Sonnets from The Song of Songs
I tried to write you a sonnet; it wouldn’t work.
Here’s what I would write if you weren’t crazy
was the way it started. But you are crazy
so I just let the laptop screen go dark.
I wouldn’t be writing if you weren’t crazy;
you’d be here in the house somewhere, just back
from the morning’s carpools, not that we’d talk:
you’d be off again on errands; I’d be busy
writing poems that now seem ill-conceived—
not one of them a love poem. Too late.
You could read The Song of Songs. I felt like that,
which explains how I lived the way I lived.
I was fearless once; I chose the rarest
apple tree among the trees of the forest.
This has to be the diametric opposite
of the buds’ appearance, the song’s arrival
but, shoveling snow, I almost pity Shulamit
who’ll never know the earth as this insatiable,
this self-negating, this far gone, this white.
Gazelles or no gazelles, love does unravel.
She may want to lose herself in blankness.
Even my heart has left her hiding place
to try the famous palliative of ice,
our street’s telltale details safely annulled:
I’d stay out with her all night—I love the cold—
until we’re both completely covered over
(good luck to Shulamit with that young lover)
but I have kids to put to sleep, laundry to fold.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his
mouth; let him kiss me with anything;
let him kiss me, let him remember once,
momentarily, that, once he’d kiss me…
for your love is better…. Don’t be absurd;
wine can never withstand much bitterness.
It was sung by a single voice, your song
of songs: yours, coming from your upstairs bed,
drowned out by his computer, his TV.
Don’t you remember? This went on for years…
and you—I—was so (let him kiss me) dense,
I kept believing he’d come up the stairs.
Still, there are girls here. Our daughters. Three.
Surely (with the kisses of his mouth) he must have kissed me.
Whitethorn (LSU 2011)
In Jacqueline Osherow’s “Sonnets from The Song of Songs,” I’m interested in the poet’s theme and enactment of variation. Just by looking at the title, I see that I’m in for a lot layers; this is one poem, but it’s also three separate sonnets. The title also tells me that the poem(s) will rely on two traditions, the sonnet and a book from the Bible. Further, each section, or separate sonnet, has its own title of two words from taken from The Song of Songs. Importantly, these words, like the speaker and the addressee, are separated by a slash.
Likewise, just by looking at the poem, before I even embark on reading through it, I see italicized text scattered throughout. For the most part, this is language lifted from The Song of Songs. However, in the very first lines, significantly, it’s the speaker’s own voice quoting a poem she started to write, but that “wouldn’t work.” She tells the addressee that she began with “Here’s what I would write if you weren’t crazy / … but you are crazy.” I love the work that the opening lines—of the poem that supposedly wouldn’t work—do for the whole poem. First, they demystify, and perhaps even undermine and make fun of, the gravity of the serious and sacred literature introduced in the title. At the same time, the speaker engages the serious and sacred. The speaker of this poem convinces me that she’s not only smart but down to earth. She’s a realist, she’s not going to pull any punches, and she’s witty. Because of this, I immediately trust her. Not to mention, she’s confessed her failed attempt at writing a sonnet for the addressee. What an unexpected admission for the first lines of a poem that intends to engage serious and sacred literature!
The reasons she can’t write and her own songs can’t be heard become clear as the poem continues. Yet even as the emotional story of the speaker and the addressee becomes clearer, an interesting tension emerges in the poem’s overall form. More and more text from The Song of Songs is tightly woven in, particularly in the last sonnet. Meanwhile, each sonnet is a wholly different sonnet, marked by a very different rhyme scheme. There’s so much variation that by the time I arrive at the last sonnet a regular rhyming pattern is abandoned almost altogether.
I have some ideas about why this happens, but I’m interested to hear from students and colleagues. What are your thoughts on the variation in form? How does it fit the occasion of the poem? Why use the sonnet and The Song of Songs for this particular poem’s subject?
- The poem is clearly modern because of “so I just let the laptop screen go dark.” I like Thorns/Forest because I feel a lot of emotions are let go in relationships instead left alone or left unsaid. I can’t help but relate the second poem to Christianity since the poet references sisters without later ever mentioning them. Very nicely written sonnet
Comment by Anna Ponomareva — September 12, 2011 @ 4:11 pm
- In (Thorns/Forest), the speaker makes it clear that her inspiration for writing the sonnet is the addressees craziness. Had he not been, the speaker would not have been able to express these emotions, for there would be nothing of the sort to write about. The speaker remembers being fearless once, and states that she “chose the rarest apple tree among the trees of the forest.” I think she is trying to imply that the addressee was the rare apple tree, and so she has placed herself in this situation due to her fearlessness.
(Buds/Turtledove) describe the inevitable unraveling of love. “Even my heart has left her hiding place to try the famous palliative of ice” suggests that her heart is no longer available and instead turned cold. She wishes she could cover her heart in the cold permenantly, but her children and motherly duties prevent her from doing so.
(Kisses/Wine) seems like a distant memory that the speaker is tryinig to recapture. The line “wine can never withstand much bitterness” is kind of ironic considering dark wine has a bitter taste, yet she is describing bitterness as an emotion. Drinking wine eventually makes you feel lighthearted and in love. It is hard for the speaker to imagine that those kisses had ever existed, yet they must have, as their daughters are living proof of a love that once was.
All three pieces make up bits of one full story regarding the speaker and addressee. There is some confusion and lack of closure it seems for the speaker, as she can’t understand how or what happened to cause the love in her relationship to unravel. The third sonnett represent the begininng of a relationship, the first seems like the withdrawl and the second is the lasting effect of a broken heart. But I think she chose to tell her story in this order because there’s more of a question of “why and how.” If we as readers read (Kisses/wine) as the last sonnet, we can imagine a romance that was blossoming, but we quickly remember the earlier sonnets and don’t understand why it ever happened if there was such hope in the begininng. This journeys us through the speakers own thoughts and leaves us feeling just as confused and let down as she is.
Comment by Tishely Ortiz — September 13, 2011 @ 7:47 am