Thursday, January 23, 2014

The adhesive that keeps people bonded to one another lies in those unspoken agreements that we all enter into, beginning with the glance or the nod that signifies who makes the first move in courtship.

Rita Dove is the master of deceptive simplicity. Like both Becket and Matisse, she paints a complete picture using the sparest of ingredients.

In "Courtship 1." the reader sees the man's initial prowling the boulevard, waiting for that one woman who will awaken a spark within him: "someone to trot out the stars". There is a Fred and Ginger tug and shove that reminds the reader of their own young moments of courtship, the innuendo, the game, the pronouncements of virtue that never last as long as intended. When he reaches for the pleats in her skirt and sighs, we hear his anticipation as she toys with him. But he's "King of the Crawfish" and he taunts her with his music laden bravado.

In "Courtship 2." the reader must ask who has won the prize. When he "wraps the yellow silk still warm from his throat around her shoulders" it is as if in that moment where she relents and lets him adorn her, he is affixing to her his first place ribbon. Here, it is he who has won the prize. Yet one stanza later, he must ask himself as he stands before her father, if he has sold his soul for a song. Was he really ready for settling down? "His heart fluttering shut then slowly opening" indicates his vacillation, like a runner stalled after the gun has gone off. How many men wonder if they are ready to run that race when all the hurdles are so well worn, so known by all? How many men run that race because without all those hurdles, they will be wholly alone and alone is a fate with more drawbacks than your average marriage.

As Thomas and Beulah continue on in their relationship, we see the subtext of each spouse begin to change. The man is now inside his mandolin. The honeymoon period is still alive and well but is he beginning to feel safer inside his music than he feels inside his wife? And Beulah turns her back on him after their amorous interlude because there is no other way "to shut him up". They're still riding the same raft, but the poetry here speaks to the unspoken agreement that underwrites the relationship: we're stuck with each other, for better or worse.

Thomas waits, "with a scream caught in his throat" for the inevitable. This is the price he knew he would end up having to pay back when he wrapped that yellow silk about her shoulders, but what he leaves locked up in his throat is his sense that he could be somewhere else and be happier.

The beauty of Dove's work is her brutal display of honest humanity. How many marriages are ties we lean on in resentment? When do we feel most alive, in the moments when we feel we've been given a reprieve, or when we rush home to the comfort we so often take for granted?

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