One Flesh – Elizabeth Jennings
Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere – it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.
Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do, it is like a confession
Of having little feeling – or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.
Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?
There are times in every relationship when couples grow apart, some being caused by coldness and hatred and others by distance in the relationship. To the people in the relationship, it can appear as if they are ‘coasting’ in their relationship. They love each other dearly but thirty years of being together, or more if older than me, can cause a couple to live and love together, without there being a need for intimate contact. Likewise, the lack of intimate contact in a relationship is not always a signal that the love is dying, but that is the usual conclusion when you are observing someone else, like a daughter looking on at her parents and coming to the wrong, or false, conclusion.
That is what I think is happening here and my reason for thinking it rests on one line of verse. Let’s have a look, line by line and see what I mean. The poem begins with the words “lying apart now,” which immediately denotes separation between the two. Couple that with them both being “each in a separate bed” and the reader takes the opinion that the love has waned or died and now they are just staying together because of relationship rather than love, a companionship if you like, in old age.
How far from the truth could we be?
The picture is painted for the reader of them both in the bedroom, “he with a book, keeping the light on late” and “she like a girl dreaming of childhood.” The idea of opposites are obvious but these are the obvious things that the speaker, the daughter, expects to see. They are the things she, at a younger age, sees on the television, but they are caricatures of real life, not their representative reality. The speaker then says “all men elsewhere – it is as if they wait some new event.” This is quite a hurting, callous thing to say, reflecting more of the poet’s opinions of love and relationship than her parents’ attitude to it. It is a reflection of her modern, post feminist attitudes that comply with the likes of Political Correctness than a true look at reality.
The poet then says of the man that his existence is meaningless and uses the image of “the book he holds unread” to bolster her opinion of what is happening. She seems to think that with “her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead” there is a growing distance between them both. She might be right too but I see and offer an alternative here for you to consider. They are described by their poet daughter as resembling something of “flotsam” tossed up “from a former passion.” Flotsam may need to be Googled by you [you have to do some work you know] but she says “how cool they lie” as if all the passion has died. Couple this with “they hardly ever touch” and “if they do, it is like a confession of having little feeling” and you get the common reading of this poem; separation and loss of passion leading eventually, to real time separation and divorce.
However, if “chastity faces them” then this means they intend to stay together, denoting a long, abiding affection for each other, because what else is there? There is no hint of another woman, or man, in the poem. There is no hint of an affair. So the poet is assuming that they will lead “their whole lives [as] a preparation” for something that is coming. Now this is where my proof comes in for they are described as being “strangely apart, yet strangely close together,” a selection of words that sound slightly oxymoronic, if not ironic, seeking to make the reader think it is all but over now for them but in reality, hiding the truth, or offering a half truth if you like.
Does it sound like another poem you have studied now?
There is a “silence between them” and it is this silence that makes me wonder if this relationship is stronger than the poet thinks. She has just got through saying that they are “strangely apart, yet strangely close together,” which makes me think the poet might be missing something. Yes, there is a sense of separation, but real loss is something these two do not share. The pain of such loss brings a couple together. If they had lost a child, they would be in each other’s arms. I know, because I have been there and got that tee shirt.
So why would a happily married couple defer to single beds then? Have a read of this article. It is not as obvious, or an unused thing in modern life as we think.
The truth of the matter is that there is not enough information in the poem to suggest this is all over for this couple. The words that follow also back up my theory about this poem in that they suggest that the couple are ageing well together, that “time itself’s a feather touching them gently,” making their life together happy in their final years together even if there is a separateness.
Now, there is the traditional reading of this poem and then there are the rogue ones like this, but I ask the same question as the poet, namely “do they know they’re old?” if they have been together for four decades, as is suggested here by the poet [or some other lengthy period of time] then a sense of oneness is formed. The title here, supports my theory because it comes from the book of Genesis in the Bible, where the phrase “one flesh” is used to signify how when two people get married, two become one in union with each other.
Genesis 2 v 24 says, “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” These two seem to have a real grasp on the meaning of this in their relationship? These two are the father and my mother of the poet, so she is close in the family but she fails to see where their fire and passion comes from. She says that the “fire from which I came, has now grown cold” in the two of them, but this is only an opinion and one that shares her own discontent for love in general. It may be that she has radical views on love and is therefore expressing those views on us, the reader.
Is the love and passion growing cold for this couple? It may well be, but be careful not to consider other alternative ways to read a poem like this.