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Monday’s Poem: ‘The Date,’ by Monica Ferrell

This time we’ll come gloved & blind-
folded, we’ll arrive on time.

With bees in our hair,
with an escort of expiring swans.

We’ll appear to out-of-date & out-of-tune
violin music, we’ll lie on our side.

Wearing rotting lotus behind our ears,
musk between our thighs.

This time we’ll be tied down.
We’ll cry out.

We’ll only smoke if surprised
by tragedy’s approach, as it noses closer.

This time we’ll fall in love
with the blood color

of the sunset as we’re walking home
over the bridge that takes us

between here & there.
This time we’ll forget

how ancient Sarmatian lions go on
bearing marble messages for no one

who can understand their sarcophagus language,
forget sloths who climb so slow

they die before mating.
We’ll grow improvident & stop believing

there was ever such a thing
as alone, such a hard

nail in the coffin
for one.
© by Monica Ferrell. Printed by permission of the author.


Monica Ferrell
is the author of a collection of poems, Beasts for the Chase, which won the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and was published by Sarabande Books, as well as of a novel, The Answer Is Always Yes (The Dial Press/Random House), which was named a Borders Original Voices Selection and one of Booklist’s Top Ten Debut Novels of 2008.  Her poems have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, Tin House, Slate, and many other journals and anthologies.  A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and “Discovery”/ The Nation prizewinner, she directs the creative writing program at Purchase College and lives in Brooklyn.

The Chronicle’s poetry blogger, Lisa Russ Spaar notes:  “I like a look of Agony,” Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Because I know it’s true – / Men do not sham Convulsion, / Nor simulate, a Throe – .”  I think of these lines, betraying my own mild agony, I suppose, as I trawl the greeting card aisle of a local drugstore, looking for Valentine cards (there has to be something between the saccharine puppies and the thong-clad cupids draped suggestively over cases of beer) to send to my grown children and my nieces and nephews.   The fluorescent-lit, dropped ceiling above is hung with pre-cut hearts and the row itself, tucked between aisles of cold remedies and foot treatments, is festooned with red crape-paper ribbons and flanked by an eye-wincingly pink and red display of cards, whose messages of affection are dross.  Where is the Valentine that rings true?

I find myself fantasizing about another kind of missive printed with real love poetry—poems that confront what is difficult, transgressive, jealous, obsessive, and unconventional in matters of the heart.  Imagine, for instance, opening a folded piece of cardstock and finding inside this homerotic excerpt from Cavafy’s “The Bandaged Shoulder” (trans. Don Paterson):

. . . to be honest – I liked looking at the blood.
That blood. It was all part of my love.

When he left, I found a strip torn from the bandage
under his chair, a rag I should have thrown
straight in the trash – but I picked up and raised it to my lips,
and kept there a long while:
his blood on my lips, O my love, my love’s blood.

 

Or this passage from Dickinson’s “If I may have it, when it’s dead,” with its dark whiff of necrophilia and wild possessiveness:

Think of it Lover!  I and Thee
Permitted – face to face to be –
After a Life – a Death – we’ll say –
For Death was That –
And This – is Thee –  .

 

 

There’s an appeal to the ungenerous love poem, one which doesn’t let its addressee off the hook, perhaps because, as Dickinson says, such expression rings true.  When Keats writes

 

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would[st] wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

 

we believe that he means what he says:  If I were dead, you would feel so bad that you didn’t love me while you could.  So love me.  Now.

Monica Ferrell’s “The Date” is such a love poem, playing naughtily, at least at first, in a decadent kind of Djuna Barnes-meets-Cindy Sherman way, with the patent expectations and artifice of dating/mating rituals and the fetishizing of coupledom.  Her couplets, smartly enjambed, and her use of a conflated present/future tense keep any notion of a credible fairy tale romance/happy ending precarious even as she indulges in arrestingly gothic, extravagant scenarios:

 

This time we’ll come gloved & blind-
folded, we’ll arrive on time.

With bees in our hair,
with an escort of expiring swans.

We’ll appear to out-of-date & out-of-tune
violin music, we’ll lie on our side.

Wearing rotting lotus behind our ears,
musk between our thighs.

 

Just as the speaker urges a kind of abandonment to hedonistic desire, with hints of bondage as freedom,

 

This time we’ll be tied down.
We’ll cry out,

 

a sense of foreboding is also present in this erotic tableaux, so that even the expected post-coital cigarette (“We’ll only smoke if surprised / by tragedy’s approach, as it noses closer”) must be confronted both as cliché and as the inevitable heeding of a certain impending demise.  “This time we’ll fall in love,” the speaker says, a sentiment Ferrell immediately, expertly enjambs and complicates “with the blood color // of the sunset as we’re walking home / over the bridge that takes us // between here & there.”

Although she knows where things are heading, Ferrell’s speaker can’t help but linger a moment on the bridge, and with “This time we’ll forget” she moves into a Keatsian “More happy love! more happy, happy love!” passage, in which “ancient Sarmatian lions go on / bearing marble messages for no one” and “sloths . . . climb so slow / they die before mating.”  As the lines telescope and abbreviate, however, the reader senses the dissolution of the artificial coupling of “the date” and the contraction of the poem’s indulgences until the poem brings us to a line of monometer and the ultimate solitude that is the real truth of the poem:

 

We’ll grow improvident & stop believing

there was ever such a thing
as alone, such a hard

nail in the coffin
for one.

 

Ferrell’s “The Date,” then, is deliberately “out-of-date”—with its readers’ expectations of romance, with its own story.  Obsessed with time (“this time,” “on time”), the poem insists on the significance of “date” in all of its implications—a particular day, a special occasion, an anniversary of a beginning or an ending, something we come to blind or with hyper-awareness, even date as fruit, with its attendant connotations of first fruits, carnal knowledge, and the fall from paradise.  And the poem does so even as it “stops believing” in its own fiction of its lavish, improvident belief “that there was ever such a thing / as alone.”  Now that’s a different kind of valentine.

 

 

(Photograph by Alexander C. Kafka)

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