Patricians and Peasants

A picture of a statue of a man standing on a globe
Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr

The quotation from John Updike’s Couples—“Every marriage tends to consist of an aristocrat and a peasant”—proved as provocative as I had hoped. So much so that I would like to devote this week and next to my summary and discussion of the entries and commentary that came in.

By one metric—the number of recorded likes—Donald LaBranche’s “Treatise from a Seaside Town” may win this week’s popularity prize. Though the poem does not mention Updike’s line, its relation to it is hard to miss, and “aristocrats of secrets” is a sweet phrase in or out of this context. The poem begins with an epigraph from a Nobel laureate:

Let reality return to our speech.” ––Czeslaw Milosz

What I had come to the ocean to learn
is not what the ocean chose to teach.

As when, up on the boardwalk, with first light
at its most lucid, a young Sister of St. Francis,
shimmering with vocation
shares coffee and a seaward facing bench

with an elegant woman in a bright red hijab.
They seem to me to be aristocrats of secrets.
The sun travels higher and shadows rise and recede

like tidal surf. Their heads are close in
as they attend to each other’s words.
They sip coffee and consider. Voices
of children, seagulls, and barkers are lost to me.

It goes on like this for some time, in recurring
rounds of speech and silence, of hand gestures
in the air as if they seek to maintain a balance
against these waters no one else can see.

The opening is so strong that it could serve as an epigraph to other poems. Hmm. That gives me an idea.

Making the most of the metaphor in her opening line (and the musical form named in her title), Charise Hoge’s “Couples Fugue” has great charm.

Every marriage tends to consist of an aristocrat and a peasant.”––John Updike

In every marriage one is royal while the other is loyal.
One and other rotate periodically around a periodic table
… the royal sits at the head, loyal at the side, until a fugue
starts a round of musical chairs; and this is where they
see eye to eye, watching each other for a cue to stop
the music, as if the royal or the loyal were an impostor,
and a wizened magician composed of the chemistry
that attracted them at first wields a staff that wriggles
like a snake … smack in the middle of their shenanigans.

I like the transformation of staff to snake, an allusion to a wonder Moses performed for the benefit of Pharaoh. Ever the professor (though I retired from my faculty appointment a year ago today!), in line six I changed “was” to “were” as the subjunctive mood demands.

Emily Winakur filed “Meditation at Waimea” from Hawaii:

If death were a peasant,
if death were a pheasant,
I would say death.

I would be driving a bus
down the side of an ancient
volcano, tree roots the length
and width of giants dangling
just there, within reach.

Death is the groom
of this wedding, a snappy
dresser toasting the crowd
while he pops candy
from Donald Duck’s neck.

The bride is dead.
We throw birdseed nonetheless.
And flower petals.
It becomes night.
None of the stars
are where they belong.

There’s a lot to admire here. Michael C. Rush believes that the last stanza could stand alone as a finished poem. He may be right; he’s an astute critic. My own favorite lines are “Death is the groom / of this wedding, a snappy / dresser toasting the crowd,” though if it were my poem, I’d either end the stanza there or conclude it differently.

Sometimes sustained effort can produce something worthy, but often spontaneity wins the day. Of Pamela Joyce S’s multiple entries, I liked “Horse and Carriage” best, which the author tells us she dashed off as a “quick take in a busy week using the words in the aphorism”:

Marriage is a peasant.
It tends itself and survives.

But love, an aristocrat,
consists of every art.

that masterpiece of heart

“Quick, perhaps,” I commented, “but in its favor it has brevity, symmetry, antithesis, a splendid title, and the closing rhyme going for it.” Let me toast Pamela for two moments in particular from her other poems this week: in one of them, “love’s asymmetries,” and in the other, her use of “balabuster” (or “ballabooster”), as great a word as “chutzpah,” “shiksa,” and “bupkes.”

I want to commend Timothy Sandefur for his “Pasiphaë on the Simple Life,” which he calls a “a pseudo-sonnenizio”:

“Come live with me and be my love,” he said.
I didn’t know by “live” he meant abide.
Survive. Exist. For surely it’s not living
to be denied what makes you feel alive—
Aea with its lively salons, art,
music, lights. Here there’s only olive
trees and goats and work the live-long day,
and maids who drive you livid with their tales
of insipid romances of lives
past. I’ve told Minos the Simple I’ve
got to have more, but he lives—
despite his gold and silver and liveried
slaves—an unenlivened life. Dull.
Undelivered. Dead-alive. Unfull.

Timothy adds that a “true sonnenizio would take a line from a sonnet, and I’ve fudged a little by using a line from Marlowe’s famous ballad.” A sonnenizio is a form invented by Kim Addonizio, a superb poet whose work has appeared The Best American Poetry and The Best American Erotic Poems. Kim invented the form by taking the opening line of Michael Drayton’s most famous sonnet, “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part,” and repeating one word from the line in 13 subsequent lines.

I believe Kim will get a kick out of your effort, Timothy, as will Alicia Stallings, who inspired the content just as Kim inspired the form. A few hours after I wrote to Kim, she replied wittily:

“Hah David, thanks for sending that, yes made me smile! The unenlivened life is not worth living … But a ‘true’ sonnenizio has plenty of room for fudging in all its varieties;—

1. foolish nonsense —often used interjectionally to express annoyance, disappointment, or disbelief. 2. a soft creamy candy made typically of sugar, milk, butter, and flavoring. 3. something that is fudged especially; a bending of rules or a compromise.”

And Alicia exclaimed: “Wow! How nifty is that!”

Next week, I’ll be able to comment on, quote, or at the very least refer to poems by Josie, Millicent, Ricky, Herbert, Diana, Clay, Patricia, Michael, and Elizabeth.

Thanks everyone. I wish you all a happy Fourth of July. I’ll be singing “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and will dance down the staircase of FDR’s White House.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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