In “February,” James Schuyler depicts a struggle central to his poetics: the struggle between language and perception, between what language makes of what is there, and what is really there. Another way to describe this struggle: between seeing and knowing. Schuyler seeks to return us to the difficulty of seeing what lies before us, to nuanced perception, without recourse to easy words or prior knowledge.
This struggle is already apparent in lines 2-4:
The sun, I can’t see
making a bit of pink
I can’t quite see in the blue.
With that comma, Schuyler interrupts what would have made short work of this skyscape. What he could have said: “The sun makes a bit of pink in the blue sky.” But instead he exposes what such language would have suppressed: that, while he knows the sun is there, he doesn’t actually see it; that however the sun is pinking the sky, it’s more subtle than the phrase “a bit of pink” would suggest.
That Schuyler wishes to help us see beyond the easily named is underscored by the date: “the day before March 1” which could be either Feb. 28 or 29, depending on the year. We’re being clued in that we’re entering a space where the systems we use to tame experience—be it the calendar or language—no longer fulfill that straight-forward function.
In the next two lines, Schuyler offers a failed simile and continues his exposé of language’s limited ability to represent by comparison: “The green of the tulip stems and leaves / like something I can’t remember.” Not able to summon the second term of the simile, Schuyler instead drifts into the memory behind the failed comparison:
. . . finding a jack-in-the-pulpit
a long time ago and far away.
Why it was December then
and the sun was on the sea
by the temples we’d gone to see.
One green wave moved in the violet sea
like the UN Building on big evenings,
green and wet
while the sky turns violet.
These 9 lines are a digression from the present of the poem, followed to figure out what, exactly, the the tulip’s green was like: it was like a “green wave” in a “violet sea” which, in turn was like the green (?) of the UN building on big nights. You see the difficulties here: The green of the tulip steam is like the green of a wave Schuyler had seen, which in turn was like the “green” of the UN Building. The point of a simile is to make a description more vivid. I think it’s fair to say that, in this case, we are no clearer, or if anything, less clear on what sort of green Schuyler might mean. The green wave is from a personal memory, at an undisclosed location. There’s no way a reader can know what that green is. And the UN building isn’t green at all, but reflective:
We’re still no clearer on what green he has in mind. (Also notice the secondary simile, equally unhelpful: the violet of the sea was like the violet of the sky).
Schuyler completes the memory with another simile:
A few almond trees
had a few flowers, like a few snowflakes
out of the blue looking pink in the light.
I love how he uses the expression “out of the blue” in an almost literal way. He also gives us more difficult-to-picture blue-as-pink! But this is not a flaw: Schuyler is simply demonstrating the complex reality behind the most basic words and the ways we use them. Schuyler then returns us to the present (and present tense):
A gray hush
in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue
into the sky. They’re just
going over the hill.
This is almost the reverse of JS’s process so far: first he describes what he actually sees—trucks going “into the sky”—then corrects his perception with the knowledge that they’re merely going over the hill. Schuyler takes final shot at describing the green of the tulips’ leaves:
The green leaves of the tulips on my desk
like grass light on flesh,
and a green-copper steeple
and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.
Her he employs another bizarre simile—“like grass light on flesh”—then describes more of what he presumably sees out his window: more green (in the steeple) and glowing clouds.
The word “like” appears seven times in this poem—each time, it seems, only to initiate a failed simile. It makes its final appearance in the last line: “It’s a day like any other.” This raises the stakes on the difficulty/insight poem confronts at every turn: that while our words compel us to speak in hazy approximations, reducing things to mere “likeness,” our experience tells a different—perhaps untellable—story: that no moment is ever like any other.