Ahead of all games, it is a wonderment
that a cache of jewels is not the prize.
Pearls laid round a silken neck
contain a power, erect as a queen’s dignity,
delicate as a flower in bud. They speak
invisible gossips, judging this and that.
One brushes a hand gently over their roundness
and feels sublime exhilaration, comparing
their company to the ascent of the sun.
Wild swain had first to gather them intact
from the deep, where an ink-black ocean
conceals a mystery: that one would not survive
the catch. Tangled in sea’s rockweed is more
than an occupation. It is the trap.
Hemingway’s identification of love with death sometimes feels very heavy-handed. It is true love entails loss. But love and death are each so much more for us. Above, the central line concerns a thrill that is considerably less: “comparing their [pearls’] company to the ascent of the sun.” Pearls are just silly beads; one might be tempted to think that the “sun” could be identified with each pearl. But that cannot be: the owner thinks herself the sun rising, and the pearls are an ornament. That the owner’s esteem would probably shrink if the pearls were gone speaks volumes about the owner’s esteem, not the pearls.
The movement to “the ascent of the sun” is: “dignity,” sexuality/identity (“delicate as a flower in bud”), judgment (“invisible gossips”). The “power” is imagined as a person, then a flower, then something completely invisible. Not really a “power,” but a spell cast over the owner herself. The spell cast comes from a dark myth (“ink-black ocean”), which may be like the tales told by that guy claiming to be a soldier at the bar, the one bragging about his kill count. He may be full of it, but the fact his tales would be appealing to anyone is the real darkness of the story. Lovers descend and sacrifice themselves so one can feel like they’re rising.
Which brings us back to where we begun. “Ahead of all games, it is a wonderment / that a cache of jewels is not the prize.” The appeal of the story underlying pearls is the real “wonderment.” There is a curious lack of dignity, identity, sensuality or even judgment in having or wanting pearls. The pettiness involved is so much a nothingness that it looks like we have revealed something fundamental about human nature. Shouldn’t all of our games reduce to this critique? They don’t: what has been described is “ahead of all games.” What is described in the poem never was truly human; this is the game beyond all games, and therefore entirely divorced from reality.