Published: Dec 4, 2012
The Well-to-do Invalid
When you first introduced me to your nurse
I thought, "She's like your wife." I mean, I thought:
"She's like your nurse—" it was your wife.
She gave this old friend of her husband’s
a pale ingratiating smile; we talked
And she agreed with me about everything.
I thought: "She’s quite agreeable."
You gave a pleased laugh--you were feeling good.
She laughed and agreed with you.
I said to her
-- That is, I didn’t say to her: "You liarl"
She held out
Her deck of smiles, I cut, and she dealt.
Almost as the years have sprung up, fallen back,
I’ve seen you in and out of bed; meanwhile,
Hovering solicitously alongside,
This governess, this mother"
In her off-whites --- pretty
as a nurse
Is thinly and efficiently and optimistically
Pretty --- has
spoken with an enthusiasm
Like winter sunlight, of the comprehensiveness of insurance.
If you want it to, it can cover anything.
Like the governor on an engine, she has governed
Your rashness. And how many sins
She has forgiven in her big child! How many times
She has telephoned in an emergency
For the right specialist!
After I’d left your bed she’d take me to the door
And tell me about your heart and bowels.
When you were up and talking she would listen
A long time, oh so long! but go to bed
Before we did, with a limp, wan, almost brave
"Goodnight!" You are a natural
Disaster she has made her own. Meanly
Clinging to you, taking care--all praise
And understanding outside, and inside all insurance--
She has stood by you like a plaster Joan of Arc.
Prematurely tired, prematurely
Mature, she has endured
repeating like a piece of white carbon paper
The opinions of that boisterous, sick firing, a man.
I can see through her but then, who can’t?
Her dishonesty is so transparent
It has about it a kind of honesty.
She has never once said what she thought, done what she wanted,
But (as if invented by some old economist
And put on an island, to trade with her mate)
Has acted in impersonal self-interest.
Never to do one thing for its own sake!
Year in, year out, with what sincerity
You said anything, demanded everything,
And she, the liar!
Was good to you --- oh, insincerely good,
Good for all the worst reasons. Good.
And she was nice to me, and I was nice
To her: I wanted to be nice to her.
She was wrong, and I was right, and I was sick of it.
It wasn’t right for her always to be wrong
And work so hard and get so little: I felt guilty
Because I wasn’t on her side. I was on her side.
It was a terrible shock to me when she died.
I saw her cheeks red for the first time
the snowdrifts covering her coffin.
And you were up and talking, well with grief.
As I realized how easily you’d fill
This vacancy, I was sorry
For you and for that pale self-sufficient ghost
That had tended so long your self-sufficiency.
That, friends, is Randall Jarrell, who, if he is known at all, is known for "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," a poem you read in high school:
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Jarrell is an important poet for many reasons, not least because he was among the first to write in might be described as human speech. And because he looked like a poet. He wore beautiful tweeds. His beard was just-so. He drove a sports car. He was ferociously well-educated. (His wife teasingly called him "arrogant and pretentious." His response: "Wittier than anybody!") His classes were legendary. And he had a tragic death: hit by a car as he walked along a highway at dusk. [To buy the paperback edition of Jarrell's collected poems from Amazon, click here.]
And, of course, he was accomplished. In addition to his poems, Jarrell was an acute critic --- those essays are collected in No Other Book --- who could build a case for a writer he loved or destroy an enemy with a line: Oscar Williams's poems, he said, give the impression of "having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter." He wrote a novel satirizing a college literature department. He loved fairy tales, and produced a brilliant translation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
I love Jarrell for his later work, especially the poems from the collection, "The Lost World." He has a leering sense of sex, a warmly ironic take on the dance between men and women, and although he certainly understood men, his sympathies seemed to lay with the despair and hopefulness of women. Which is all to say: Despite what he knew, he was a total romantic. "A wish, come true, is life. I have my life," he wrote. Knowing what we do about his second marriage, we know that this satisfaction is not invented.
Some favorite lines:
While you are, how am I alone?...
Be, as you have been, my happiness;
Let me sleep beside you, each night, like a spoon;
When, starting from my sleep, I groan to you,
May your “I love you” send me back to sleep.
At morning bring me, grayer for its mirroring,
The heavens’ sun perfected in your eyes.
A clever reader will plow through this book, pencil in hand, the better to mark lines to steal. Jarrell is that good. And that contemporary --- you won't have to stretch to make his poetry your own. Go ahead. No one will know. And I will never tell.