Eavesdropping on Donne
It's past three -- lazy afternoon light. Beside me a young couple is sharing a sandwich. "It's all yours," she says, then reaches across the table for another bite, craning her neck, licking her fingers when she's done. She's tan with hair the color of burnished walnut piled on top of her head, an artfully kinky mess. Her off-the-shoulder sweater, open-weave, looks natural on her as a net on a mermaid, neutral like the rest of her shades as if she's freshly clothed in a field. She's small like him, privileged I suppose, since they have this Monday afternoon off to lounge in a West Village café (but then so do I); they are the perfect couple.
Then they are fighting. I'm not sure what's happened. She's angry at him: "You always..." then something I can't make out. He seems undisturbed, which means what, he doesn't love her? Or it doesn't matter.
I look out the window of the café. I've chosen it because its name means home in the language of a country where I once fell in love. Of course I'm far from home.
She recovers and starts telling him about an assignment, a poem she's analyzing. She's in school, then, younger than I would have thought. She pulls out a typed copy, with numbers next to every line; it's Donne, "Elegie: Going to bed." I remember the poem from my own years in school. She begins to read to him, pronouncing each word as if it were delicious. I remember mostly the joke at the end, how, after Donne's described a total striptease, he reveals the situation:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then,
what needst thou have more covering than a man?
i.e., she hasn't taken off a stitch, and he's lying there naked.
But I'd forgotten the racy felicities that come before:
Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th' hill's shadow steals.
The couple pauses to relish Renaissance innuendo; she mentions how die used to mean come. The word's not in this poem, though, Donne's all life here:
Off with your wiry coronet, and show
The hairy diadems which on you do grow.
Off with your hose and shoes; then softly tread
In this love's hallow'd temple, this soft bed.
He stops her to make out "hairy diadems." Have I misheard? I wonder how long they've been together. They're as outwardly similar as an old couple that's grown together over time. And yet something is new with them, some unfathomed depth or tension. A few lines later, they explicate these and those:
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite;
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Then she's on to the part that really catches me, that I wish she'd read again, and more slowly:
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America, my Newfoundland...
First, there's the wonderful choreography of those hands, their suggested path across a body of infinite possibility. Then he invokes that land that meant nothing to him, which he never saw, but where we live -- and I want her to read that section again, and more slowly, and as if she believed in it -- as if she believed that her body could be America...
But they're arguing again. "I'm telling you my idea, and you're changing it already," she says. "I've read this poem more times than you." He apologizes. What's he in school for? Poli sci, pre-med, philosophy. He's cleverer than her, or at least he thinks so. He's faster, anyway. She knows it and she minds; she wants to be equal. Maybe it doesn't matter much to him.
Apropos these lines,
Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta's ball cast in men's views;
That, when a fool's eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul might court that, not them.
Like pictures, or like books' gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus array'd.
She tells him the myth of Atalanta, the golden balls Melanion threw to win her. She doesn't tell him how later Atalanta and Melanion, for indulging their lust in a temple, were turned into lions, a species the Greeks believed could not mate with its own kind. She doesn't picture for him Atalanta and Melanion prowling the land side by side, their big paws clawing dirt hungrily.
They talk about gender inversion; I hear the word "feminization"; they connect these lines to the later lines
As liberally, as to a Midwife shew
"That midwife image is strange," he says. They elaborate their theory of Donne's shapeshifting. "I think she may not be even in the room," she says.
It doesn't make sense to me. Of course she's not in the room: she's long since crumbled to dust, as all her lovers of the era were so fond of reminding her (they have too, as they less often remembered). And she never was in the room, never in that room, anyway, which never existed, with that Donne who never existed, refusing to remove her non-existent draperies from her imaginary glories.
Oh, I understand what she means: she's coming up with one of those lit crit ideas, a master narrative for the poem, a thread by which everything can hang. Dangerous way to think. That joke at the end, the one I mentioned earlier, isn't the sort of thing I'd have noticed on my own -- not a lot of bedroom imagination back then -- so someone must have told it to me once, and I've been carrying it all these intervening years, someone else's way of squaring away a mess of lust for flesh. Even now, I'm tempted to spin out my own little tale: what if the speaker's been the one stripping, charmed by his own "hairy diadems," lost in his own America, laying down his things and a gauntlet for his lady friend? I could make a case for this poem as one half of a contest of equals; I could explain it to myself that way, make it mine.
"You should mark all the personal pronouns," he says, and she's so caught up in their joint theory she doesn't notice the should. They're happy again, heads bending together over the table as they put the words away.
But I think I'm done with that. It's easy enough to perceive the poem as your typical colonial narrative, and once you've seen that, easy enough to imagine it as the opposite, an upending of colonial narratives. It's harder to hold it in between. It's harder to be the one seduced by the words and not know whether you approve of the terms of the seduction. (And I mean here us and Donne, all alike transported.) It's harder to read in the present tense, in your own voice.
Will you be a mystic book? A clever reader who looks beyond baubles to some captive essence? A lion in the temple of love?
They've gone. Outside now, lightning. I've set something free.