08 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/6

one for old snaggle-tooth

I know a woman
who keeps buying puzzles
pieces that finally fit
into some order.
she works it out
she solves all her
lives down by the sea
puts sugar out for the ants
and believes
in a better world.
her hair is white
she seldom combs it
her teeth are snaggled
and she wears loose shapeless
coveralls over a body most
women would wish they had.
for many years she irritated me
with what I considered her
eccentricities –
like soaking eggshells in water
(to feed the plants so that
they'd get calcium).
but finally when I think of her
and compare it to other lives
more dazzling, original
and beautiful
I realize that she has hurt fewer
people than anybody I know
(and by hurt I simply mean hurt).
she has had some terrible times,
times when maybe I should have
helped her more
for she is the mother of my only
and we were once great lovers,
but she has come through
like I said
she has hurt fewer people than
anybody I know,
and if you look at it like that,
she has created a better world.
she has won.

Frances, this poem is for

Charles Bukowski

Snaggle-tooth in the title suggests a number of possibilities concerning both the woman who is the subject of the poem and the narrator's relationship with her: that she isn't quite conventionally beautiful in her appearance, and that she maybe doesn't care that much about that anyway; she's perhaps a bit eccentric, with a hint of a witch's powers about her; and the narrator has a complicated view of her (is old snaggle-tooth affectionate, a bit disparaging, some combination of both?). The word is also a clever redirect by the poet, because whatever its use suggests about her or him, it doesn't sound like the start of a love poem, which is what this poem turns out to be: a profound evocation of mature love.

But we don't know this at the start of the poem; we just know the narrator is talking about some woman he knows. She keeps buying puzzles, mostly ones involving interlocking pieces (the Chinese puzzles) that she works out methodically, logically: it's sort of an introspective amusement, but suggests a way of relating to the world that is thoughtful and determined to "solve" it into some kind of pleasing order (does she see our narrator as himself a puzzle? is he aware of this, and is that why he spends so much time talking about her approach to puzzles? is that part of his apparent frustration with her? – people who think of themselves as puzzles generally don't like to feel that they've been "solved").

He follows this with some seemingly random details about her that actually give us a pretty good picture of what she's like: she lives by the sea, she feeds ants whereas most people would poison them. So she likes nature, not only in its magnificence (the sea) but in its tiny and for humans often annoying manifestations (the ants). She maybe doesn't care that much about people; you don't get the sense that she's trying to be different or shocking, she's just going her own way. The narrator talks about her appearance, which seems to matter more to him than it does to her. She's an older woman, since her hair is already white, and she seldom combs it. He again mentions her snaggle tooth. She still has a shapely body – it's the one thing he mentions about her appearance that is conventionally "beautiful" – but she doesn't really display it, so his knowledge of its shapeliness is our first indication of an intimacy and an erotic element in their relationship, though at this point it doesn't really go beyond things a man might notice about even a casual acquaintance.

It also says something about him that his way of describing her body's beauty is to say that it's the body most women would wish they had – he's thinking along social lines, conventional lines, seeing her in relation to and compared with other women, a subject to which she is apparently indifferent. And perhaps this is part of the irritation he's felt towards her: when you're a poet, particularly a poet who writes free verse, avoiding capital letters, dwelling on your drinking and loving, there has to be a bit of a needle in realizing that you care about these conventional things. Her indifference to them seems like an indirect rebuke to him, though not an intentional one, which probably adds to the sting. He mentions another of her "eccentricities": soaking eggshells in water so the plants would get calcium (not her plants, but the plants, as if she claimed no ownership and just wanted to look after growing things in the right way). As with the sugar for the ants, she's taking a thoughtful, nurturing approach to the world living around her. These things are "eccentricities" only when seen in the context of what other people do: once again, the narrator is viewing things from a social and even conventional viewpoint, while this woman is pursuing her own course.

And then the poet says that finally when I think of her life, and finally suggests not only a summing up of his thoughts but also that he's been a long time in grappling with those thoughts. They must have known each other for many years. Finally, he says, when he thinks of her life – and again he automatically compares it to other lives, lives more dazzling, original and beautiful – he realizes that, on a basic level, showing the same thoughtfulness to people that she does to ants and plants (which is not always the case with nature lovers), she has hurt fewer people than anyone else he knows. Fewer people, so she has hurt some, but that seems to be unavoidable. The achievement is to limit the hurt you cause others, which means she must have deliberately refrained many times from wounding those around her.

This discussion of refraining from hurting others as perhaps the ultimate good in life darkens and deepens the mood: we've left the world of puzzles with logical solutions and gone into one where the only solution to the unsolvable world is to cause as little pain as possible. We've been given details of the everyday things she does that the narrator finds eccentric or annoying, but we're not told what exactly made the terrible times she has gone through so terrible, and perhaps that very vagueness allows us to feel part of the uncertainty and paranoia of emotional pain; the word terrible strikes me forcefully. Perhaps the narrator doesn't go into detail because he has been involved in or even caused some of those terrible times. First he confesses that he feels he's failed her, and maybe he should have helped her more, and then, in an outburst of intimacy – the description of her so far has been close, but also fairly detached – he confesses that she is the mother of his only child, and they were once great lovers.

It's interesting that he puts their shared parenthood first, and only then mentions their apparently wonderful sexual relationship. For a poet like Bukowski, whose work builds on his reputation for bohemian, anti-bourgeois living, it's a sweetly domestic order of things – but then, we've seen that our narrator here is keenly aware of how he and his loved ones are viewed by society. And all along that's been part of his internal struggle in how he sees this woman – old snaggle-tooth, the mother of his only child, his former lover. As they've both aged, other considerations – the dazzling, original and beautiful lives of others, their own once great love, his irritation at her habits and what others would see as her eccentricities – drop away; in the long view of a life, with its terrible times and forgotten great loves, the question that remains is: of course you were hurt, but did you hurt others, or did you refrain from hurting?

From this point of view, the narrator must give way in his long internal struggle with this former lover. There's a bit of a sheepish admission in the ambiguous exclamation well, emphasized by its isolation on its own line, with an underlying tone of another meaning of this slippery word, something done in a good or satisfactory manner. Well, this woman who believes / ultimately / in a better world has, in fact, helped create a better world. Ultimately is also emphasized by being put on its own line, and we may initially read that as some time in distant future, but this acknowledgement that she has improved the world, or at least the world around her, suggests that ultimately is really to be measured as the span of a human life. The poet gives us the resolution of his struggle with her: she has won. It's a measure of how much we've learned about both of them that it seems completely logical that he would see things this way, as a matter of winning and losing, but she would be indifferent to the victory he finally admits she has had over him: that's part of her refusal to hurt others – part of her withdrawal, whether it was deliberate or not, from some of the social relations and comparisons that haunt the narrator.

So far we've had flowing text, so the gap before the final lines brings us up short. For the first time, the poet uses the woman's name, Frances. After thinking of her (what other name did we have?) as old snaggle-tooth, she suddenly is vividly evoked and seen in a new light through the most simple and basic thing: her name. In this envoi, the poet has stopped addressing himself, or us, and speaks directly to her. He offers her, in the shape of the poem we've just read, a final admission of how she has altered him and of what he now understands about her and their life. He offers her the poem as a sign of and tribute to enduring compassionate love.

This is from Love Is a Dog from Hell by Charles Bukowski.

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