Diane Ackerman’s poem “On Location in the Loire Valley” was published in her fifth volume of poetry, I Praise My Destroyer (1998). The poem is written in the form of a ghazal, which is a poetic form that has flourished for hundreds of years in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu literature. Most poets who write ghazals in English produce much looser forms than the traditional one, but Ackerman’s “On Location in the Loire Valley” follows the traditional pattern quite closely. The poem appears to tell a story about a company of actors who are making a film on location in the Loire Valley in France. The poem also reflects, in a highly allusive manner, on the nature of human life—its transience, the search for communication, and its unanswerable questions.
The title of the poem, “On Location in the Loire Valley,” suggests that it was prompted by some actors’ experiences during a film-shoot in the Loire valley in France. The first line of the first couplet presents an image of mistletoe hanging in poplar trees. Mistletoe is a parasitic evergreen that grows on certain trees. The mistletoe absorbs water and mineral nutrients from the tree, damaging the tree. Some trees may be killed by an infestation of mistletoe. This is why in the poem the poplars “can’t survive.” The poet may use the phrase “clouds of mistletoe” because the abundance of the plant’s white berries suggests clouds.
The second line of the couplet provides a consolation. The stately poplar trees, although festooned with the mistletoe that will kill them still have a beneficial effect on human life. They create a feeling of enchantment when a person looks at them.
The Loire Valley is known for its many castles built during the medieval and Renaissance eras. Line 1 makes it clear that the film is being shot inside one of these castles. It is winter, the castle is extremely cold, and the actors and film crew are uncomfortable because of it. It feels as if cold steel is passing up their spines.
In line 2, the people in the castle shiver from the cold as they make the film. “Decant” means to pour something from one vessel into another. The actors pour their lives from one vessel (their real, everyday life) into another vessel, that of the film they are making.
In line 1, there is a moment on the movie set when everyone is silent and motionless. Line 2 explains why. The sound engineers have to record what is called in film sound jargon, “room tone.” Room tone is the unique sound that every room has when there is no human activity in it. It may be the hum of a computer, the creaks of furniture, the sound of an air conditioner or furnace, the sounds of traffic from outside. In this case in the castle perhaps it might be sounds from outside, such as the wind. Sound engineers will record at least thirty seconds of “room tone,” which can then be later used in the film-editing process. If, for example, cuts are made in the original soundtrack, room tone can be inserted at that point so that the background sound will remain continuous.
The last sentence of couplet 2, “Soundmen record the silent rant of our lives,” contains an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a figure of speech which combines contradictory terms. Since a “rant” is loud, wildly extravagant speech, it cannot logically be “silent.” Perhaps the poet means that although speech has ceased, the “rant” in which the actors have been engaging (presumably dialogue in a scene from the movie) can still be felt and somehow heard (or sensed) in the silent room.
In this couplet, the speaker of the poem describes his or her experience making the film. The speaker uses the first-person plural “we” to include all the people involved in the film. No precise meaning can be conclusively demonstrated, but perhaps “consort with chance” refers to the ins and outs of the storyline, in which, as in life, chance always plays a part. “Cascade through time” may refer to the actors’ experience of acting in a film that is set in a different time than their own.
In line 2, “each trip” may refer to the different places to which the actors and film crew travel in the course of their filmmaking. To gallivant means to go about in search of amusement or excitement, so the phrase “the gallivant of our...
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