The Little Queen by Meia Geddes

Reviewed: The Little Queen. Illustrated by Sara Zieve Miller. Publisher: Poetose Press, 2017. Paperback $12.00, 118pp.

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Home // November.6.2017 // George Genovese

A lucid allegory of self-discovery

The Little Queen appears at first sight a simple tale about a young girl who becomes queen after the deaths of her royal parents. Realizing she is alone in a world mysterious to her, the heroine decides to leave her kingdom in search of knowledge of how to be a queen, or even, in her diffidence, of how to trade her role for someone else's whose nature might be clearer to her. Though much of the poetic narrative is like a children's tale in its playful imagery and lucid telling—and one could imagine children enjoying it—there is a use of language and ideas that cannot be simply reduced to children's literature. It tests the serious adult reader's comprehension as much as it would any child's with its elliptical movement and symbolic gyrations, whilst nonetheless remaining a pleasurable tale one can enjoy at face value.

The Little Queen is, broadly speaking, a tale of self-discovery developed in the form of allegory, and it is the manner in which this personal discovery via the queen's interactions with various eccentric interlocutors is obliquely suggested through those encounters that is one of its striking characteristics.

The little queen's first encounter takes place, significantly, in a library described as a “great glass dome of light…illuminated by the pretty print of millions of books,” in which she is welcomed by the scents and “dark cool of the books that embrace her.” There, she meets “the book sniffer,” whose role is to sniff the books in the library to ascertain they smell as they should. Our heroine thinks that a worthy occupation and, in thrall to her lacking sense of self, offers to trade places, but is told that it takes training to be a book sniffer and, as indicated earlier, since what one does is intimately bound up with who one is this is no simple matter.

Whilst the little queen and the book sniffer converse, “the wall sawyer” comes upon them. Her role is to saw spaces in walls, thereby shaping them so that others can have their lives widened by enhancing their ability to breathe freely and traffic through “open hibernacula of space.” In doing so, however, she does recognize the presence of walls as integral to the formation of the right kind of space for the specific type of access their peculiar placement helps to make possible, to which concession the book sniffer amiably affirms that that is in fact the case with “these walls of books.” The wall sawyer acknowledges this with the admission that “they do affect the concentration of air,” meaning perhaps they allow a certain intrinsically valuable flow of progression through them from her point-of-view. The book sniffer has a flash of inspiration and they agree to cooperate to see how their mutual tasks and talents might work together to “determine the perfect confluence of all the scents of the world.”

Out of this unusual encounter, which seems at first bewildering, one will come to see a patterning that develops and amplifies the issues behind the many encounters our heroine has as one pursues the narrative. One might see, for instance, that the library is really a symbolic microcosm, a world, and its nature explicated through a specific attunement to language and, more broadly speaking, art. If one couples the book sniffer's obsessive need for books to smell the right way with the wall sawyer's equally obsessive need to remove obstructions that hinder one's movement through that shared space, then something of the allegorical nature of the work begins to emerge; for what seems to motivate the book sniffer is the imperative to identify the essential traces that reveal the being of her object, books, just as that same drive for essentiality signifies the way in and through which the wall sawyer must compulsively penetrate the presence—or being—of those books. The conflated significance of scents—and there is nothing more personal or earthy than scent—and space alerts us too that this vehicle of language which concerns these characters is not a mere abstraction, but situated concretely in a world in which sensuousness—scent and tactility—indexes an inextricable interplay between language and embodiment.

A later encounter that parallels the above but further develops its implications happens when the little queen sees the outline of a small figure sitting in a tower that reminds her of her erstwhile self, when she was “awaiting the possibility of a miracle.” The figure turns out to be “the seasons painter” who invites her to her studio and where the little queen encounters “an entirely new experience of orange.” This experience is evoked by the “famed canvas of the seasons painter…thick with glistening orange paint” whose layering arrests the queen with “just how much paint could be on a canvas at once and how orange a room could feel.” She tells us too that no one guessed the seasons painter embedded hidden faces in her canvases or that “…within each layer, she also painted herself, a contour of crepuscular sun looking down on things from the left top corner.”

During this meeting the seasons painter is engaged in painting “the creature sweeper” outside her window, a gentle woman who sweeps bugs off paths to spare their being crushed. In between they converse, both a little skeptically of the other's vocation. The seasons painter suggests using a brush instead of a broom and the creature sweeper, ever caring, likes the idea, upon which she accepts one almost as large as her broom. The results are to the creature sweeper's satisfaction and she calls the seasons painter out for a look. The seasons painter is pleased with the creature sweeper's work and even admits to being “swept up...” by it “…in a kind of way.” Whilst the queen looks at them and thinks of how they seem to form something like a painting, the season's painter takes a brush from her pocket and gives it to her with the remark that she “too may find a brush useful at times.”

Both of these characters employ techniques of creation, one with a specific emphasis on layering and the other on effacement, sweeping, to get a desired finish. However, the seasons painter's method is also “self-effacing” inasmuch as she disguises her face beneath the layers of her work. Do we here have a symbolically autobiographical layer to this tale being indexed? Perhaps, but what is sure is that there is an indexing of the self-referential nature of this work—it is an artwork about art and the maker's making. The artist's hidden face alludes to not only the motif of the search for one's latent self, but also—and this is where the allegorical nature of this work and its concern with language takes on a new dimension—affirms art and the meaningful disclosures it makes possible, be it via linguistic, visual, aural, or other means, as nothing less than a kind of self-creation.

So one might say art allows us a means of self-discovery through a praxis of representation, in this case of a narrative order, and this dovetails with what the little queen most desires, for she wants to grasp herself concretely, as if her essence could be plainly visible to herself and others. This of course is in no total sense possible and the hidden self-portraiture of the seasons painter suggests that. Another suggestion, more fundamental, is one implicated with a previously referenced and mysterious character, “the rose petal poet,” one mentioned a number of times whom one expects to encounter but remains invisible throughout the text. She is legendary for her poems written on rose petals, poems so accomplished that people find them essential to living and which she gives away gratis. Interestingly, as the little queen approached the seasons painter's tower she wondered if the visible figure in the window might be that of the fabled poet. The possibility of this initial identification, which turns out to be more of a subtle differentiation, is significant in this context because whilst the seasons painter's appearance in the narrative connects with how a layering and effacement of elements in artistic composition can evoke deeper dimensions of reality via skilful representation, particularly in respect of something as elusive as one's identity, the rose petal poet herself remains an absent figure beyond the bounds of narrative representation but for her recounted reputation and artistic legacy.

One might wonder then if our heroine's perception that the seasons painter and creature sweeper form something of a painting, a picture, announces the incipient realization that she is somehow hidden in the canvas they represent for does she not, now, possess an artist's brush herself ?

Later she wonders whether this shadowy rose petal poet might not be her mother, which is to say the intimately unknown origin of who she truly is; but, not only that, she also begins writing rose petal poems and giving them away in her travels. This identification of herself with the invisible reality of the rose petal poet arrived at in juxtaposition to the seasons painter's mode of subtle if ultimately limited means of representation is a significant step in the little queen's journey for it crystallizes the recognition of her own mysterious non-representational being as her essence—her embraceable otherness. This recognition is driven home when another character, “the text shouter,” encourages her to shout, upon which she discovers the exhilarating, though somewhat terrifying, uniqueness of her individuated voice. She tells us that the echoes of her shouting so enveloped her that it seemed as if “many others” were beside her so that if she failed to make a sound they were there ready “to deliver the next shout.” Out of this experience she “had the frighteningly ecstatic realization that she was there for herself,” which might be to imply that her uniqueness, in this case expressed as an affirmation of one's own voice, inevitably implicates otherness in its singularity, for a recognition of self can only be so because it is no other's.

Before that, however, this intuition of welcome otherness is foreshadowed through her meeting with “the editor of the Digital Dictionary of Sounds” in the graveyard where her dead parents lie. The editor of the Digital Dictionary of Sounds is a character who records and catalogues sounds. She is distinguished by a salient difference, this being her large, conspicuous ears, and whilst it might superficially appear to be a deformity it represents the peculiar gift that enables her to investigate sensorial phenomena in her sonically unique way. Whilst they are engaged in the attempt to determine the sound of a smile they become aware, despite their differing ear sizes, for the queen's are very petite, that they are echoes of all things for each other and fall in love.

If one looks at the many encounters our heroine has as aspects of her evolving self-actualization, and that they all involve some disclosure of identity through its nexus with art, world and the making of meaning, then this encounter signals an acceptance that this nexus also makes possible differentiation—in this case indexed via a bodily characteristic—as that whose revelation can be loved for its no way deficient singularity. At one point the little queen is aware of her inattentiveness to her interlocutor because she becomes captivated by her beautiful brown eyes and smile whereas previously she had only noticed her ears. Thus, she sees through the obvious and begins to see an invisible beauty emerge along with what is invisible in herself—her love. This awareness of the little queen's, who is now an accomplished lover, might be read as affirming that such things as meaning, self-realization and world are most truly discoverable when one allows oneself a love for them, which itself elicits an intimate love of self-and-other. Meaning is as good as meaninglessness if there is not a love for it!

The queen still needs to journey on. They agree that whilst she does so, the editor of the Digital Dictionary of Sounds will serve as caretaker of her palace. During this phase a catastrophic event takes place referred to as “the Happening.” All the characters hitherto encountered are referenced and a recognizable dissociation happens between themselves and the projects they aspire to. Thus “books caved” for the book sniffer, “spaces filled” for the wall sawyer, “song stopped” for “the animal singer,” etc. The Happening was presaged by the enigmatic utterance of a previous character, “the Hummer,” who had said these are “trying times.” It announces a time of existential erosion, pervasive dispersion and semantic occlusion. It is an event in which the predominant actuality approaches something of a chaotic meaninglessness that obscures the inherent beauty and dignity of worldly existence, tearing that world and itself, for meaning and world are one, apart in a blind frenzy. The Happening resonates strongly with our time, a time in which there is an identification of language, world and beings with commoditization, a time of exploitation, alienation and cynicism, whose spirit is one of analytical disseverance glorying in its capacity to tear into the heart of phenomena to manipulate what is appropriable for itself, but which lacks a corresponding creative care to effect a nourishing synthesis out of what it dismantles.

This, however, is not our heroine's reality. She has discovered the binding power of love, for only through love can a self, which is not the same thing as an ego, self -relate through its invisible being to an other's presence which is equally ultimately beyond the limitations of representation—be it disclosed in the form of one's own kind, an animal, plant, mountain, rock or, in a word—world. She has arrived at something the wall sawyer had earlier suggested in her “loving animosity” towards walls, “‘You must pay attention to your obsessions, where life and love intersect…'”

It is with a sense of urgency and mission therefore she returns to her beloved editor of the Digital Dictionary of Sounds after the Happening. Their ensuing marriage is symbolic of what perhaps only love can achieve: the simultaneous identification and differentiation of self and other in their mutually invisible otherness and integrity. We see how far our heroine has come because she returns to her palace with an uncharacteristic levity to find her lover languishing with a jar of tears in just the way she had done before her adventures. The reuniting of these lovers is a transformative moment and the restoration to vigor of the editor of the Digital Dictionary of Sounds ushers in their determination, along with the other characters that have made their way to the little queen's palace, to work towards a community devoted to the healing of their world.

This final phase in which textual and artistic signification are metaphorically concretized as inhabitable regions and things of the world, exhaustively rendered in a poetic fusion of bodily senses with tokens of semantic sense per se has some of the loveliest imagery in the work. The characters' care for earthly existence and the language via which their unique essences echo each other not only tells us what language makes of our world, as it inevitably and most often unconsciously does, but also that the stance we take towards the world impels us to a care of the kind of language we devote to it in our orientations, an example of that possibility being the way in which the final movement of this tale is so lovingly and eloquently rendered.

The Little Queen is an accomplished work sensitive to the complexities of the aesthetic venture and the art of living, at once generous to its readers whilst, one could imagine, appearing immediately assimilable or even naïve to those who might not suspect its considerable depth and richness.


Banner graphic source: Photo (detail) of a 19th-century oil painting ("A Fairy Tale; 'All seemed to sleep, the timid hare on form - Scott'") by Arthur Wardle. In the public domain. This version taken from Wikimedia.

See also: [NERObooks homepage] [Meia Geddes' homepage] [tag:fiction] [an excerpt from The Little Queen]

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