Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol.21  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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The Marriage Plot
We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?
The Age of Innocence

Though, if—

I might say he was quite
the 18th century. En règle, decorous in daily
bow ties. Flashing wit.

That pleasurable pain

of waking at dawn
to scrub, again, the gutters. His prized
laser level in the annual

Righting of the Frames.

Myself—more drinking, more
19th. Long-winded, a little
dull in my vast catalog of woe.


bourgeois. I mean, sherry muddied
in a crystal decanter. What can you
expect? We knew each other first

in a canopy bed,

in a close room
in an amber state of light,
still thrilled by the subjunctive.

It was important that we oxidize,

not age. Seduced
by private fantasies, I passed out, one evening,
in grandmother’s furs

reeking, still, of smoke.


It seemed to me the greatest risk

was to become too legible.
Can I say I was a pauper of love? A long moor
of sorrow? I am not coy

nor slight.

The best image for which
I strove was equine. Regal.
Sturdy. My main mistake, I found,

in the new era—

how easily I turned
plinth and pedestal. Bovine.
My habitual mood

of humiliation,

self-doubt, forlorn depression,
fell damp on the embers of my decaying ire
Unpacking, again,

his heavy books.


We were reared

on Wharton and Brontë, on
Waugh, we found,
one afternoon,

rooting through our pasts

to find some common
ground. Whited
out, aspirational toward

the brooch-filled life.

Something that should
have rotted centuries ago still
writhing in us.

We knew what hid

behind marble fountains,
box seats for Faust,
what lingered in our entwined,

fictional foundations.


We can fall for the pathos

of the orphan, for the minor
catastrophes of the dashing rake,
the governess at the country estate

writing epistles

amongst the saxifrage of Sussex.
We can avoid the advances
at the Summer House,

delay a little longer

the central event. We can
take it slow, page by page, count
the dowagers and deathbeds,

waistcoats and hearths.

Our gentleness waning,
we can smash a glass or two
on a Tuesday, unwind some

old wound.


One discovers,

in the purchase
of shared property,
other histories over which

one lies.

The house we bought
vacant for a decade, used for storage—
an entire room of coats!—

after a local darling’s

long courtship with a man
a block away was signed legitimate
by the state.

No children

to divvy up the chinoiserie armoire,
the Wedgwood dinner set
with scenic takes of Yale,

the baby grand,

the neighbors pored over
their worldly, posthumous possessions
in a trio of estate sales.

The realtor staged

a small back room
above the ancient trees as nursery.
Bile-green. Which would become

my office.

Which would remind him,
each time he entered
with a cooling cup of tea

how I inherited

not only a handmade Oriental rug
and a caviar spoon carved
from mother of pearl, but

a selfishness

that manifested mostly
in contraction. Who will take
all we’ll leave behind, all our

little things?


On the “Romantic Danube”

river cruise my mother booked
for her and me a month before
my wedding, I watched her dance

with a stranger

to a halting “Blue Moon”
broadcast live to our stateroom.
The sunset

having annulled itself

hours before, somewhere between
Krems and Vienna, it seemed
we were floating in deep, dark space.

From my single bed

I saw her turn
her face from his to laugh, shyly,
at his request for another song.

She left to refresh her drink

and, in this private showing,
this sitcom spinoff of
My Life, I tried to conjure

a scene that never was—

a waltz, a foxtrot, some slow
swaying between parents
in a dimming room.

The closest I got

(here she returns
to the silver-haired man, here
they clink highballs

and he takes her hand

while the pianist limps
into another obvious tune)
was her catching my father

as he fell

from the hospital cot
in our living room. How she scooped
him up under the armpits

in an effortful embrace,

spinning him
toward the bathroom, where she cleaned him,
before hoisting him back

where he stopped living.


We can imagine ourselves

an American epic, Copland
booming at sunrise after a battle in which
we were especially savage.

Like a new nation

we can discard shame.
We can walk to the grass tennis courts and wave,
in a summer storm,

our rackets.

As if to tempt
lightning, or as if we
were beating out the moths

from exotic carpets

in a long novel
that half the population
doesn’t have the window-light

to read.  

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