” to describe an inanimate object such as a vase—which is not capable of making noise—it is a clue from the poet. Again, at this point, not enough is known to determine what the importance of this word might be. In the fourth stanza, the poet continues her description of the seven girls, who “slide along the thread of their mauve shadows” in a “quiet” procession that takes place “along the four winds of your walls.” The image of sliding along a shadow implies something that is hidden, as does the reference to the “back” of flames that are “underwater.” Again, the poet uses the word “quiet,” which makes sense when examined along with the hidden imagery. Noise is not hidden, but silence implies that sound is hidden. The four winds reference finally identifies the bloody “beast,” which is Nature, or Earth, itself.
The next stanza begins by telling Nature not to “warn the girls with green felt feet cut out of antique rugs / reserved for the slow unrolling of sacred sorrows.” At this point, one can guess that, if the beast is Nature, then the girls must be agents of Nature, either mythological beings such nymphs or various aspects of nature. The reference to the “green felt feet” suggests the latter. The girls’ feet are made of grass, which is used to unroll “sacred sorrows.” Here, the poem reinforces the sorrowful mood from the first stanza, and goes on to include more grass references: “soft meadow / mowed by the sun, silent and thick grass without the cry’s stark / space.” Hébert again describes a non-speaking object, the grass, as “silent,” which is contrasted in the same line with “the cry’s stark / space.” This is the first reference to a sound, which suggests that, since the poem has been silent up until now, the “alchemy,” or transformation, mentioned in the title may have something to do with sound. Indeed, in the next stanza, the poet talks about “the hidden strong vibration of an underground love,” which she compares to the “song” of a passionate sea. The hidden vibrations and song indicate that a transformation is starting to take place.
In the seventh stanza, the poem makes another shift in action. Up until now, the seven girls have been largely inanimate, having only the power to “appear” or “slide.” But in this stanza, the action gets more direct. “The first girl alerted will gather her sisters one by one and tell / them softly about the wounded love moored in the leaves of your / open veins.” This first girl suddenly is able to speak, although softly, and she tells her sisters about the “wounded love,” a reference to Nature’s wounds from the first stanza. In the eighth stanza, the poet says that “The darkest of those appointed sisters” will bring Nature “balsam,” or a healing balm, which has “blossomed out of” various negative sources, including “bitter hearts” and “old desecrated cellars.” These words invoke images of sorrow and despair, as does the phrase in the next stanza, where the slowest sister “will remake her face with burnt tears.” But while this sounds negative, the second part of this stanza notes that these tears are “like a / lovely stone brought to light by patient and precise excavations.” So, just as the balsam, a positive healing element, blossomed out of a negative image, the same is true here. In addition, the reference to bringing something to light refers back to the previous stanzas, where the sisters were hidden in shadow. Again, some sort of transformation is taking place.
The tenth stanza continues talking about the slowest sister, who has a “girl of salt” bring Nature baskets from the girl’s harvest. At the same time, Nature’s tears are weighed, another reference to sadness, especially when they are coupled with the image of “a sinking garden.” In the next stanza, Hébert invokes an image of Veronica, the legendary woman who wiped Jesus’ face on the way to Calvary, and whose cloth was said to contain Jesus’ image. One may ask at this point if the poem is meant to be religious in nature. The direct reference seems to imply so, at least at first. But the poet continues with her nature imagery, even within this reference to Jesus, talking about “large pine sheets” and “water.” Also, the poet does not linger on the image of Jesus so one can assume that the reference to Jesus’ “tortured face,” is merely an example to juxtapose next to the tortured body of Nature. In the next stanza, the poet introduces a “feverish girl” who is also in pain, “stuck with brass thorns,” and who “hurries now that night, / risen to its full height, stirs its ripe palms like black sunflowers.” As the next stanza notes, soon night will cover Nature “like a living / oyster where death meditates.” At this point, if one reviews the poem, it is clear that up until this stanza, Hébert has been discussing the natural transformation of day to night.
At this point, however, in stanza fourteen, the poem changes, speeds up, as the poet gets more animated in her addresses to Nature, and gives two descriptions of Nature, both of which invoke the idea of Jesus again. When Nature’s face is “hoisted on / the masts of the four seasons,” the poet seems to reference Jesus on the cross. Likewise, when Nature is “grating with sand, annointed with pure oils,” and “naked,” it also invokes an image of Christ before his death on the cross. This powerful image of death, however, is balanced by the promise of resurrection or rebirth, as Jesus is resurrected. Beginning with the next stanza, stanza sixteen, the poet gives several warnings to nature: “Beware of the silent coming of chalk compassions with faces of / mixed clays.” The reference to silence reinforces the other silent references in the poem, and the idea of “chalk compassions” implies a false compassion that is dry as chalk. In stanza seventeen, the poet tells Nature to “let the world rush out bound to the / world like an arrow to its arc.” As with some of the previous passages, this stanza implies action, and in the case of the world being “bound to the / world,” it implies a sense of order. In stanza eighteen, the poet talks about “the altered gift,” whose “strange alchemy” is going to “ripen.”
This seems confusing until one looks at stanza nineteen, which instructs Nature to “Utter wild things in the sun, name everything facing the tumult / of the great crumbling and irritated dead.” Since Hébert states in the preface to Mystere de la Parole that she wanted to inspire other Quebec residents to define a new, more specific language for their culture, this makes sense. The process of naming things becomes one of identity, and also creation, an idea that is illustrated with the example of a natural daily cycle of life and death. The last few stanzas demonstrate the difference between the beginning of the poem, in which Nature is subdued and wounded, and the ending. In stanza twenty, “The walls of broken blue glass break like circles of water in the sea.” The breaking image, again, implies action, and the fact that walls are breaking is a sign of freedom. In stanza twenty-one, the poet notes that the “heart’s very center designs its own supple fence.” In other words, in place of the blue glass walls of rigid language that have been restricting Hébert and other residents of Quebec, she instead advocates a “supple fence” that is born out of their passion, which is symbolized by the heart. The final stanza indicates that, when day rises again, it does so “in words like huge poppies / exploding on their stems.” Hébert’s intent is clear. She wishes to go from the cultural silence in the beginning of the poem, from the hidden culture that her people currently live with, to one that is designed by passion, and which explodes in vital, blossoming words.