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Old 05-08-2017, 02:28 PM
E. Shaun Russell E. Shaun Russell is offline
Join Date: May 2008
Location: Burtonsville, MD
Posts: 1,910
Default In Parentheses {Full Version}

In Parentheses*

Next week, on May the fifth, my marriage ends.
A judge will hear the uncontested suit
and make his firm decision to dissolve
eight years of matrimony. My now-wife
will turn into my “ex,” and we’ll move on
as friends, acquaintances, or something less—
familiar strangers with a common past
bound only by our waning memories.
And as this truth weighs heavy on my mind,
I search for meaning in parentheses,
retreating into scholarship to find
a mirror to my mood when I recall
how Shakespeare, when forsaken by his love
wrote one last sonnet, different from the rest—
part envoi, part encomium, without
a final couplet, leaving much in doubt.

“O thou my lovely boy…” is how it starts,
but how it’s meant to finish, no one’s sure,
though some suggest that it’s supposed to end
just how it ends: abstruse and vague, with pairs
of brackets spaced like separated rings,
or marks reflecting negative accounts,
or simulacra of two open graves.
Some things we’ll never know. The Quarto text
reflects the poems themselves—ambiguous,
inviting vain attempts to pin them down,
to find a traceable chronology,
or learn who all the intimates might be.
Its printing may have been unauthorized,
as evidenced by countless faults throughout,
like doubled lines and words, and some say these:
one-twenty-six’s dual parentheses.

One-twenty-six is thought to be the last
of all the sonnets penned to the Young Man—
a last goodbye before the poet’s eye
turned womanward to darker loves instead.
Did he intend the brackets as a curse?
An abnegation of the ardor felt—
infatuation unrepaid in kind?
Some scholars think that this might be the case,
that, after scores of missives over years,
unfairly unrequited by his “friend,”
he finally abandons him to Time
and Nature, “sovereign mistress over wrack,”
to wither like a fruit upon the vine,
to lose his beauty and vitality,
to feel the absence of a love unearned,
to bear the brutal weight of being spurned.

Yet we don’t read this rancor in the lines
of text themselves: at best they are benign,
at worst, banal; what makes one-twenty-six
remarkable is what it doesn’t say,
and what we must infer. A long-term love
that ends abruptly warrants speculation:
we want to know what caused it, who’s to blame.
In Shakespeare’s case, we search for clues in poems
throughout the sequence, always coming back
to that invisible, indelible
couplet in parentheses. To me,
divorce is parenthetical as well:
although the choice itself might be abrupt,
the lead-up to that choice is often slow—
so slow that you can’t track where things went wrong,
because there had been fractures all along.

When she decided that she wanted out,
and not because of something that I’d said
or done—nothing concerning me at all—
I couldn’t understand. In seven years
I scarcely sensed a day of discontent:
if someone asked me: “is your marriage strong?”
I’d confidently say “of course” and smile.
In counseling I pressed her on the cause
of her dissatisfaction countless times,
until the counselor had to interject
that knowing reasons wouldn’t change the fact
that things had changed for her. Now I can’t help
but wonder, when he wrote one-twenty-six,
if Shakespeare saw the unappealing truth:
that any words of pleading or attack
could never win his sometime lover back.

Reflecting on the years of earnest verses
received with slight regard, he must have felt
inept and impotent—what could he say
in yet another sonnet when the other
one hundred and twenty-five fell on deaf ears?
I like to think “O thou my lovely boy”
sat naked on the page for hours until
he realized there was nothing left to write
except trite platitudes—that any bond
between him and his friend had long since passed.
And, staring at that mostly empty page,
conflicted by a love that was not love,
he tossed some careless couplets on the sheet
and left the rest in silence. Such a choice
makes sense to me: some things cannot be said
in verse the way you’d want them to be read.

If I could feel resentment would I write
the words of that resentment? Make her seem
a monster for her callous disregard
of all the love I channeled into her?
If, filled with animosity and spite
that seethed and boiled inside me, could I bear
to purge the poison of pent-up emotion
by spilling it against her on the page?
Or would I, in that spite, be circumspect,
reflecting on the many joys we shared,
acknowledging, though trite, that good things end
without apparent reason? Would it be
enough to say “O you, my lovely girl,”—
to hide an admonition in faint praise
and end with two blank lines: blank to obscure
the quietest anathema aimed at her?

But I don’t feel resentment. I don’t feel
the need to cast aspersions on her name
for how things ended. This is not the end.
A friendship of a kind may yet remain,
and though we’ll both move on, our futures will
be guided by the impact of the other.
Our paths diverge but move in parallel—
too far to touch, though never out of reach,
like two sets of parentheses around
unwritten lines. Some things we’ll never know,
but that unknowing is its own reward,
for in it lives all possibilities;
there is no ending: there is only change,
defiant of finality, and so

*Two stanzas of this poem were posted a couple of months ago, but this is the "complete" version.
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Old 05-08-2017, 09:10 PM
Julie Steiner's Avatar
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 5,101

Aw. I hope that doesn't sound condescending, but aw. Beautifully sad and dignified and stoic, yet still somehow hopeful in the final sonnet's talk of possibilities. I think the series very successfully makes peace with both the inability to make sense of certain things and the inability to articulate certain things.

I very much like the attention-getting effect of the rhyming couplets (the chime of which reminded me a bit of the bells during the elevation at Mass), and I felt that the phrasings there were worthy of the attention.

The former bank teller in me wants to omit the "and" in this line:

one hundred and twenty-five fell on deaf ears?

(When writing out the amount of a check, "and" is only supposed to precede the cents.)
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Old 05-09-2017, 07:50 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 348

A long poem that kept me reading in one unbroken breath. It sometimes feels discursive, but why not, after all? Discourse is a thing we engage in, and sometimes, it won't be enough to account for the facts on the ground. I read the first version of this, and thought it was elegantly written, but this has a new human weight that transforms it for this reader. A quiet power, a sustained tone and confidence in execution, a problem worried at and ultimately unresolved, as some problems necessarily are. I like the ending too.

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Old 05-09-2017, 12:36 PM
Aaron Poochigian Aaron Poochigian is offline
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Join Date: May 2007
Location: New York, NY
Posts: 2,122

This poem has grown well. The personal framing narrative of divorce makes the textual issue resonant and relevant. I feared, with your first sections of the poem, that it was going to be too recherche for me.

I'm not sure the climactic image in the final stanza is quite there yet.

This line, for example, did not make sense to me:

too far to touch, though never out of reach,

If your parallel life-paths are never out of reach, they are not too far away to touch (say, with a hand). Do you intend a paradox there? Or by "too far to touch" do you mean "converge"?


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Old 05-12-2017, 09:26 AM
E. Shaun Russell E. Shaun Russell is offline
Join Date: May 2008
Location: Burtonsville, MD
Posts: 1,910

Thanks, everyone. I greatly appreciate your feedback. I almost never write about personal matters, so this poem had me feeling quite exposed. I'm glad it has been well-received.

Julie: Not condescending at all! I'm glad it comes across as dignified and stoic, as I was truly worried (given my lack of experience with writing about personal issues) that it would sound too saccharine or pathos-heavy. As to the "one hundred twenty five," I initially had it as that, then thought I might as well toss in the "and" as a slight metrical substitution (I've tried to make sure the blank verse isn't plodding). But I've gone ahead and removed it again, as it just feels better.

John: Thanks for that. When I first started writing this in early March, I knew it would have the personal elements, but wasn't sure exactly how I would weave them in with my thoughts on Sonnet 126 (which I have a different take on as a "scholar" than I do as a "poet," if that makes any sense). I also knew it would be 126 lines long (if you don't count the brackets) and end in parentheses...though I can't deny that I spent a few hours considering an actual couplet to end with. There's something ever so slightly gimmicky about ending with the blank parentheses, but the purpose behind them is sincere, so I'm letting them stand.

Aaron: Yes, it certainly would have been too recherche, erudite, pedantic etc. if it was just a poem about a textual anomaly in one of Shakespeare's sonnets. I've been fascinated by the parentheses in 126 for years -- particularly how they're interpreted by some scholars and editors. Editors who print 126 without the parentheses make a heinous error, in my opinion. In any event, regarding the seemingly mixed metaphor of the touch / reach, I was imagining two parallel paths that are separated by enough distance that if a person on one path reached out, he could not touch the other, but if both persons on their respective paths reached out, they could touch one another...the idea being that there's always the possibility of connection, but it requires both "path walkers" to want it. That might not come across in those lines as effectively as it should, however, so I'll give some thought as to how to improve the clarity.
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