Marriage sets off egg tagliatelle and shame,
insists it is the solution
and not the problem
or maybe that’s the marriage of my husband.
I don’t understand what I’m supposed to understand,
he beefs at 3 a.m.
It takes stamina going on and on as it does.
His is a solid handshake.
Neighbours and exes covet it.
Mine is routine harassment; hung up
and training monogamy,
it salves my skin with sweet grease
to the slow loneliness of a mooning belly.
The inner child of my marriage
is oral schizoid, masochistic,
prays for a defrocked rake
on a white horse
in all possible worlds.
It has the vertiginous pout of a Lazio gargoyle
and needs Reichian pulsation,
emotional release, rebirth.
But so much is unresolved.
I nurse marriage
at wayside shrines in suburban shopping centres,
sweat holy tears and lettuces.
It breaks my spirit
on stacks of face-embossed confetti
and plastic cocks.
Planets, desks and thumbs
go slack in a twinning mind.
Baguettes and nightingales lament.
I stake marriage
on the North Circular under the slaked candelabra
of horse chestnut flowers in June,
straining for a kiss
over the colossal exhaust.
As a long-ago philosophy dropout, much given to idleness, late-night curries and blasphemy against Bishop Berkeley, I thoroughly warmed to Alison Winch’s first collection, Darling, It’s Me, recently published by Penned in the Margins. Winch’s philosophical challenges are both extremely funny and politically astute, and you really don’t need to have completed your philosophy degree to get the point (luckily for me). But there’s more to this collection than rude feminist wit at the expense of the scaly leviathans of epistemology. The poem I’ve chosen for this week, Marriage, shows how her writing sizzles and dazzles across the body-mind boundaries, mixing surrealism, comedy, eroticism and pathos in a whirl of seriously brilliant wordplay.
The arresting opening verb “sets off” could be read several ways: primarily, I think it’s saying that both the egg tagliatelle and the shame have been activated by marriage. They may be separate phenomena, but are most likely linked. An understandably failed attempt at homemade pasta could be humiliating for a “newlywed” out to prove their domestic credentials.
Stanza two snappily invokes wife-husband disjunction concerning the whole concept of marriage. Each partner sees a different marriage, in fact. I loved the husband’s exasperated 3am “beefs”: food isn’t the issue, but it’s conjured by the verb, and this time it’s the non-vegetarian choice. In the fourth stanza, “training monogamy” also made me laugh: it sounds like “training pants”, especially in its position between “uteruses” and “the slow loneliness of a mooning belly”.
The irreconcilability of pregnancy and sexuality occupies stanzas six to 10. The tone is less detached and the language more heaped with allusion than earlier. Feelings and figures proliferate with the speaker’s comparison of the “inner child of my marriage” to a “Lazio gargoyle”. Those vomiting cherubs might also suggest morning sickness, but that’s probably too literal minded an interpretation on my part.
Stanza eight’s final line wearily, philosophically, nips the proliferation in the bud (“But so much is unresolved”). It’s at least partly a comment on the “Reichian pulsation” that earlier propelled a little surge of bio-therapeutic excitement.
In the stanzas beginning “I nurse marriage”, proliferation sets in again. It’s as if adult life itself were unbearable accumulation. Marriage has become an unruly child to be calmed and fed, and the “twinning mind” of the narrator is overwhelmed at the same time by all the clamouring external phenomena. A ritual of self-comforting (perhaps retail therapy?) is suggested by “the wayside shrines in suburban shopping centres” but it’s all too much for sanity. God should stop looking at the mall, then perhaps everything would disappear.
An awkward squad of colourful nouns pushes through the narrative: tears, lettuces, face-embossed confetti and plastic cocks (from the shelves of the rundown sex shop or the whirling imagination?), planets, desks, thumbs, baguettes, nightingales. The nightingales, and even the baguettes, may signal victory for a romanticism that flickers darkly at the margins of the poem – in the wonderful image of the “defrocked rake // on a white horse”, for example.
The resolution of the last stanzas is still compromised. The chestnut trees’ “candelabra” are described as “slaked” and the kiss involves “straining”. The “colossal exhaust” may not refer solely to the toxicity of the North Circular Road: it may be connected to efforts of marriage and pregnancy, or the by-products of meeting those massive demands. More broadly, the phrase evokes the extraordinary tiredness that descends on people in summer, in overcrowded, overheated cities.
Winch’s clever final reduction of her stanza form from tercet to unrhymed but assonance-rich couplet may be intended to suggest the running-out of breath. But, of course, those two neatly paired last lines may represent a happier human couple, two people and two ideas of marriage brought peacefully, if exhaustedly, together. We’re not told who was straining for the kiss, though: it might only have been the chestnut flowers. This is poetry, not logical positivism. And deliciously readable it is, too.