with critique by Jendi Reiter
On second thought
he should have brought some wine and cheese.
But he showed up, instead,
with a loaf of plain white bread,
some cold cuts and a box of faded memories.
There wasn't anything to drink,
just water from that rust-stained sink.
He would have liked some tea but
she ran out the other day.
So he squeezed a withered lemon slice
and wondered if the awful price
was something that he honestly
could ever hope to pay.
The years they spent together,
like the vagaries of weather,
were highs and lows and arguments,
the kind most people have.
But the roads were getting much too steep,
the wounds were getting much too deep
to be healed by any ordinary antiseptic salve.
He knew it wasn't meant to last.
She ran her life so god damned fast.
He had trouble keeping up with her
just getting into bed.
She was like a lonely rose
thorns disguised in perfumed prose.
Holding on would leave him
with his fingers freshly bled.
So he finally broke it off
announcing with a nervous cough
that he'd rented an apartment
on the other side of town.
There was a sadness in her eyes
that somewhat softened her replies
though she stung his ears with one last taunt,
"You'll never live this down!"
But like a knitted sleeve's unraveling,
love's tether seems an endless string,
so he'd look for vagrant reasons
to take that crosstown ride.
He'd find her scarf among his things.
He'd hear a song they used to sing
and so he'd go, they'd share some bread
and all the truths they used to hide.
Copyright 2006 by Gene Dixon
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Gene Dixon's "Geoffrey and Margot, After the Breakup" is a bittersweet poem that makes the most of the ambiguous terrain between serious and light verse. Like the ex-husband it describes, the poem does not make a show of its romantic intentions, but sidles up to the reader, seeming to have nothing consequential on its mind, till the poignant surprise of the final lines. The irregular number of lines per stanza, and the relaxed meter, similarly disguise the artifice of the consistent "aabccb" rhyme scheme.
I appreciated how all these elements of the poem worked together to create an unbroken mood of quiet intimacy, tinged with equal parts humor and sadness. The characters' names are well-chosen; I pictured a middle-aged British couple who see themselves as too old and sensible for the operatic language of love, preferring the depth of their relationship to remain unspoken. The ending leaves us wondering whether the price of their newfound trust is too high. Did love have to die before friendship could begin—or will they find their way back to each other?
The opening lines do not give a hopeful prognosis for the relationship. Here are two people who can scarcely be bothered to do anything for each other, or for themselves. He "should have brought some wine and cheese" but the best he can manage is cold cuts and white bread, whereas she is even worse off, with only rusty water and withered lemons in place of tea.
But are they really so badly off, or is this bleak perspective the flip side of the same self-pity that made ordinary "arguments, the kind most people have" look like wounds too deep to heal? Not until the very end of the poem does it seem as if the characters are ready to give up the melodrama and see one another clearly. This poem's stubborn demythologizing of romance, its dissection of the shabby realities beneath our self-serving fantasies, reminded me of the work of mid-20th-century poets Philip Larkin and Alan Dugan.
Later in the poem, we unexpectedly learn that Margot was originally too passionate for her husband. How did someone who until recently "ran her life so god damned fast" become incapable of remembering to buy tea? Perhaps Geoffrey was always after her to tone down her emotions, and now that she has changed into the person he thought he wanted, he sees what a mistake it was. The "awful price" he fears he cannot pay could be the guilt he feels at her apparent depression, or the way in which their separation has cut them both off at the roots and made them only half-alive.
The metaphor of the unraveling sweater in the last stanza prepares the way for the literal scarf that triggers Geoffrey's nostalgia. The touching detail "He'd hear a song they used to sing" shows them in a new, less comical light, as a couple who did not merely bicker over sex and cuisine but whose hearts could respond to art and romance.
There is a feeling of harmony in this stanza, as if the characters' real lives and their imaginations are at last in sync. Previously, all we hear about are mismatched expectations and disappointments, both before and after the breakup. Margot, at least as seen through her ex-husband's eyes, may have been somewhat phony and self-dramatizing ("a lonely rose/thorns disguised in perfumed prose"). But somehow, sharing a simple loaf of bread has become enough to overcome their estrangement and insincerity. The trivial or stylistic differences between them were not the issue after all. The question that remains is whether either one has the courage for a relationship where "all the truths they used to hide" are now in the open.
Where could a poem like "Geoffrey and Margot" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Best New Poets Open Competition
Entries must be received by June 15
Meridian, the literary journal of the University of Virginia, offers $200 and anthology publication for poems by writers with no published books; no simultaneous submissions; enter online only
Margaret Reid Poetry Prize for Traditional Verse
Postmark Deadline: June 30
Winning Writers affiliate offers $1,000 for published or unpublished poems in traditional forms; enter online or by mail
This poem and critique appeared in the May 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.