Week 23: One Flesh, by Elizabeth Jennings

One Flesh

Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere – it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.

Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do, it is like a confession
Of having little feeling – or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.

Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold.

Elizabeth Jennings

The best poems of Elizabeth Jennings are characterised by a quiet intensity and great formal skill; this compassionate, elegiac piece is perhaps my favourite among her oeuvre.

7 thoughts on “Week 23: One Flesh, by Elizabeth Jennings

  1. “Chastity” can mean “purity in conduct and intention” but there’s no sign of that here. The chastity that faces them here is a cold abstention from all sexual intercourse?

    • Agreed, though ‘abstention’ would imply a deliberate choice, when it’s more just what happens, like the book says. ‘And desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home’ (Ecclesiastes 12.5).

      • Hi David, I rarely read the bible. I found “long home” puzzling. The New Revised Standard Version says “… and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home [= their eternal rest in the grave?] …”.

      • Ah, I’m strictly a King James man myself. I have indeed always assumed ‘long home’ to mean the grave, and ‘long’ because you’re in it for a long while rather than referring to its physical length, though that idea, rather irrelevantly, puts me in mind of King Harold’s words before the battle of Stamford Bridge, when being told that Harold Hardrada of Norway had come to conquer all of England: ‘I will give him just six feet of English soil; or, since they say he is a tall man, I will give him seven feet.’

  2. “the book he holds unread” – at times he’s looking at the book as if he’s reading it but he’s not? The phrase makes me think of a couple together, where one willingly stops reading to engage with the other – but that is not happening here!

    • I take it rather as putting the book down because he is distracted by thoughts of the past, so not really concentrating on what is in front of him.

  3. “Do they know they’re old”? They’ve largely lost awareness of the present? So in a sense no they don’t know they’re old? Couples growing apart as they age must be common – though the couple here have taken it further than most? Eg the thread between them (though still there) is never now wound in?

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