I have affection for masterful use of repetition. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I grew up in a musical and religious household, that I learned early on the power of a chorus to move you on a deeper level of consciousness. Even as I shed the religion of my childhood, I clung to music, trading in devotional tunes for the secular, The King James Bible for Leaves of Grass. I was thinking about this very thing the other day as I sat in Washington Square in San Francisco. I had just visited the Beat Museum and purchased a think paperback copy of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”. I was reading the poem again for the first time in years, noticing more than ever the influence of repetitious Whitman. And now I’m thinking of this moment again as I narrow down my list of topics to analyze regarding Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Her use of repetition as a means to deliver her visual and thematic message is lyrical, worth examination.
In an interview titled, “The Art of Fiction”, Morrison described her work in Song of Solomon as “painterly”. In the first chapter, we can certainly see how the repeated use of color engages us visually in the bizarre suicide that opens the novel and introduces the issue of race. Every page of the first ten pages contains numerous literal (as in “yellow house” (3) ) and figurative (as in “sunshine cake” (10) ) references to the colors red, yellow, and blue. The impact is that it indeed feels like a painting. In her description of the only two patients of the only black doctor in town every admitted to Mercy Hospital, “both white” (5), Morrison begins a repetition of color that will continue throughout the entire novel. The repeated labeling of black and white makes race an issue that the reader can’t ignore.
In her narrative and in the songs included in her narrative, Morrison repeats the ideas and images that are at the heart of her narrative. “O Sugarman done fly away” (6), the rose-petal lady sings as Robert Smith leaps to his death wearing big blue wings. When Milkman experiences transformation in the end of the novel it’s the song of his ancestors that helps him, “Solomon done fly / Solomon done gone / Solomon cut across the sky / Solomon gone home”. Flight and wings are repeated throughout the novel in the songs and in the narrative. Even on a sentence level, Morrison uses parallel structure to “sing” her story, “The women’s hands were empty. No pocketbook, no change purse, no wallet, no keys, no small paper bag, no comb, no handkerchief. They carried nothing” (260). Black, white, gold, mercy, justice, deserve: in passage after passage, Morrison repeats words as a kind of chant below the narrative, deepening the overall impact of the story.
Nowhere is this chanting more evident than in Milkman’s transformation from Macon Dead Jr. to a man overflowing with gratitude for life, as in this scene when he comes home to his lover, Sweet:
“He couldn’t get back to Shalimar fast enough, and when he did
get there, dusty and dirty from the run, he leaped into the car and
drove to Sweet’s house. He almost broke her door down from the
incredible high that had begun as soon as he slammed the Byrd
woman’s door…’I want to swim!’ he shouted. ‘Come on, let’s go
swimming. I’m dirty and I want waaaaaater!’
Sweet smiled and said she’d give him a bath.
‘Bath! You think I’d put myself in that tight little porcelain box? I
need the sea! The whole goddam sea!’ Laughing, hollering, he ran
over to her and picked her up at the knees and ran around the room
with her over his shoulder. ‘The sea! I have to swim in the sea. Don’t
give me no itty bitty teeny tiny tub, girl. In need the whole entire
complete deep blue sea!’” (327).
Alliteration, internal rhyme, and the repetition of swim and sea make this passage like a sermon, moving you with sound and rhythm as much as meaning.
Often I attempt such rhythmic communication in my writing. It’s not easily to pull off consistently. It doesn’t always get the reception you’d want, particularly in a culture of readers who’ve been taught that the repeated occurrence of words in what they write is redundant and who are saturated in punchy, straight-forward prose. Oh, but I love it when a writer lapses into a musical mix of words that elaborate on the moment, that sound good and repeat. Morrison’s Song of Solomon is both painterly and song-like and as we know, painting and song are powerful ways to deliver meaning, to move, if movement is what you’re after.