Controlling metaphors are often reserved for the realm of poetry, rarely in nonfiction do we speak of such things. It makes sense, too–after all, poetry is known for its density, its scarcity of words. But nonfiction, too, has its moments of controlling metaphor, moments where images take hold of writers, saying, “Use me!”
Debra Marquart, in her brief essay “Hochzeit”–which later appears in her memoir, The Horizontal World–employs an image, the accordion, which gives structure to this economic, finely wrought piece of prose.
Marquart’s German-from-Russia upbringing was marked by dancing, by wedding celebrations, by, as she says, “circles.” From the get-go, the reader knows where she is: she’s at a dance, and the room is swaying, pulsing: “I remember circles–the swirling cuff of my father’s pant leg, the layered hem of my mother’s skirt. A neighbor lady polkas by[.]” This opening establishes the form and function of the piece: saddle up, reader, you’re in for a swinging good time, and you might get a little dizzy from the dancing along the way.
Throughout the piece Marquart takes time to observe and document the dance: the Ray Schmidt Orchestra is playing, young women wear patent leather shoes, chiffon dresses, mothers’ lips are smeared red. We’re in Lawrence Welk country, and the party is just beginning.
Marquart presses the reader deeper into the psyche of the region, meditating on the odd instrument of keys and bellows, manuals and ranks: “[F]ather and son take turns playing the accordion, the bellowing wheeze of notes, the squeeze, the oom-paa-paa.” Not only can the reader see this, the squeezing of the accordion, but we can hear it, too, with Marquart’s precision of language: oom-paa-paa. We learn, too, that the accordion is the instrument in this part of the world, that the son is the “heir apparent to Lawrence Welk,” where Marquart definitely states, “This is polka country.” Not only does the accordion define the structure of this piece, the accordion defines the structure of this region.
We step back from this moment, from the sound of the music, and continue to swirl. We’re with the author–her childhood self–soaking in the wonder and dizzying effects of this evening dancing. “A man who looks like everyone’s Grandpa makes the round with a tray of shot glasses, spinning gold pools of wedding whiskey.” Don’t you just love the humor of that observation, a man who looks like everyone’s Grandpa? And the swirling continues: “three sips for everybody, no matter how small.” Libations help heighten the sensory detail of the rest of the essay.
And then we’re off again, returning to the dance where our narrator is lifted-up, but she’s not sure by whom. “An uncle, an older cousin?” And so she is trot around in circles, lifted in the air, as the accordion pulses; eventually the narrator returned to the old women at the tables. We know the setting is congenial, that we’re among friends, as the oom-paa-paa continues to flow across the dance floor.
The dancing continues. “The music speeds up, the accordion pumping chords like a steam engine.” And now the focus shifts from the narrator to her parents, “the best dancers on the floor.” The scene mimics the pulse of the accordion: “The dance floor flexes and heaves like a trampoline. Women swing by in the arms of their partners. High whoops and yips emit from their ample bosoms. They kick their big, heavy legs and throw back their bouffant.” This is when the metaphor is pressed deepest: We see the room mimic the accordion, we can picture the women, see the men holding tight. We are in the land of the controlling metaphor. Oom-paa-paa.
Before the scene ends we press deeper into the moment, focusing on Marquart’s parents: “My father secures his arm around my mother’s waist. They spin and reel as they polka circles around the room.” The accordion is not only the defining instrument of this region, it is, or so it seems, the vehicle for dancing in the Marquart family. The spinning continues.
In seven brief paragraphs Marquart weaves together the accordion, polka, and dancing like a finely made tapestry. We swirl and spin with her, listening to the bellowing and pulsing of the music as the Hochzeit, the wedding celebration carries on. In nonfiction, like in poetry, there are moments where the skill of a controlling metaphor increases the depth and clarity of scene, this, is seems, is something worth stealing from Marquart.
-Taylor Brorby is a contributing editor at Assay.