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After the Movie

February 28, 2012

I got married a month after I turned 22, and it will be our 30th wedding anniversary this August. One of the things I like most about marriage is the decades-long conversations that continue to evolve, putting out new branches above and new roots underground, like trees.

One of the things I like least is the decades-long assumptions about what we’re saying to each other that continue to clog up the plumbing of our communication and can’t be dug out except by bringing in big equipment and tearing up the concrete floor in the basement of the house of our marriage, which stands next to the forest of conversations we’ve created.

Ron used to call such assumption-laden conversations “Hensley talk,” after my family’s way of communicating something unsaid, like a mother saying to her child “please don’t move my book from the table” and the child responding “well, you irritate me sometimes, too.” In rhetorical analysis, we say that the problem with this conversation is that the mother and child have different “stases.” For the mother, the issue (stasis) is whether the book is moved, and for the child, the issue is who is morally right.

Here’s a poem by Marie Howe in which two characters are driven apart by discovering different stases for a conversation that started out innocuously:

After the Movie

My friend Michael and I are walking home arguing about the movie.
He says that he believes a person can love someone
and still be able to murder that person.

I say, No, that’s not love. That’s attachment.
Michael says, No, that’s love. You can love someone, then come to a day

when you’re forced to think “it’s him or me”
think “me” and kill him.

I say, Then it’s not love anymore.
Michael says, It was love up to then though.

I say, Maybe we mean different things by the same word.
Michael says, Humans are complicated: love can exist even in the murderous heart.

I say that what he might mean by love is desire.
Love is not a feeling, I say. And Michael says, Then what is it?

We’re walking along West 16th Street—a clear unclouded night—and I hear my voice
repeating what I used to say to my husband: Love is action, I used to say to him.

Simone Weil says that when you really love you are able to look at someone you want to eat and not eat them.

Janis Joplin says, take another little piece of my heart now baby.

Meister Eckhardt says that as long as we love images we are doomed to live in purgatory.

Michael and I stand on the corner of 6th Avenue saying goodnight.
I can’t drink enough of the tangerine spritzer I’ve just bought—

again and again I bring the cold can to my mouth and suck the stuff from
the hole the flip top made.

What are you doing tomorrow? Michael says.
But what I think he’s saying is “You are too strict. You are a nun.”

Then I think, Do I love Michael enough to allow him to think these things of me even if he’s not thinking them?

Above Manhattan, the moon wanes, and the sky turns clearer and colder.
Although the days, after the solstice, have started to lengthen,

we both know the winter has only begun.

What do you think of this poem? Do you have conversations in which you “allow” someone else to think things? Are you frustrated by the assumption that you’re thinking something just because you’ve always thought it before? Why can’t poems–and conversations–be clear and easy to understand?

34 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2012 7:06 am

    The last question has me laughing! I liked the poem. I do think we get into conversations and can tend to hold ground even if you think the other person is right. THAT’s when it’s just tough to say, “yea, ok. You’re right. Can we change the subject now?”

    • February 29, 2012 8:11 am

      I don’t hang around with many people who can switch gears easily. We get invested in holding that ground, and imagine it’s the high ground.

  2. February 28, 2012 7:08 am

    I’ve been with my partner for 8 years, and even in this comparatively short amount of time this has become a bit of a problem. It happens even more with my family, and sometimes even with friends I’ve known for a long time. I understand why we use these sorts of mental shortcuts, but they can create so many pitfalls.

    I like the poem a lot, by the way. I’ve probably told you this before, but I really appreciate how you expose me to new to me poetry all the time.

    • February 29, 2012 8:18 am

      Shortcuts and pitfalls are other good metaphors to represent the ways we can twist ourselves up in habitual conversations.
      Maybe I should write a new subtitle for the blog, “exposing you to new poetry since 2008” or something like that!

  3. February 28, 2012 7:08 am

    “Do I love Michael enough to allow him to think these things of me even if he’s not thinking them?” This is, I think, an essential question. Poems and conversations benefit from different types of legibility. Clear and easy poems are not as engaging to me (including this one). Whereas clarity in conversation tends to be a good thing. But even in conversation, if it’s a little lack of clarity that keeps you interested, keeps you puzzling over the outcome, keeps you wanting more, then maybe it can be like a poem.

    • February 29, 2012 8:21 am

      Harriet, you have reached into the heart of the matter, as I could not. If a poem–or a marriage–doesn’t keep me a little puzzled, it doesn’t keep me interested. I’ve always loved Cleopatra’s line in Shakespeare’s version about being a woman “of infinite variety.” And there’s the rub (ahem) because that’s what’s most irritating to a long-married person, the partner’s assumption that there’s no mystery left, that he doesn’t really have to listen to you to understand what you’re saying this time.

  4. February 28, 2012 12:52 pm

    I like the poem, but I like this better: “One of the things I like least is the decades-long assumptions about what we’re saying to each other that continue to clog up the plumbing of our communication and can’t be dug out except by bringing in big equipment and tearing up the concrete floor in the basement of the house of our marriage, which stands next to the forest of conversations we’ve created.” Yep.

  5. February 28, 2012 2:05 pm

    love the end of this one.

    • February 29, 2012 8:23 am

      Yes, I like the way it heads down another metaphorical path.

  6. February 28, 2012 2:34 pm

    Yep! 23 years here – and I could have written these sentiments, myself.

    This line especially: “Are you frustrated by the assumption that you’re thinking something just because you’ve always thought it before?”

    I would also like to say, that your prose reads much like poetry, as well.

    • February 29, 2012 8:24 am

      Well, thank you, Snowball! As I said to ReadersGuide above, you’ve been happily married long enough, you’ve had these conversations.

  7. February 28, 2012 2:36 pm

    I love your introduction to this poem almost as much as the poem itself.

    • February 29, 2012 8:25 am

      Glad to oblige. I actually started writing the introduction after one of “those” conversations.

  8. freshhell permalink
    February 28, 2012 2:40 pm

    I don’t know.

    • February 29, 2012 8:27 am

      My last question was largely rhetorical, and I think Harriet answered it. If poems or conversations are too clear, they’re not interesting. Also, most poems are attempts to express very complicated feelings, and you can’t do that in simple terms or it won’t get everything about the experience across.

  9. February 28, 2012 7:33 pm

    I like the ideas that you raise, but I have been here twice and still have no idea what to say. I guess I have never thought about it before. I am sure that it happens in my relationship, though.

    • February 29, 2012 8:28 am

      Oh dear. Once you start thinking about it, it may begin to irritate you. Sorry!

  10. February 28, 2012 10:23 pm

    It is an interesting poem–and I think we all allow people to have assumptions about us. Probably because I also make assumptions about others. kaye—the road goes ever ever on

    • February 29, 2012 8:28 am

      I like the part about “allowing” those assumptions, though. Like she has any choice. She could try to argue him out of it, but that might just solidify his stand. He might think he has the high ground, then!

  11. February 28, 2012 10:37 pm

    Oh this is a thing. In families generally, I think. When you have a story about someone in your mind (like, Jenny always follows the rules), and you use it when it doesn’t apply (or when it does apply but the other person thinks it doesn’t, or when the other person thinks you’re using it because you’ve used it so often before). That is a very very true phenomenon.

    (And I like the pome.)

    • February 29, 2012 8:30 am

      Oh yes. Your example makes me think of a relationship Ron and I have with another couple, in which the story is that Mark and Jeanne are willing to make waves, while Phyllis and Ron are not, so much. This is not generally true, perhaps, but we’ve made it true about the four of us, partly just because it’s fun to act that way when we’re together.

  12. Gwendolyn Bailey permalink
    February 29, 2012 2:50 am

    I have long thought that my husband has two spouses: one he tells things to and me, the wife expected to remember those things.Perhaps the problem is more simple or complicated; we could easily be the couple in that poem, responding not to the things that are being said, but rather to those things we processed after we’ve heard what is being said. For example, I may ask a question, and Ray hears the question, decides what I mean by asking the question, drives at a hidden implication of the question, and responds, ultimately, to that instead of the question. Perhaps he has two spouses as well: one who asks and one who implies.

    So, is the problem simple or complicated? I suppose the four of us will have to get together and talk it out.

    • February 29, 2012 8:31 am

      And don’t leave out inference. Ray implies, and you infer. Gene Hammond taught us that.

  13. February 29, 2012 4:27 pm

    You’re going to celebrate your 30th anniversary this year! That is amazing.

  14. February 29, 2012 4:52 pm

    Yep. We’re going to Harry Potter World.

    • February 29, 2012 9:13 pm

      That’s what we wanted to do for our anniversary! But, unfortunately, we just don’t have the money for it 😦

      • February 29, 2012 9:13 pm

        There’s always next year, though! We’ll do a better job saving up!

        • March 1, 2012 7:16 am

          We have been saving up for this ever since the place opened…all four of us are going, of course.

    • March 2, 2012 9:32 am

      That’s wonderful! I want to plan a trip there as well. You’ll have to let us all know how it is!

  15. February 29, 2012 9:14 pm

    I love this poem. It’s excellent; thank you for sharing it with us. I like the ambiguity of it best of all. This glimpse of a conversation between two people where you don’t really know what their relationship is or the whole story, but you can read so much just in what they say to each other. Thank you for joining in this month.

    • March 1, 2012 7:17 am

      Yes, I was interested that one commenter thought it could have been a first date. I picture them as at least a month into this kind of conversation.

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