Monday, January 10, 2011

Today is Tom's birthday, and he will be celebrating by paying bills and going to the lumberyard. Meanwhile, I'll be making this cake.

For whatever reason I am presently feeling tongue-tied, but at least I don't have a bullet through the brain. Yesterday Tom and I spent all afternoon cleaning out our attic closet, a dusty trip through history that one could not call fun, yet I kept being relieved that here we were, together and mostly unscathed, sorting through ancient camping equipment and wondering why we'd kept all these useless toddler toys.

Here's chapter 4, from Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton, because I can't stop thinking about the fact that I've known Tom since we were 19, and that's starting to seem like forever.


The Undefiled Bed

Hail wedded Love, mysterious Law, true source

Of human offspring, sole propriety

In Paradise of all things common else.

Though by now we’ve been married for nearly sixteen years, more than once Tom and I have announced over a beer that we’d never do it again. As far as I can tell, neither one of us is hinting at divorce. And as far as I can tell, our declaration isn’t one of those conversational ice chunks that occasionally float up from the marital iceberg: those double-edged couple-ish remarks like “She doesn’t eat parsnips, so I don’t cook parsnips” or “I’ve always left the decorating up to you” or “He’s never enjoyed talking on the phone.” We in fact have an easygoing friendship, don’t argue about child raising, admire each other’s artwork, and can stack hay without quarrelling. So on the surface, it’s strange that we’ve come to this conclusion about what appears to be a flourishing partnership.

I think one source of our antipathy is getting married. This, in itself, is odd because I (and even Tom—though being the skinny, silent type, he winces at the prospect of all overwrought public gatherings) actually enjoy attending weddings. My cousin celebrated his marriage to a remarkably large-breasted girl in a New Jersey firehouse, and that was very fun. My generally self-contained mother drank cheap wine and danced recklessly to “Love Shack.” The bride’s satin skirt ripped out at the waistband during “YMCA” and had to be safety-pinned with much fuss and flurry, while the bride was screeching at Tom, crouched in a corner with his camera, “Hey! Are you taking any good photos of this?” The Presbyterian groom’s family was confused by the ziti and sauce (“Who eats macaroni at a wedding?”), which the bride’s Italian family insisted was de rigueur (“Everybody eats macaroni at a wedding!”).

A wedding is one of the few celebrations in which people of all ages dress up in fancy outfits, consume ridiculous food, pace solemnly up and down aisles, cry in public, sing comic songs, hold hands with their fathers, and do the limbo. What can be wrong with an occasion that jumbles together high ceremony and cheerful absurdity to celebrate a new bond? It seems, in some ways, an ideal amalgam of human social relations.

Yet when I’m chipping away at Paradise Lost and happen across lines like these, where Adam and Eve are getting ready for bed, I feel a twinge of regret:

Other Rites

Observing none, but adoration pure

Which God likes best, into thir inmost bower

Handed they went; and eas’d the putting off

These troublesome disguises which wee wear,

Straight side by side were laid.

For a poet so addicted to syntactic contortion and celestial formality (especially in matters of battle: how he loves a stately clash), Milton’s thoughts about marriage are notably modest, even austere. To begin with, he equates lapsarian marriage with clothes, and he cannot stand “these troublesome disguises.” He’s so vehement, in so many places, about how awful they are that I frivolously begin to wonder if he had a wool allergy, or maybe a mole on the back of his neck that chafed against his collar, or perhaps was married to an inept seamstress. Trivializing is unfair, however, because his diatribes against clothing are, beneath their bluster, some of the most poignant passages in the poem. For to Milton, in our naked glory, humanity most nearly replicates the beauty of the angels:

Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,

Godlike erect, with native Honor clad

In naked Majesty seem’d Lords of all,

And worthy seem’d, for in thir looks Divine

The image of thir glorious Maker shone,

Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure.

In our fallen world, this vision of humanity is not only patently false but even embarrassing. The rare beautiful bodies among us are more renowned for stupidity than for “Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure.” As for the rest of us aging grunts, our flabby, bony, pasty shells seem evidence of both physical and metaphorical ineptitude—a frail, imploding carapace, a monstrous rhinoceros suit, a winding sheet.

Milton’s vision of human beauty charms me, and makes me sad, because unlike our present conceptions of beauty, which are so often narcissistic and self-flagellating and victimized and mob-controlled, his depends on a shared, equivalent gaze. “Straight side by side were laid” may be the starkest description of a marriage bed I’ve ever read, an image more akin to a double funeral than a honeymoon suite. But its starkness is also simplicity, and innocence, and, perhaps most movingly, concentration. Look only at me, my love, and I will look only at you.

Marriage is indeed a concentration: both an unswerving attention to another human being and the distillation, day by day, year by year, of what matters in a shared life. Since a wedding is a sloppy froth of cousins, ribbons, parents, pomp, cake, bad photos, and mishap, it seems like a silly way to begin such an enterprise. But I don’t have anything against silliness, though clearly Milton didn’t care to picture our noble First Parents as gigglers. What I hate is the idea of being looked at by all those wedding guests.

A wedding is a story with lots of characters. A marriage is a story with two. No matter how tightly it intersects with other family divisions—children, parents, cousins, ancestors—marriage itself is a separate world, remote as an island. Scanning the crowd of couples at a local basketball game, I note strange alliances and ponder unanswerable questions: “What does she see in that jerk?” or “How does it feel to wake up every morning next to such an enormous woman?” But I’ll never know. Even children, those greedy observers, never in all their lives understand the secret links and fissures in their parents’ union.

“Straight side by side were laid.” This is what it feels like, marriage, on fine days and on bad days. Lately I tried to have a conversation with Tom on this very subject, as we paused together in the kitchen. The kettle hissed on the woodstove, and he was holding a wet dishtowel. I had propped a basket of folded shirts against my hip. Our sons had shot off into their own orbits, sorting through Legos or listening to Lone Ranger episodes or folding paper airplanes. It was a regular winter evening, cold and dark, and we were pleased to be together, though not talking about it. And then I tried to talk about it and found there was nothing to say. “Of course weddings are nothing like being married,” he said.

“But that’s what I’m trying to write about,” I explained.

“But weddings are nothing like being married,” he said.

I went up to bed feeling confused and disappointed. Had I expected some clarification, some revelation? Was I trying to articulate something too obvious to mention? Or was I misunderstanding some larger, more vital conceit? And then, unexpectedly, Tom followed me to bed almost as soon as I’d gone up—Tom, who likes to haunt the house late and alone: and that was a surprise and a pleasure; for we rarely have a chance to lie awake together, feeling the night chill seep through the window at the foot of the bed, feeling our own warmth seep from one quiet body to the next. And though I still had no clarification, no revelation, what I did have was comfort, the dozy, inarticulate comfort of contiguity, which has nothing to do with passion or epiphany but is a good end to a regular day.

Being fond of both Tom and the conjugal ideal, I find it easy to shuffle among such sentimental snapshots and pretend they render an honest portrait of marriage. Milton wasn’t such a fool. Consider the tale of Sin, the “Portress of Hell Gate,” who is Satan’s daughter, born Athena-like from his head, and also mother of his monstrous son, Death:

I pleas’d, and with attractive graces won

The most averse, thee chiefly, who full oft

Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing

Becam’st enamor’d, and such joy thou took’st

With me in secret, that my womb conceiv’d

A growing burden.

I think Milton intends the amours of Sin and Satan to work as a lewd parody of Eve and Adam’s “bed . . . undefil’d.” But how different is the pure, absorbed, human gaze from Satan and Sin’s “Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing”? As a lapsarian wife, I find the distinction difficult to untangle, though I do see one other significant difference: modest Eve has plenty of unencumbered recreational sex, and flirty Sin instantly gets pregnant, after which everything goes downhill for her.

God intended Eve to be “our general Mother”; and in theory, Milton is all for babies: “Our Maker bids increase, who bids abstain/But our Destroyer, foe to God and Man?” But the poet is squeamish. After Sin gets knocked up, Satan instantly deserts her, and I suspect Milton doesn’t necessarily fault him for sidestepping the mess.

Pensive here I sat

Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb

Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown

Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.

At last this odious offspring whom thou seest

Thine own begotten, breaking violent way

Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain

Distorted, all my nether shape grew

Transform’d: but he my inbred enemy

Forth issu’d, brandishing his fatal Dart

Made to destroy: I fled, and cri’d out Death.

Death proceeds to rape his mother and beget a pack of “yelling Monsters,” and the original unity of two dissolves into pain and chaos and misery.

Is this hell? Or is it family life?

I didn’t fall in love with Tom because I thought he’d make an excellent father of sons. I fell in love with the way the backs of his knees looked as he walked away from me down a dormitory corridor, the way his hair stuck straight up from his forehead in the mornings, the way he never bossed me around or made me play softball, the way he entered into the private lives of housepets, the way he stared up at the sky.

So loading children into a love affair’s two-person rowboat is indeed a kind of hell. The boat rocks dangerously; it runs up against rocks and is menaced by sea serpents. Though I treasure my sons (and got pregnant on purpose), it took me all the years of their babyhood to reconcile myself to their random, interrupting confusions, to their demands and distractions, to how they sucked away my inner life and my married life. Given his high respect for both the unity of two and the fruits of his own imagination, Milton must have found the proximity of a wailing two-year-old in the kitchen nearly unbearable—as indeed, indeed, it is. I have knelt on that kitchen floor myself, wailing alongside that child. With diapers to pin and tantrums to strangle, who has time or space to “Sleep on,/Blest pair”?

If, in my marriage, I’m grateful for our wordless moments of delight, I’m equally irritated and put-upon and distracted, willing to injure and be injured, to bitch when Tom doesn’t wipe the kitchen counters after he’s been roofing all day, to fight jealousy and feed its fires, to lie in bed and hope he’ll be the one who gets up to deal with an unhappy child or a barking dog. Every day, I’m dissatisfied with my lot—sick of sweeping up the mud our boots have dropped, sick of washing the sheets our bodies have crumpled, sick of nurturing the sons we prize.

One day I told Tom I was glad to be married to him, and he said, “If you hadn’t married me, you would have married someone else.” Can you blame me when I cringe at the thought of enduring another wedding? For yes, he’s right. I wanted a husband, and I have one. Therefore, I love him. Such an admission doesn’t do much for my credibility as a well-read woman with feminist proclivities. But how more ambiguous than politics is marriage, “mysterious Law,” “shot forth [with] peculiar graces”—a strange land, a faraway town, a garden, a shelter, a bed.

For all of Milton’s talk about male dominance and female subjection—how Adam’s “fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d/Absolute rule,” how Eve’s “wanton ringlets . . . impli’d/Subjection”—he knew he had to deal with the biblical facts of the story: Eve talked Adam into eating the apple. “Subjection” may be “impli’d” and “Absolute rule” “declar’d”; yet even in the most autocratic of marriages, the power balance tips and sways, and a covert gesture can topple a fortress. Blame the Fall on Satan if you like, but Adam was already predisposed to please his wife. How could paradise be otherwise? Their perfect marriage was its own undoing.

Here Love his golden shafts imploys, here lights

His constant Lamp, and waves his purple wings,

Reigns here and revels; not in the bought smile

Of Harlots, loveless, joyless, unindear’d,

Casual fruition, nor in Court Amours,

Mixt Dance, and wanton Mask, or Midnight Ball,

Or Serenate, which the starv’d Lover sings

To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain.

These lull’d by Nightingales imbracing slept,

And on thir naked limbs the flow’ry roof

Show’rd Roses, which the Morn repair’d.

Even though I know better, when I read this passage, I want to believe it can be true for Tom and me, despite our lapses and angers. I’ll happily attend your next “Mixt Dance, and wanton Mask, or Midnight Ball,” but more than anything I want to be “lull’d by Nightingales” in my own narrow bed, listening to the vague thump of Tom’s stereo in the darkroom, hoping he’ll remember to stoke the woodstove before he comes up and knowing that, when he does, he’ll embrace me, even though I might be too sound asleep to notice.

To me, the saddest word in the passage is “unindear’d.” The tragedy it implies cuts me to the heart. For it’s endearment, not romance or passion (lovely as both can be), that makes marriage a solace. On a late winter afternoon I sit on the school bleachers with my fidgety son Paul, watching the Harmony boys win their first basketball game of the season, waiting for the fourth period, when the coach will finally let my crabby, benchwarming son James snag two minutes of play. If Tom gets home from work soon enough, if he has time to change his filthy clothes and wash the sheetrock dust out of his sticking-up hair, he’ll drop in; and sure enough, there he is now in the doorway—at forty, still thin and wary as a boy—paying his one dollar, pausing to let the players rush to the other side of the court; and now he’s walking along the edge of the floor, scanning the bleachers, looking for me; and when he catches my eye, he hurries his step; he has a goal, an intention; he scoots up quickly to get out of the players’ path and sits down behind me; I lean back into his knee, and he says, settling his knee against my spine, “You shoveled out my truck.”

And I say, “I did.”

And he says, “They’re winning.”

And I say, “They are.”

“Perpetual Fountain of Domestic sweets.” Why waste all that money on a wedding when this is what you get?

[Published by the University of Massachusetts Press, 2009. An early version of this chapter appeared in the Southwest Review 92, no. 4.]

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