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On "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" Essay, Research Paper
Barbara E. Brown
Cane’s most dazzling moment of regeneration is enabled by another image of
connection: the tongue. Like roots and curls of smoke, the tongue can be pictured as a
winding line, and it is in this form that it becomes the center of "Her Lips Are
Copper Wire," a poem which must be Cane’s most stunning single piece:
Whisper of yellow globes
Gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
Like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog
And let your breath be moist against me
Like bright beads on yellow globes
Telephone the power-house
That the main wires are insulate
(her words play softly up and down
dewy corridors of billboards)
then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent (p. 54)
This is Toomer’s display of real virtuosity. His control of assonance and
rhythm—in the third and last lines, for instance—produces a poem that is at once
startling and seductive. Like the metaphysical poets, Toomer here transforms a
technological instrument into an image for emotion or eroticism.
At the same time, the image of copper wire lips unites the Northern and Southern
sections of the book, combining technology and sexuality. With the union of North and
South comes the only true possibility for sexual consummation in the book. The
"incandescence" of the poem’s last stanza is the regenerating sexual
union—and perhaps the promise of a black Messiah—that Cane’s narrators
can never achieve. And the union, if it is possible, will be enabled by voice: lips and
tongue. "Then with your tongue remove the tape," the speaker urges, "and
press your lips to mine." If in "Esther" and "Box Seat" the
discovery of voice produced a vision of renewal, in "Her Lips Are Copper Wire"
it provides the renewal itself. The final stanza, then, with its deep eroticism, is a
description of finding voice. Like Barlo and Dan, the poet is listening for a response: he
asks the woman literally to empower his voice by removing the tape which keeps him silent.
Thus the confidence and power of the closing line is as much a display of new-found voice
as an expression of sexual fulfillment.
from "Untroubled Voice: Call-And-Response in Cane" Black
American Literature Forum 16 (Spring 1982), 12-18.
Barbara E. Brown
Cane’s most dazzling moment of regeneration is enabled
by another image of connection: the tongue. Like roots and curls of smoke, the tongue can
be pictured as a winding line, and it is in this form that it becomes the center of
"Her Lips Are Copper Wire," a poem which must be Cane’s most stunning single
piece. . . .
This in Toomer’s display of real virtuosity. His control of assonance and rhythm – in
the third and last lines, for instance – produces a poem that is at once startling and
seductive. Toomer has learned from the Metaphysical poets how to transform a technological
instrument into an image for emotion or eroticism; his sensuous telephone wires owe much
to Donne’s ’stiff twin compasses’. At the same time, the image of copper-wire lips unites
the northern and southern sections of the book, combining technology and sexuality. With
the union of north and south comes the only true possibility of sexual consummation in the
book. The ‘incandescence’ of the poem’s last stanza is the regenerating sexual union – and
perhaps the promise of a black messiah – that Cane’s narrators can never achieve.
And the union, if it is possible, will be enabled by voice: lips and tongue. ‘Then with
your tongue remove the tape’, the speaker urges, ‘and press your lips to mine.’ If in
‘Esther’ and ‘Box Seat’ the discovery of voice produced a vision of renewal, in ‘Her Lips
Are Copper Wire’ it provides the renewal itself The final stanza, then, with its deep
eroticism, is a description of finding voice. Like Barlo and Dan, the poet is listening
for a response, he asks the woman literally to empower his voice by removing the tape
which keeps him silent. Thus the confidence and power of the closing line is as much a
display of new-found voice as an expression of sexual fulfillment.
From "Untroubled Voice: Call and Response in Cane." In Black
Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Copyright ? 1984 by
In "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," the narator as persona is more intimately
involved with the culture and addresses it as an agent providing love and care. Earlier
values now rejected, this poem is a companion piece to "Rhobert" and
"Calling Jesus," and what is important to the speaker is what he sees. He
concentrates on the mechanistic attributes of his object of affection: the gleam of yellow
globes of which she whispers, the instant contact with the "power-house," and
the flashy billboards. Like Rhobert, he welcomes and craves the attentions of the
automaton whose lips he wants pressed to his own until they become as bright and glowing
as hers. The poem satirizes the adoption of the values of the mechanized, industrial
From Jean Toomer: Artist—A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936.
Copyright ? 1984 by The University of North Carolina Press.
"Her Lips Are Copper Wire" . . . is one of two or three poems in the book
that represent Toomer’s earlier imagist period. It is prosodically irregular,
syntactically discontinuous, and devoid of punctuation. The pronoun references shift from
second to third person abruptly and without explanation, and there is a queasy
inconsistency of mood: "telephone the power-house" is almost certainly in the
imperative, but "whisper of yellow globes," the first line of the poem, could be
indicative or imperative. As in many modernist poems, these formal discontinuities are
meant to mimic the jaggedness of modern urban life, in this case the on/off patterns of
the lights on the city signs: "(her words play softly up and down / dewy corridors of
billboards)." Here Toomer is apparently describing the same Seventh Street scene that
appears in "Gum":
J E S U S
The Light of the World
. . .
It Does You Good
Intermittently, their lights flash
Down upon the streets of Washington
In "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," Toomer’s words play up and down in the same
way, flashing on and off with the electrical current that is the gathering metaphor for
the whole poem.
The reconnection of a circuit, the jump of electricity across a gap, is, in fact, a
gathering metaphor for most of this, the second, section of Cane. For much of this
section the sexual tension between the characters crackles across a physical or social
gap. In "Theater" John silently watches Dorris dance while Dorris watches him
watch, until a "shaft of light goes out the window high above him" and somehow
sweeps both of them up into the same dream. In "Box Seat" Dan and Muriel yearn
for one another, but they remain separated by the intrusive Mrs. Pribby, so that
"Muriel’s lips become the flesh-notes of a futile, plaintive longing." In
"Her Lips Are Copper Wire" the restrictions are stripped off and the electricity
then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent
Until this moment of release, "the main wires are insulate," but once that
insulation is stripped off, lips touch, lights light up the city street, and words flow.
The incandescence is not simply sexual because its glow is the glow of words released
from inhibition and restriction. In "Box Seat" Dan is wooed not just by Muriel’s
physical lips but also by "Lips, flesh-notes of a forgotten song. . . ." This
song emerges from the black urban culture of street and theater: "Dark swaying forms
of Negroes are street songs that woo virginal houses." In "Her Lips" these
songs break free and "play softly up and down / dewy corridors of billboards."
The energy is released when it jumps a gap, like a spark, or overcomes resistance, like an
incandescent filament. It almost seems as if the songs require a prior moment of
forgetting or the obstacle of repression so as to release all their energy. And this does
seem to be the way Toomer looks at the relationship between the "forgotten"
songs and their urban re-realizations, as if the discontinuity of modern life were not the
death of an old organic existence but the release of it in a new form.
Thus Toomer defines the form he himself uses in most of the second, urban section of Cane,
where even the prose is choppy and asyntactic: "Stale soggy wood of Washington.
Wedges rust in soggy wood . . . Split it! In two! Again! Shred it! . . the sun." Like
Williams, Toomer uses ellipses to suspend ordinary syntax and to mimic the action of
splitting or breaking indispensable to creation. Out of these breaks in the ordinary,
leaping across them, comes a speech and a poetic, both associated with jazz. It is not
really an accident that the idiom used for jazz improvisation is "tore it down,"
that when the piano player does this in "Bona and Paul," "the picture of
Our Poets hung perilously." Like Cane itself, jazz has an old, rural basis,
but it mobilizes that influence against standard European forms in a way that makes it
seem both simple and complex at once.
If jazz provides a general formal model for this section of Cane, imagism
provides the specific metaphor of electricity. "Her Lips" was written around
1920, before most of the poems in Cane; in fact, it was composed when Toomer was
preparing a response to Richard Aldington’s essay on imagism entitled "The Art of
Poetry." In that essay, which used examples from Pound and H.D., Aldington declared
that a successful imagist poem included "phrases which give me a sudden shock of
illumination . . . . " This is Aldington’s metaphor–not a particularly lively
one–for Pound’s doctrine of the image as "that which presents an intellectual and
emotional complex in an instant of time. . . . It is the presentation of such a ‘complex’
instantaneously which gives that sudden sense of liberation . . . which we experience in
the presence of the greatest works of art." Toomer copied Aldington’s electrical
metaphor into his notebook and literalized it in "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," and
in so doing he puts the doctrine of the image to work in an urban American setting.
From The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature.
Copyright ? 1994 by Michael North.
In "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" desire generated by a kiss is compared to
electrical energy conducted between copper wires, here imaged as lips. The evocative and
sensuous opening lines, addressed to an imaginary lover, well illustrate Pound’s Doctrine
of the Image:
Whisper of yellow globes
gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog
and let your breath be moist against me
like bright heads on yellow globes . . .
from "Jean Toomer as Poet: A Phenomenology of the Spirit." Black American
Literature Forum 21 (Fall 1987), 253-273.
Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr
Using city imagery reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s early poems, Toomer in "Her Lips
Are Copper Wire" again touches on themes of social connection and interchange. Toomer
claimed in his autobiography that he was a (sic)"a natural poet of man’s artifices.
Copper sheets were as marvelous to me as the petals of flowers; the smell of electricity
was as thrilling as the smell of earth after a spring shower." Unlike Eliot, Toomer
does not satirize the mechanical image. The two cities in Cane’s middle
section, the city of law (the insulated wires) and the city of vision, contradict one
another—before vision is achieved, some kind of empathetic connection beyond the law
must be made between human beings. When the lover in the poem asks to have the
"tape" removed from his lips, he asks for the spark that a kiss will create,
that will turn his lips to an "incandescent" glow.
Each of the paired sketches and poems of Cane’s middle section presents
contrasted elements; "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" is intentionally contrasted with
"Calling Jesus." The lovers’ ecstatic meeting in "Copper Wire" is set
against the "scared" isolation of Nora in the sketch.
from Jean Toomer and The Terrors of American History.
Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P.
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