A deconstructivish reading of a love poem

    love poem

    I want to write you
    a love poem as headlong
    as our creek
    after thaw
    when we stand
    on its dangerous
    banks and watch it carry
    with it every twig
    every dry leaf and branch
    in its path
    every scruple
    when we see it
    so swollen
    with runoff
    that even as we watch
    we must grab
    each other
    and step back
    we must grab each
    other or
    get our shoes
    soaked we must
    grab each other

-- Linda Pastan

poem stolen for scholarly purposes from
The Norton Introduction to Literature 6th edition)


This reading is copyright Professor John Lye, 1996. It may be used, with accreditation, for non-profit purposes. If you have any suggestions or responses please mail me.

In looking at this poem I do not want to stop with the bathos underlying it: the stakes of love being reduced to people getting their feet wet; or the powerlessness of grabbing, as the lovers admit themselves incapable of anything but retreat and grasping before the forces, however weak, of nature. This is not properly speaking deconstructive reading but simply putting the weight of its own language and images on the passion it claims to express in order to test its structures of meaning.

I would like to look at "dangerous banks": in part because it is I think the most powerful image in the poem. In fact it could be said to be the whole poem. Banks are dangerous because they can be undermined by the force of the water, and crumble; hence the dangerousness of banks is not that they are not safe as much as they can look safe and not be safe. A bank is a containment. The poem transfers the danger of the force of nature to that which is the apparent containment of that force. But of course containments are created by the forces which they apparently seek to control: banks are the silent co-conspirators of the force of the water. I want to tie the tension of banks, including the secret of their danger, that as banks they are creatures of what they seek to control, and as measures of control they are not assaulted but eroded; I want to tie that to the situation of the lover as she expresses it. I will return to this.

I want however to go to the main disruption in the poem, "scruple", and to its use. Twigs, dry leaves, branches and scruples. Quite literally, this is so. The word "scruple" comes etymologically from the Latin scrupulum , small pebble. Twigs, dry leaves, branches and pebbles washed downstream by the swollen creek. You say, "Hold it, it's apparent that the writer is shifting domains, that by including "scruple" she is working metaphorically, shifting to social and moral ground, showing how the force of nature washes away scruples as well, being nature, being force, our inhibitions cannot stand before the force of nature, that is, in the domain-transfer, passion. And of course we noticed, we're fourth-year students after all, what an ambiguity that introduces into the poem, as the lovers retreat in the face of that force which washes away scruples -- a deeply scrupulous couple indeed, protecting themselves from anything which would expose them to passion, afraid even to get their feet wet. So much for headlong poems."

But scruples, orally and socially considered are containments, that is, banks. They are, as containments, created by the passions that they seek to control. They appear only in the face of them, and are as intense as they are; scruples, like all moral containments, are the mirrors of passion. They are the most interior, the most unseen of containments, they are in fact the constructions of ideology, our social rules acting internally as conscience. "Scruples" tie the moral and the social together brilliantly as well. The word is used of manners and of performances ("She was a scrupulous housekeeper") as well as of morals, and suggests the internal force of sociality acting as moral demand. The word suggests as well the presence of an ideal against which action is measured, so the shadow of the absolute falls over a person with every mention of scruple, with every scruple held.

Scruples are also small pebbles, that is, they are in fact elements of nature, and the odd and etymologically appropriate use of the word here leads to reflection, in two directions. First, the word "scruple" seems to have come into our language through the use of it in measurement, "a small weight or measure" (OED), and was used of time as well as of substance, 1/24th of an ounce, or one sixtieth of an hour or, as the second scrupulum, one sixtieth of a minute (hence "second"); this directs us to the way in which our human imagination reconstructs the world in a quantitative way (time is placed in hours, distance in kilometers, we count our heartbeats and the words in our essay, number our page -- how do I love thee, let me count the ways). And the scruples that the lovers face, or are afraid of, are themselves ultimately natural, as we are led to think about the rootedness of social constraint in the constructions of nature itself, and so here as with any transformation of a physical into a moral object are led to consider the deeply rooted and pervasive physicality of life which such metaphorical use silently insists on throughout our language. The real tie-in of this poem to nature is not through the obvious analogy of passion to a raging river, an analogy which is obviously rather faulty in this poem, but through the deep rootedness of our imaginations in the natural which the use of scruples in that slightly unexpected and contradictory way leads us to.

But banks are dangerous, because they can be undermined, they are that which seems secure -- after all, we bank on them, we keep our money in them, we preserve fire at night by banking it -- but which are at any moment likely to give way. So are scruples likely to be undermined, swept away. And this leads me to the third oddity in the poem, the use of "grab." As a word of passion, this is a most curious one. But in the logic of the text that the deconstructive reading reveals, it is a logical reading. The writer herself is on a dangerous bank, and quite naturally so; as so often is the case in a deconstructive reading, those instabilities and anxieties which underlie our existence and give the lie to our certainties are uncovered by the reading. In order to unpack "grab", I would like to go back to review how the speaker begins. "I want to write you/a love poem" Let's skip for a moment -- or maybe forever, time passes -- the intriguing evidence of the break, which makes the first line read simply "I want to write you," as of course she is inscribing her lover (we presume it's her lover), writing him in to her life (although legally he is already there, see below). Well, we've skipped that. I want to write you a love poem. Not "I am writing you a love poem". The circumlocution, or the hesitation, opens up a space of undecidability and anxiety. A want is a desire and a lack; all desire indicates a lack. The poem from the very beginning hedges itself, contains itself. If the writer had perfect possession of her love, she would want for nothing, but she does want, and she wants to inscribe him, to write him in, but he is not in, or may not be in, banks being so dangerous, and she is not depending on him being in. The poem is a risk, a revelation of something hidden. I want to write you [break] a love poem. That the poem is titled "love poem", with the carefully circumspect lower case, confirms this anxiety.

This brings me back to the grabbing, which is repeated (the repetition betrays the anxiety), and we can now perhaps, seeing the anxiety inherent in the poem from the beginning, an anxiety which reveals itself in the smallness of the gestures risked, creeks and twigs, getting shoes wet, we can now pick up that other word, that qualification of grabbing, "must." Not we will, but we will be compelled to. We will have to grab each other. The writer is depending on forces beyond her to create the conditions of her union. This is a very rich and subtle observation. We live in a physical world , we are subject to it. We can never fully possess one another, we are subject to the forces of our physical selves, it is these forces which compel our union, our being together. The implicit blindness and desperation of "grab", so curious in what we from the beginning thought was a love poem, because it said it was a love poem, fits entirely with the instability and anxiety introduced, we see, in want, so forcefully expressed in "dangerous banks." The eruption of "scruples" with its complex reference to morality, to propriety, to ideals striven for, while all the while remaining in its most forceful logic a physical thing, although a physical thing through which measurement of physicality was effected, right to the second, this eruption is the eruption which constructs so many sources of anxiety for the writer: we are physical, we are apart, we are in a world of danger, of dangerous banks, of containments that are can be eroded at any time, by passion, by the force of nature, and so the response of the anxious lover is to grab, to place him where he must grab, to grab each other.

The revealed reading is made all the more poignant by the expression of the relationship between them of the phrase "our creek": this suggests a joint ownership, a holding of property together. This in turn suggests a settled, or a long-time, relationship, probably of marriage. But it is not, as the poem reveals, "our creek," in that the banks are dangerous; the physicality and contingency which we are controls us, not we it. And this anxiety in what should be a stable relationship, a joint-ownership relationship, emphasizes the anxiety, the lack, the tentativeness with which the relationship is held, in which perhaps all relationships are held; the danger to them is erosion, time and tide and passion and physicality itself.

As is so often the case with a deconstructive reading, we are led to a fuller and more human reading of the poem, a reading that opens up the fragility, the tentativeness, of our human being. We could just have written the poem off as a curiously flawed poem, but it is more than that, it is a human articulation whose deep need the deconstructive reading has honoured. The fact is, too, that the force of the poem as a love poem remains; without it the anxiety would not be salient. No trust without betrayal, no possession without loss.

One could mention, by the way, the fact that the poem works as a poem only by containment, and that containment is imposed by the writer, is a condition of her anxiety as it is an arbitrary imposition. Without the line breaks this is not a poem; only the spaces, the hesitations, the lack of punctuation, these the forced containments of our reading, the banks of the poem contrived of absence, make it a poem.