It's hard to see ourselves as others see us, but my own guess is that I've likely taken more hits through life for not being a prude, than for being one. In the Calvinist world in which I've lived, one measure of godliness, it seems, is not dwelling on the disgusting--like, well, sex. Last night at an awards thing for student writers, I asked a student to read a short narrative he'd written, and, as he came up, he said something to the effect of "you would have me read something with sex in it." To which I replied, "Hey, I'm an English teacher." The students assembled thought that was a great joke.
Which is to say, I guess, lots of lit won't let sex alone. Or maybe it's just lit teachers.
Perhaps that generalization explains why I really like this poem. Honestly, I shouldn't; after all, I'm an English teacher, and the poem is about abstinance, about, well, unsex. It's a poem about the fragile beauty of virginity; but, I swear, it's not Puritanical. I honestly think the poet has actually homesteaded on some new ground here.
It's another poem by Laure-Ann Bosselaar, who I've been reading. Last time I posted one of her poems, I thought it was illegal. She actually left a note for me, appreciative--read it yourself (I have no idea how she found me). Anyway, her approval means no lawsuits are coming around the corner, so here we go again.
Bench in Aix-en-Provence
There they are again, the lovers
clothes, hair, hands--
having their lunch-break
on the same beige bench
--in the jabbering street,
pigeons nodding at their feet--
under a paltry plane tree.
They simply sit there, not saying a word.
I'm not sure what a "paltry plane tree" is, but you get the picture: bland and ordinary and colorless, but lovers nonetheless, AND, most importantly therefore, sufficient stimulation to catch and hold the eye of the writer. After all, she doesn't turn away--for days.
For days now, I've watched them
--from a narrow window
on the Rue Marceau--
place a single napkin on their knees,
a coffee cup on her side, a beer-can on his
--each at the exact same
distance from their hips--
and don't drink or eat,
but simply sit there, not saying a word.
More ordinariness in the picture--always the same. The French makes me think of Paris, but Ms. Bosselaar is Belgian. Don't know where it's set, but language makes an American think of the city of love anyway. But then, they're in love. They're lovers, ritual lovers.
There is such resilience in how they sit
--hands, knees, feet
in the way they stare at pigeons
or at the clouds moving in like frayed sheets
--and smile at the same things
or the same time--
that I know they haven't had it yet, sex.
Now we've arrived. I'm an English teacher, and the poet, like all of us, is drawn inescapably toward coupling--or so our students seem to believe. But note the sudden admiration here--resilience is such a kind word. My baser instincts tease me into believing that "frayed sheets" has some unseemly suggestions, but just let's not go there right now. This silent and sweet couple's ritual joys offer them--and the poet and us--an abundance of happiness. Amazingly, these days, they've not yet bedded; and the poet appreciates they're unsullied devotion. Read on.
And I find myself hoping
--as I close the window
on them, on noon, on Aix,
that they'll wait before spending
their lunch break having it: sex
--calling it making love but too soon
calling it anything but that--
instead of coming back to their bench at noon,
to simply sit there, not saying a word.
Isn't that wonderful? I don't think for a minute it's Puritanical. But if beauty, really, is in the eye of the beholder, then the story here belongs to the poet anyway, or, as English teachers like to say, the narrator or story-teller, for who knows what fiction Ms. Bosselaar is creating? That they are presently holding the line is dear--so the narrator claims, at least in her eyes.
When it comes right down to it, in one short poem Ms. Bosselaar redeems English teachers from their cursed reputation because the poem, in a way, is a lament, a lament for what is, without a doubt, about to happen. She knows, as do the rest of us, that they will get there--to bed, I mean. But just for the moment (or so sayeth this reader) the poet herself wants time to stop, to hold back those wretched hands of time, which is itself an ancient poetic theme. Shoot, it's not just a poetic theme, it's a handy human desire. "Can't I just take some joy in the present here? Must this life and me get old? Where have all the flowers gone, anyway?"
Don't we all wish we didn't hear time's winged chariot? Don't we wish we could hold our arms up, Joshua-like, and keep the earth from turning, or simply return to some child-like time in our lives, when things weren't so blamed complex and we didn't feel heavy-burdened with care?
Just for a moment, let me take some joy in your devotion, the poet says to this ritually silent, loving couple. Just for a moment, sit still and let me be thrilled. Just for a moment, hold off--not because you've sworn off the next step but because there are these moments we all wish forever not to end.
So don't do it, the poet says. Come back tomorrow again, please, for my sake?
I like it. But then, maybe I'm more a prude than I'd like to think.
Laure-Anne Bosselaar. Small Gods of Grief. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd. 2001.