Poet's Pick April 29
Anne Bradstreet: "A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment "
Selected by Jamaal May
National Poetry Month 2014

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Editors


Jamaal May 's Poetry Month Pick, April 29, 2014

"A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment"
by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

My head, my heart, mine eyes, my life, nay more,
My joy, my magazine, of earthly store,
If two be one, as surely thou and I,
How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lie?
So many steps, head from the heart to sever,
If but a neck, soon should we be together.
I, like the Earth this season, mourn in black,
My Sun is gone so far in's zodiac,
Whom whilst I 'joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,
His warmth such fridged colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn;
Return; return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heart I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father's face.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
But when thou northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest.
Where ever, ever stay, and go not thence,
Till nature's sad decree shall call thee hence;
Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,
I here, thou there, yet both but one. 

 

*Jamaal May Comments:
Anne Bradstreet was the first poet in America to have a volume of poetry published. She arrived in the new world reluctantly and spent much of her time raising eight children alone, as her husband, Simon, was away often for his job.  “A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment” finds the poet wrestling with that absence. I remembered this poem when a book tour took my favorite poet (and romantic partner) to the other side of the country. An ongoing conversation we have is about the way one thing is defined by its inverse. I’ve never felt so far away from someone because I’ve never felt this close. I love how “A Letter to her Husband...” uses rhyme to render that simultaneity.

Rhyme in Anne Bradstreet’s poem “A letter to her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment”  is used to fuse words, and therefore ideas to one another. In many instances this fusing is of discordant thoughts, creating an emotional reenactment of the tension between the wife’s simultaneous feelings of connection and disunion. Consider these four lines:

So many steps, head from the heart to sever,
If but a neck, soon should we be together.
I, like the Earth this season, mourn in black,
My Sun is gone so far in's zodiac,

The two rhymed pairs in this excerpt are “sever, together” and “black, zodiac.” “Sever” is at direct odds with “together” and that difference is brought into relief by their singing in the same key. The result is that they call attention to themselves and, as readers, we put their importance in the context of the poem’s subject matter. This woman who states early in the poem that “two be one” laments the fact that her husband “stayest … there, whilst [she] at Ipswich lie[s].” They are together in a spiritual or emotional way but distant in the physical. This makes it worth noting that “sever” is a strong, physical action verb while “together” is a more abstract adverb. The rhyme links these two words in a way that makes both true and ambiguity is achieved; readers register togetherness and separateness.

“Zodiac” brings with it our thoughts of heavenly bodies like stars, the moon and sun—bodies of light. “Black” is the opposite—the absolute absence of light. What’s even more intriguing about this pairing of opposing elements is the way they also work together. Heavenly bodies are seen against a backdrop of utter blackness. There’s more “black” in the heavens we look to than there is light, but the light stands out because of its contrast with black. In general, we associate this blackness and these bodies of light as one construct when we think of “outer space.” One of the peculiar and emotionally jarring features of our world is how something can be more than what it is, many things at once. Mixed emotions can be difficult to convey without downplaying one in service to the other. Rhyme is Bradstreet’s tool of choice to pull this off.

By the end of Bradstreet’s poem the couple is closer emotionally yet even more distant physically: “I wish my Sun may never set, but burn / Within the Cancer of my glowing breast.” Making the husband the Sun creates more physical distance, while bringing him into the “breast,” where the heart is located, creates less emotional distance. This simultaneous increase and decrease in distance is emphasized at the poem’s close by the type of rhyme used and its uniqueness in respect to the rest of the poem: “Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone / I here, thou there, yet both but one.” Bone is the only eye rhyme in the poem, so is it accurate to say these words aren’t as closely fused as instances in the poem where pairs are sonically matched. Then again, are they even closer than the other pairs because “one” is literally a part of “bone?” I argue that the answer to both questions is yes. The “bone,” or husband, contains the “one,” or wife, making them inseparable while at the same time, they are sonically more distant than any other rhyme in the poem. The amount of distance and closeness is equally stunning.

This is how Bradstreet uses rhyme to enact the experience of two equal yet opposing emotions. This poem and others like it are how I bide my time waiting for the return of amar misthi rodh, or as Bradstreet would say, my “sweet Sol.”


About Jamaal May:
Jamaal May was born in 1982 in Detroit, MI where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer. His first book, Hum (Alice James Books, 2013), received the Beatrice Hawley Award, the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award, an NAACP Image Award nomination, and is a finalist for ForeWord's Book of the Year Award. Other honors include the Indiana Review Prize, the Spirit of Detroit Award, and the Stadler Fellowship from Bucknell University. Most recently, Jamaal has been awarded Rose O’Neill Literary House’s 2014 Cave Canem Residency, the 2014-2016 Kenyon Review Fellowship, and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Italy. Jamaal’s poems appear in such periodicals as The New Republic, The Believer, Poetry, Ploughshares, NYTimes.com, and Best American Poetry 2014. A graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA Program, he co-directs the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook and Video Series with Tarfia Faizullah and teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program.


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