Monday’s Poem: ‘Let the Day Perish,’ by Cate Marvin

I was meaner than a flimsy dollar the change machine refuses.
I was duplicitous as a Canadian dime.
I slid through your town only to announce my prejudices.
And only to slip my tongue into the slot of your mouth.

Bade you come over. Covered your hand with mine.
Bade you lay down. Stroked your neck, allowed your story.
Bade you pull my body down. Bore me half to death.
This is where the what and when happens. Two

people on a couch, liquored up and lousy at the mouth.
I dislike everything in your refrigerator.
I criticize your cupboards, suggest you replace
your glassware. I pick up a broom when you’re not

looking (yet you were looking) and sweep your whole
house out. I make a comment about your teeth.
(Mine are very fine and straight.) I complain about
the cotton/poly sheets. (They make me sweat.)

There was a light from your window that bore
right through me. I wanted nothing more than
to put my tongue to your teeth. I’d have licked
your whole house clean, bought you a crystal set

of glassware, laid down the dinner table with new
plates. I’d scrub your tub, your toilet. But perhaps
you did not understand my critique as servitude.
I was merely asking to be put into your employ.

I happen to like your mud-wash eyes. The mean
bags beneath your eyes. The jitter your hand does.
I don’t actually care about anything but that.
Everything’s been lousy since I left. Someone

smashed my car window just for the hell of it.
I am constantly harassed by thoughts of you.
I have made a poor investment in real estate.
When you took me out into your back yard

and showed me the koi pond you’d filled with
cement, it made me sad.
Then you said you could bring it back.

Copyright © by Cate Marvin.  Printed by permission of the author.

Cate Marvin is the author of two poetry collections, World’s Tallest Disaster (2001) and Fragment of the Head of a Queen (2007), as well as co-editor of the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (2006), all of which were published by Sarabande Books. A Whiting Award recipient, she is an associate professor of creative writing at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She is cofounder and codirector of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (vidaweb.org), an organization geared toward promoting the critical and cultural reception of women’s literature.

Arts & Academe’s poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes:

Cate Marvin’s “Let the Day Perish” situates itself, from the speaker’s first boastful line (“I was meaner than a flimsy dollar the change machine refuses”), in the centuries-old tradition of seduction ballads, and her ambiguously gendered narrator plays with stereotypes of the bad stranger, the reckless itinerant, the rogue passing through, the rake. That third word, “meaner,” announces from the get-go the poem’s two principle economies—literal and emotional impoverishment, fecklessness and cruelty.

But this poem means to be more than a stock tale of a seduction gone predictably wrong (the “perish” of the title derives from the Latin perire: per—detrimentally, ire—to go; that is, to go badly). The luring and deed are over in the second and the third quatrains. Addressing the “you,” the speaker says that I

Bade you come over.  Covered your hand with mine.
Bade you lay down.  Stroked your neck, allowed your story.
Bade you pull my body down.  Bore me half to death.
This is where the what and when happens.  Two

people on a couch, liquored up and lousy at the mouth.

In the stanzas that follow, however, the seducer seems unable to cleanly extricate from the victim. Shifting tenses and mood, the narrator mixes up condescending, ruthless dissing (the “you” is criticized for everything from cheap cotton/poly sheets to bad teeth) with a passive-aggressive cruelty that sometimes poses as what may or may not be mock servility (“I wanted nothing more than / to put my tongue to your teeth. I’d have licked / your whole house clean, bought you a crystal set // of glassware . . . . perhaps / you did not understand my critique as servitude. / I was merely asking to be put into your employ.”

It is these sadomasochistic tendencies that complicate this psychological portrait. Our “duplicitous” aggressor/narrator flirts at times with various victim poses; after listing all of the things about the “you” that are despised, the speaker admits that “I happen to like your mud-wash eyes. The mean / bags beneath your eyes. The jitter your hand does. / I don’t actually care about anything but that”). When the narrator confesses that “There was a light from your window that bore / right through me,” Marvin’s second use of “bore”—to tire, to invade—suggests that a kind of spiritual or psychic ennui may be at the root of this speaker’s vexing, almost Iago-like motiveless malignancy and of the terrible torpor and paralysis of this closet drama, which seems not to be as much about relationship as it is about the speaker’s own rootless swervings between brutality and a vexed, helpless futility.

The conflation of victim and aggressor intensifies: “Everything’s been lousy since I left,” the speaker complains, using “I” where the reader would expect to see “you,” and one gets the strong feeling that the narrator could well be in conversation with him or herself at this point. But the poem’s final image—anti-Romantic, too fresh to be the figment of a patent fantasy—reminds us that this poem is more than a moralistic or cautionary tale (the poem’s title echoes the well-known phrase, “perish the thought”—an admonition to guard against mistakes or misbegotten attempts), that it is an account of emotional circumstances between an I and a you that are all too genuinely fraught with shame, power-play, hurt, and sadness:

When you took me out into your back yard

And showed me the koi pond you’d filled with
Cement, it made me sad.
Then you said you could bring it back.

In old ballads like “The Blacksmith” (19th-century), the wronged ingénue, when she confronts her fickle lover about his betrayal, is taunted by the rake to “bring your witness, Love, and I’ll not deny you.” Who or what is witness to this psychologically dark, astute “story”—to the complex, murky “what and when” of it?  Obviously it must be the reader.  The title suggests, too, that the eye of day (the gaze boring through the window) is also what brings these dark passages to light.  In January, when the days seem to extinguish early, it is also paradoxically true that daylight, like the unlikely but looked-for restoration of the koi pond at the poem’s end, is on the comeback. It would be a misreading of this poem to suggest a happy ending for its players. But that Marvin grants the “you” of the poem, in the privileged last line, a wish for restoration, if not the actual means to pull it off, is also undeniable.

(Photo by Flickr user black_stone_cherry)

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