The Bible so succinctly and tastefully describes coitus as “the way of a man with a maid.” Shakespeare in Hamlet referred to it as “country matters” and in Othello so vividly and lustily as “making the beast with two backs.” This union of man and woman is one of the great mysteries of life and I often marvel with my own marriage, wondering, “How did this ever happen?” For, we are two people so very different in so many ways but have been drawn together for 24 years into a bond that is increasingly indissoluble.
I have three poems about this relationship and its intricacies. The first by W. H. Auden likens two couples coming together to physics and two disparate “particles” pelting each other.
ON A CHILDHOOD’S GUIDE TO METAPHYSICS
If all a top physicist knows
About the Truth be true,
Then, for all the so-and sos,
Futility, and grime
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do
Or the atoms in our brain.
Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely, it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
Around a universe
In which a lover’s kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one’s neck.
Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel,
Since year after year it repels
An aging suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.
Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet, Euclidean space—
Exploded myths, but who
Would feel at home a-straddle
An ever expanding saddle?
This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for—
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.
It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really becomes a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing nature
Be altogether wise.
The second poem, by Sharon Olds, describes a man and woman meeting at college, falling in love, and having sex from which a child comes. This coitus is described as, “I take them up like the male and female/ paper dolls and bang them together at the hips like chips of flint as if to/strike sparks from them.”
I Go Back to May 1937 (from The Gold Cell)
By Sharon Olds
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it–she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
One of my favorite poems is by Wendell Berry in which he beautifully describes the turmoil that is always part of a marriage when both parties are alive, each of them allowed to be present in the relationship, a “presence” which is disallowed in most marriages of the day.
How hard it is for me3, who live
In the excitement of women
And have the desire for them
In my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
you have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
and yet I am not quiet.
it is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.