NABOKV-L post 0020615, Fri, 27 Aug 2010 16:56:44 +1200

Subject
Re: PF's "little scissors"
Date
Body
Today I’m sixty-one. Waxwings
Are berry-pecking. A cicada sings.

The little scissors I am holding are
A dazzling synthesis of sun and star.
The scissors are a synthesis of sun and star because they catch the light of the sun, although the dazzling gleam of the sun on the tiny scissors also reflects in a star-like burst of light. But, as Gary Lipon also suggests, Nabokov also plays with the formation of heavier elements in stars. Presumably the scissors are steel, an alloy of iron and, usually, carbon. The elements from carbon to iron are generated by stellar nucleosynthesis through the nuclear fusion in stars with masses much larger than that of our sun, as was proposed in 1954 by astronomer Fred Hoyle ("On Nuclear Reactions occurring in very hot stars: Synthesis of elements from carbon to nickel," Astrophysics Journal 1 (Supplement 1): 121–146). A major review paper in 1957 by E. M. Burbidge, G. R. Burbidge, W. A. Fowler, and Hoyle, "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars," Reviews of Modern Physics 29 (4): 547–650, made the idea widely current. Shade may have learned something from “College astronomer Starover Blue,” mentioned five lines later; Nabokov was certainly keeping up with recent science.
The couplet picks up on the SIcada SIngZ alliteration and syllabic sibilance at the end of the preceding line: SIZZorZ. . . daZZling SIntheZIS of Sun and Star. Notice also the ING pattern from “waxwINGs . . . berry-pickING . . . sINGs” also extended past the line break into “holdING . . . dazzlING” and partially in SINthesis. And the “daZZliNg SyNthesis of SuN.”
Of course the sense matters more than the sound patterns, although these make the couplet more satisfying. Still more satisfying when we note that the scissors catching light off the sun, off elements themselves caught from stars, offers an echo of the Timon of Athens passage from which the title “Pale Fire” derives:
The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun. (4.3.442-44)
The “Waxwings” in the previous couplet have revived memory of the opening couplet, and especially of “the false azure of the windowpane,” another reflective “theft” from the sky, and the clearest referent in Shade’s poem to the context of Shakespeare’s “pale fire.”
The nail scissors provide a segue into the “recollection of Aunt Maud’s death theme” (195-244) and a return to the present and a transition (“And so I pare my nails, and muse, and hear / Your steps upstairs, and all is right, my dear,” 245-46) to the Sybil theme (247-92), which itself provides a transition to the Hazel theme. The nail scissors and nail-paring while idly musing (on the likenesses between fingers and people Shade knows) early in Canto 2 also introduce the coupling of the homeliness of personal grooming and the loftiness of imaginative inspiration that will recur with full force in the composition-and-shaving passage in Canto Four, which itself ends with another “And . . . muse . . . you” transition to Sybil (with the “upstairs” of l. 246 echoed by “You . . . above”):

Dressing in all the rooms, I rhyme and roam
Throughout the house with, in my fist, a comb
Or a shoehorn, which turns into the spoon
I eat my egg with. In the afternoon
You drive me to the library. We dine
At half past six. And that odd muse of mine,
My versipel, is with me everywhere,
In carrel and in car, and in my chair.

And all the time, and all the time, my love,
950 You too are there, beneath the word, above
The syllable, to underscore and stress
The vital rhythm.

“all hangs together—shape and sound, / heather and honey, vessel and content.”

Brian Boyd

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