Behind Closed Doors

As a theme, privacy is a dark and complex subject that manifests itself in fascinating ways. The poetry that inspires me the most always seems to have privacy at its root.

Throughout this year, I’ve been contributing towards a number of recordings for KUSP Radio Santa Cruz. In our latest instalment, I discussed ‘Sestina’ by Elizabeth Bishop and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ by Robert Browning, two poems that deal with loss and loneliness from very different perspectives.

As an addendum to what was discussed on the show, comparing these fabulous works in greater detail offers something remarkably striking.

The Poetry Show, KUSP / Radio Santa Cruz, California

Bishop’s ‘Sestina’ is a remarkable poem that casts homeliness and togetherness against every possible unspoken adversity. A child and grandmother, presented in isolation from the rest of the world, try to cope with the loss of the missing generation – the parents.

The child’s naivety, drawing a man ‘with buttons like tears’, is counterbalanced by the grandmother’s exposure to too much loss, and needing to protect the child from her own grief. She’s found ‘laughing and joking to hide her tears’.

The insular environment is both wonderfully homely and yet disconcertingly isolated. The grandmother believes her ‘equinoctial tears’ are only known to her. Where is the outside support? Friends? Neighbours?

We’re drawn into a very loving but fragile bubble where all the two characters have is each other. It’s a wonderfully accommodating symbiotic relationship that requires so much sacrifice and commands so much bravery.

Balancing the morbidity of adult experience is the childlike imagination. The atmosphere becomes like an animated Disney sketch where objects come alive – a comfort to the child, and a testimony to the grandmother. Rarely do innocence and experience combine in such profound benevolence.

‘Porphyria’s Lover’, a dramatic monologue, relates the tragic climax of a scene of passion that goes terribly wrong.

Like ‘September Rain’, the house appears to be the denison of comfort from the harsh autumnal elements and the world of oppression outside. How painfully lonely for the solitary man listening to the rain ‘with heart fit to break’.

As the terrible moment of murder approaches, born through a combination of surprise and shock, the narrator tries to instil the same kind of dependency and solipsistic existence seen in ‘Sestina’ upon his lover.

Be sure I look’d up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipp’d me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good…

Porphyria’s departure would mean a return to the uncertain, desperate, paranoid loneliness that haunts him – so he cannot let her go. Ecstasy and delirium fuse with calculated reason for an astounding and degenerate result.

The nameless narrator, devoid of masculine traits and any sense of control, eventually finds in his moment of joy the adrenalin to restore his own worth.

There’s a strange absence of domination here. The cute reversal of Porphyria’s head coming to rest on his shoulder shows how sometimes it takes the greatest (and perhaps worst) kind of effort to achieve any small step.

Troubled Lovers

If Bishop’s poem is convincingly homely despite the absence of a mother, Browning’s is convincingly sensual despite what is destined to happen.

The innocence of ‘Sestina’ gives rise to vibrant animation: ‘the child | is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears | dance like mad on the hot black stove’. By contrast, the sensuality of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ makes the rest of the world pause and reduces the action to slow motion.

I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laugh’d the blue eyes without a stain.

The house suddenly becomes the uncharted territory of the private individual – or, as Browning coined it himself, a ‘Madhouse Cell’. Behind every door, there’s a story.

The two poems invite us behind closed doors to the tragic and troubling tales contained within.

These works explore life through the eyes of perpetrators and victims: the old and young, in love, war, dependency and survival. Both reveal very different psychological consequences of loss and longing, and each expresses a particular kind of absence and sadness.

Neither poem seeks sympathy, but both attract it, even if we wouldn’t otherwise wish to offer it as readers.

We fear for the vulnerable and isolated household of grandmother and child in ‘Sestina’ as the summer wanes and the long winter approaches. Tears and drawn houses are wafer-thin symbols of self-survival.

And we fear for the nameless lover, blissfully unaware of his own actions, and what might befall a man who seemingly wanted too much to compensate for the nothingness that filled his waking hours…

A slight heart-stopping moment when show host Dennis Morton has to translate my term ‘sectioned’, which is not used in the US.

  • For more on these KUSP Radio appearances (including links to the shows), please visit Poetry and Radio Santa Cruz.
  • If you enjoyed this post, see Brands of Solitude for similar after-show musings on Andrew Marvell and Christina Rossetti.

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