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One Flesh

September 6, 2017

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?

Elizabeth Jennings, 1966

COMMENTARY: When Elizabeth Jennings published her first book of poems in 1953, the critic Robert Conquest lumped her in with a group of British poets that he called “The Movement.” Made up of Jennings, Phillip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thom Gunn, “The Movement” poets rejected the freewheeling style and obscure themes of modernism in favor of a poetry that used rhyme and meter, simple language, and everyday subject matter. Though certain critics accused the The Movement of superficiality, they were capable of a clarity and emotional distillation that made up for any lack of complexity.

In this regard, though the ending of “One Flesh” is naive, the poem makes up for it by the technical ease of the music and the intelligence of the metaphors. “Flotsam from a former passion” and “Silence between them like a thread to hold/ And not wind in” are striking and memorable comparisons for the separation-in-togetherness that defines the old couple’s boring and apathetic partnership. I also like “Chastity faces them, a destination/ For which their whole lives were a preparation” and “They hardly ever touch/ Or if they do it is like a confession/ Of having little feeling–or too much”–a sharp lamentation for the disappointment and diminishment that often seems on the opposite horizon of so much romantic hope.

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From → Elegies, Love Poems

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