Several years ago, British poet John Fuller wrote a poem with a bright future as a chart-topping pop song. Perhaps its catchy flow is due to the fact that it’s a strict villanelle, or perhaps it’s due to the fact that the poem is about unrequited, but not tortured, love. There’s just enough heartache to make it interesting, but no one is suffering too badly.
Fuller is known for mastering traditional form and making it palatable. The villanelle for example can be denser, with a darker, more obsessive subject matter, as is the case with Dylan Thomas‘ “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
But Fuller’s speaker, although in need of attention, makes it clear that he is out to have a good time. He has drinks, allows city sounds to enter the conversation, and possibly even takes a break to play the guitar. Sure, his date is off-puttingly jaded, but he might actually enjoy being strung along. Together, they are playing the eternal game, and, as readers, we are lucky we get to watch.
SongYou don’t listen to what I say.When I lean towards you in the carYou simply smile and turn away.
It’s been like this most of the day,sitting and sipping, bar after bar:You don’t listen to what I say.
You squeeze a lemon from a tray,And if you guess how dear you areYou simply smile and turn away.
Beyond the hairline of the baythe steamers call that shore is far.You don’t listen to what I say:
Surely there’s another way?The waiter brings a small guitar.You simply smile and turn away.
Sometimes I think you are too gay,smiling and smiling, hour after hour.You don’t listen to what I say.You simply smile and turn away.
Lines one and two of verse four: how do you parse them?
By the time we arrive at verse 4 of the day’s outing, the man and woman are drinking on a veranda overlooking a bay. The man continues to complain, as he has all day, about the woman’s curious neglect of him; while the woman continues to take in the world around her, apparently not noticing or caring about the man’s distress. Her affected manner and unresponsiveness have made the man peevish, or at least frustrated, but they haven’t quite dampened his attempt to break through. I get the impression that he’s speaking most of these words to himself.
Almost absentmindedly, the man then tries to interest the woman in a little whimsy or daydream. In verse 4, line 1 he calls attention to the horizon (the hairline of the bay), and in line 2 he imagines steamships beyond that thin line, blowing their whistles as if to reach by sound the shore still far away. The use of ‘hairline’ for horizon is perhaps a reference to the man’s own hairline and to his being older and more mature than the woman. The remoteness of the shore perhaps suggests how far he still is from making real contact with her.
His whimsy, like his other failed attempts at communication that day, is also tossed off with a flippant turn of the woman’s head as she continues, with no need of him, to embrace the world at large. By poem’s end, it begins to look as if perhaps the man has finally lost patience. “Sometimes I think you are too gay,/smiling and smiling, hour after hour.” I put strong stress on ‘too’ in line 1, and on syllables 1, 4, 6, and 9 in line 2, to suggest he’s reached his limit.
That’s getting a lot out of a hairline, I admit; but in a poem containing so few standout nouns, each noun ought to do a fair amount of work, right? Which brings me to the woman’s lemon wedge, with its connotations of sourness and its contrast to the man’s hope that she guesses “how dear” she is to him. Is the context of this day-trip possibly a lovers’ quarrel between an older man and younger woman; and do the woman’s avoidance of the man and exaggerated enjoyment of everything else suggest passive-aggressive behavior on her part, “the silent treatment” as a way of punishing him for some earlier slight or harsh words? In that case, the poem would be about the man’s attempt to make up, but with no discernible success.
Well, half a poem’s charms are its ambiguities, or so I’ve heard. Thanks for the villanelle, Anna Maria, and for the question, Daniel.
I had actually pictured the couple as a pair of college students. Both seem so unaffected that I pictured them as young and care free. For them, love, even unrequited love, is still about fun.
But I do like the interpretation of “hairline” as describing the man’s age. If true, how clever would it be.