Poems for Valentine’s Day #8

February 14, 2019

Elizabeth Jennings: One Flesh

Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere – it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.

Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do, it is like a confession
Of having little feeling – or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.

Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?

I find this a very sad poem; I can’t decide why: is it because it’s a truthful picture of what the speaker sees as her parents falling out of love, or because the speaker cannot see beyond the superficial?

It’s a strange and difficult situation to put oneself in, thinking of one’s parents as lovers. I used to ask my students to do this, when we were studying a range of love poetry, and the initial reaction was always ‘eeeuw!’ Understandable, of course, but one of the things I wanted them to visualise was the idea that love inevitably changes and evolves over time, and that’s not something easily perceived by teenagers in the first flush of exploring their own emotions and sexuality. Youth can only, and probably should only, understand youthful passion. And depending on your age, reader, you will understand some of this or not…

Lying: in bed, untruth, or both? separate beds = single beds = no sex = no love. One sleeps, the other reads, together yet apart. What a sad picture. Yet, from the third line of the poem, if we read carefully, the poet is no longer merely seeing, but interpreting, fantasising: because they are in separate beds, they are emotionally separated.

It is a slow and reflective poem, the effect created by the line length, stanza length and rhyme scheme as well as the occasional enjambment.

The second stanza seems to start positively cruelly, I feel, with the alliteration of flotsam – suggesting wreckage, debris, rubbish, and former, and the lapidary monosyllables of How cool they lie. This reading of a deeper meaning and significance into something that is only superficial comes to an abrupt halt, however, with the idea that it may not be lack of feeling but too much. We are again faced with something that the poet cannot confirm, but at least she does entertain it, and we are looking at love changing over time, no longer perhaps so reliant on physical and sexual contact to affirm itself, the sense of connection coming more from the years of intimacy on so many different levels: one of those things that it was hard to get teenagers to imagine…

The idea of chastity will horrify a generation just beginning to enjoy the world of sex; one’s whole life is not necessarily just a preparation for that, but for the end of everything… another perhaps gloomy thought that rarely occurs to the immortals.

The poet works slowly and thoughtfully to a resolution in the final stanza, the repeated strangely acknowledging her inability to comprehend. The sounds of the stanza soften, calm, and the image of time itself’s a feather | Touching them gently is a very effective one, recognising the bond and the vulnerability of the couple. The sobering effect of the final old/ cold rhyme perhaps brings us up short, but I think the idea here is as much for the poet herself and her own future, as about her ageing parents. The image of Whose fire from which I came I find peculiarly touching. Here is a poem to make us all think about the nature of love and time.

One Response to “Poems for Valentine’s Day #8”

  1. cooperatoby Says:

    Yes it’s sad. It’s been a very nice series of posts. Thank you, and have great Valentine’s Day, both of you! T

    Liked by 1 person


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