Love poems: not of the eternal horseman, but of the mortal husband. The book begins with “The Other Woman,” and, after a squad of four social poems, returns to the hearth with an album of five love poems.
In “The Other Woman,” the poet knows she cannot rival the ideal woman her husband commands to come, “like a harem wife,” into his novels. The fictitious Other is beautiful, young, immortal, obedient; she does not bind him to “the married state”; she is perfect because she is perfectly shaped by and for his desire. Yet the poet insists at the end of the poem that she has “the better bargain” compared to her rival,
For I imagine she has grown strange
To you among the syntax and sentences
By which you distance her and would exchange
Her speaking part for any of our silences.
This turn in the final quatrain does not convince. The poem offers no reason why the ideal woman would grow strange to the husband, nor evidence that he wishes to distance her or exchange “her speaking part for any of our silences.” “For I imagine” sounds wistful and wishful. “Silences,” which ends the poem, is ominous for the relationship. The implicit comparison between writing novels and poems reverses usual expectations of each genre. If novels written by the husband fantasize about an ideal woman, the poems written by the poet-wife struggle with an actual husband.
In “Cyclist with Cut Branches,” the poet sees a cyclist knocked down on the road, branches of jasmine and hyacinth fallen over him, and sees in him an image of her husband “Like an animal the packs pursue/ To covert in a forest,” and realizes the branches represent decay. The move from pursuit to decay is abrupt. In the last stanza, the poet consoles her husband that, since they, like the branches, have been cut at the flower but not at the root, they “still had lives to live.” The consolation does not seem to follow from the fallen cyclist, who disappears from sight. The poem perhaps should be renamed “Cut Branches with Cyclist.”
The husband is again smashed up in the sonnet “Ready for Flight.” As the crowds disperse “around your heart,” he is discovered to be “trampled/ Underfoot,” his “terraces smashed,” and, in a disturbing phallic image, “the entry/ Into holy places rudely sampled.” The violence against the husband is vividly imagined, whereas the poet’s promise of salvation is given in rather conventional imagery: she would come at once to him like “butterfly and swan and turtle dove,” and carry him to “peace.”
“Prisoners” has the poet seeing the lion first in a zoo, and, after a series of places in growing up, in her husband in their suburban home. The images after the first one never come alive, but the first sighting of the caged lion is dangerous: “as bored as a socialite/ With her morning post, I saw him slit/ A rabbit open like an envelope.”
“The Botanic Gardens” is a more successful poem. Every year the couple returns to the gardens to find something new, and to sense the “terms of reference” for their relationship. These damn writers, a rose is never just a rose. Anyway, trees twined “in peace and stress” represent their sexual union; Corsican pine and guerilla poison plants are the flowers of forced proximity; the “African grotesqueries” of cacti and deformed trees make the husband wonder what they symbolize. The poem has the feel of painting-by-numbers, but I like the Corsican pine, guerilla poison plant, and African grotesqueries.
The best poem of the five is a “Song” of courtship. The lover is pictured as a river that the poet feared would “slip/ By me,” and so she asked him first, and risked the first kiss. They forded the river, the poet holding her skirt high, drops of water splashing her thigh, when the lover, “ahead of me at last,” turned, and claimed
‘Look how the water comes
Boldly to my side;
See the waves attempt
What you have never tried.’
He late that night
Followed the leaping tide.
The last two lines archly and accurately puncture male vanity.
We’ll do this day by day, at the start
we promised each other and ourselves.
Then my stained underwear dropped
in your bag, my books moved to your shelves.
Now, when I remove a book from its place,
Rhyme’s Reason, Snow, or What I Loved,
the other books keep that spinal space
for a second, then fall. And when you shove
the laundry bag to the kitchen, tilt
our clothes into the washer, the bag,
empty of all that daily weight,
to the floor mysteriously sags.