I shall call this my “fateful” post for The Poetry Project initiated by Regular Rumination and The Written World, for when I opened an old college textbook in search for poems crafted by Pulitzer Prize in Poetry winners (following this month’s prompt for the project), I accidentally discovered Anne Sexton’s “For my Lover, Returning to His Wife” and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”. I read them, thinking and feeling they were written from the perspective of women. From the titles themselves, one can only guess (and be right about it) that the former is about adultery and the latter about multiple lovers.
For My Lover, Returning To His Wife
By Anne Sexton
She is all there.
She was melted carefully down for you
and cast up from your childhood,
cast up from your one hundred favorite aggies.
She has always been there, my darling.
She is, in fact, exquisite.
Fireworks in the dull middle of February
and as real as a cast-iron pot.
Let's face it, I have been momentary.
A luxury. A bright red sloop in the harbor.
My hair rising like smoke from the car window.
Littleneck clams out of season.
She is more than that. She is your have to have,
has grown you your practical your tropical growth.
This is not an experiment. She is all harmony.
She sees to oars and oarlocks for the dinghy,
has placed wild flowers at the window at breakfast,
sat by the potter's wheel at midday,
set forth three children under the moon,
three cherubs drawn by Michelangelo,
done this with her legs spread out
in the terrible months in the chapel.
If you glance up, the children are there
like delicate balloons resting on the ceiling.
She has also carried each one down the hall
after supper, their heads privately bent,
two legs protesting, person to person
her face flushed with a song and their little sleep.
I give you back your heart.
I give you permission—
for the fuse inside her, throbbing
angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her
and the burying of her wound—
for the burying of her small red wound alive—
for the pale flickering flare under her ribs,
for the drunken sailor who waits in her left pulse,
for the mother's knee, for the stockings,
for the garter belt, for the call—
the curious call
when you will burrow in arms and breasts
and tug at the orange ribbon in her hair
and answer the call, the curious call.
She is so naked and singular.
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.
What lips my lips have kissed
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows it boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
To be fair, somehow, Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman” becomes a good explanation, almost like an accusing tribute, of the “burning” power of not love, but of a woman and the dangers she could wield.
I Knew a Woman
By Theodore Roethke
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)
How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)
Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)
Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)
Then I went off to open a borrowed book on Filipino literature in English and again accidentally stumbled on Trinidad Tarrosa-Subido’s “Sonnet to a Gardener: II” about a woman, a cheater, hurrying to answer her lover’s call.
Sonnet to a Gardener: II
By Trinidad Tarrosa-Subido
Cool is the night. There is a tender breeze
Stirring the vine leaves curtaining my room.
Is it the amorous secrets of the trees?
Is it my name it murmurs through the gloom?
The altar-fires gleam fitful in the dusk,
But stars allure me with their lustrous glow;
Fragrance of lilies, rose-released musk--
Such wonders cannot last, and I must go.
Yonder he waits... O whisp’rer of my name,
Tarry a little while! I come, my love.
I come, forsaking prayer and altar-flame
To burn for you my incense in this grove.
Night, call me not a soulless infidel--
Only a pagan worshipping Love too well.
What makes me sad is these poems, though beautifully written, contradict to what I believe love is. My heart went out to Filipino poet Toribian Mano when he said in the first sonnet of his poem, Four Sonnets:
Love have I known as birds have known their skies
In lush of spring and in the summer’s fall;
In a gray field of rain, a sun-drenched wall
I have watched petals fall and new moons rise;
And this I found--that although I am wise
To all the ways of love, I know not all,
But like a child still grope and heed the call
Of magic sunlight dancing in my eyes.
And love is this: a sun that burns and sets,
A kingdom greater than a pile of gold,
Or a name written in fire or flag unfurled,
Or silver stars across vast orbits hurled.
And love is this, too: strength that one begets
By toil, fear, ecstasy the heart can hold.
We all have different beliefs of what love is--beliefs that are oftentimes dictated and reinforced by experience. I found the Sexton’s poem in this post interesting because it is written from the perspective of the mistress willing to let her lover go back to his wife. It immediately reminded me of a taxi ride last Saturday from school to work wherein a disc jockey was hollering the public to give him a call and a piece of advice on a situation involving a wife discovering her husband cheating. Advices involved pressing charges against the husband and/or moving on and focus on her kids. The taxi driver, very young, made a remark about mistresses, from what he has heard, being always strong and persistent and act as if they were the ones rightfully married. I would have liked that taxi driver to read Sexton’s poem and see if he still thinks the same way.
Millay’s poem, on the other hand, reminds me women moving from one relationship to the other or one marriage to the next. The last three lines are simply heartbreaking, as if an animated spirit has been drained out of the woman-voice’s life.
Subido’s poem is strange; it is as if the woman is giddy and excited about cheating and making Love an excuse for her actions.
What do you think about these poems?
- Nancy -
Here is my July post for The Poetry Project. More readings on Philippine Literature here.