Written by Hazel Burke

Arts

Could Be Verse

Fancy getting stuck into a sonnet or cosy with a canzone but no idea where to start? In this month’s column, our poetry doctor* Hazel Burke’s feeling a certain zest. *She’s not a real doctor.

Emily Dickinson illustration by Louise Boulter.

Emily Dickinson illustration by Louise Boulter.

I, being born a woman and distressed
by Edna St Vincent Millay

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, – let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

This poem, by Edna St Vincent Millay, is not an easy read and it might take a few minutes and a couple of readings to get the sense from it. Bear with it though. I love it and I think it might just be the sassiest damn thing you’ll read all year.

It is a poem about sex and gender politics. I first came across it as a teenager, when I would lie on my bed reading the poem out loud to myself in a melodramatic murmur (I was that kind of teenager).

I imagined the narrator to be upset at being ‘undone’ in a moment of sexual frenzy that she is seemingly powerless to resist. It was, I thought, as though the whole of human evolution was stacked against the narrator: there is a man nearby (you can translate ‘propinquity’ as ‘physical closeness’) and as she is a woman, she cannot help be attracted by him. One thing leads to another and then to bed.

As a teenage reader, I thought it was a poem about a woman’s virginity as sexual currency, about the inability to resist sexual urges (‘stout blood’) in order to maintain a mental clarity and independence. The last couple of lines: “I find this frenzy insufficient reason / For conversation when we meet again” I interpreted as meaning that the narrator was disappointed, ashamed or otherwise upset to have succumbed to the sexual urges that were seemingly her biological destiny.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I’ve changed my opinion. I still love the poem, but I read it completely differently.

Now I read this as a sexy hookup sonnet (yeah, that’s a genre). I imagine the narrator reading the poem with an arched eyebrow and a secret smile, rather than a tortured frown. I see a bucketload of irony in the narrator’s ‘distress’ at her womanly undoing. Let’s be clear: she enjoys the sex: she feels “a certain zest / To bear your body’s weight upon my breast”.

It’s also clear that this is not the first time the narrator has fallen for the charms of a good-looking lad and ended up in bed:

So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.

In the struggle between her lustful body and rational brain, it seems that the body is winning. (When I first came across this poem I thought that the narrator was ‘possessed’ by the man as a sexual conquest, but now I realise that she is in fact saying that the thing possessing her is her own lusty urges.)

“Now I read this as a sexy hookup sonnet (yeah, that’s a genre). I imagine the narrator reading the poem with an arched eyebrow and a secret smile, rather than a tortured frown.”

This puts a whole different spin on the second half of the poem, starting, “Think not for this”. The narrator, talking after the “frenzy” of sex has passed, pretty well blames her own body for temporarily overriding her better judgement:

– let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

No room for doubt there, then.

So there you have it. It’s beautifully and wittily written sonnet from over 90 years ago, but the story is timeless. A lady has urges that must be attended to, meets a boy who is easy on the eye, the inevitable happens, it’s fun, yes, but don’t go getting any ideas that you’re getting married, that it’s happening again, or that you’re even going to get a hello if you meet.

It may be the 1920s, but even if smartphones were invented, this girl would NOT be texting back.

Read all of Hazel’s previous poetry columns here.

@Oxpecking

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Written by Hazel Burke

Hazel likes seed catalogues, maps and toast. She lives in Manchester. @oxpecking