In her early poem Advice to a Discarded Lover, Fleur Adcock compares the left lover to a dead bird, “not only dead, not only fallen, / but full of maggots”. The conclusion of the poem advises, “Do not ask me for charity now: / go away until your bones are clean.”
One of the first break-up poems I ever encountered was Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton’s Since There’s No Help, Come Let Us Kiss and Part on my English A Level mock exam. Even in the stress of an exam I loved the sorrow and resolve that was contained in the line, “Nay, I have done: you get no more of me”. Drayton personifies the death of love and passion, writing of “the last gasp of Love’s latest breath / When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies”, and I was struck by several poems that I came across researching break-up poems in which a failing relationship is presented as a dying body.
Clare Shaw’s poem Killing It, in her collection Straight Ahead, begins:
It didn’t want to die. When we starved it,
it just thought of happier times.
This echoes an earlier poem of Anne Sexton’s, Divorce, which opens:
I have killed our lives together,
axed off each head,
with their poor blue eyes stuck in a beach ball
rolling separately down the drive.
Caroline Bird adopts a similar comic surrealism in her poem Bow Your Head and Cry from her collection Watering Can. The ambulance which has arrived to try and revive her dying relationship has “bouncy wheels” and is “rolling merrily over the cobbles.” But it’s too late:
‘Shall we get out the stretcher,’ they asked,
‘or would that be a bit pointless?’
I lay down beside our love
and held its teeny hand.
Bird ends the poem with a line that says it all:
You weren’t even there to witness the passing.
Julia Copus also faces the dying body of her relationship with dark humour in her poem This Silence Between Us from The World’s Two Smallest Humans. It is:
incontinent and catatonic,
but nonetheless demands to be sat beside
and talked to, prayed for, cried over…
Shaw wakes up to her relationship “blue-lipped and smelling of mould” while Copus lies down next to hers “so close I think I smell its sour breath.” In a very different poem, The Weasel, a mock nursery rhyme obliquely detailing the financial crisis and a relationship in crisis due to adultery, Jacob Polley writes:
Who’d have dreamt a little twist
could turn your sweet breath sour.
Shaw and Copus have written their break-up poems at the point where a couple have given up and the poet is recording the dying body of their relationship “full of maggots” (Adcock). Saradha Soobrayen in her ghazal I Will Unlove You (Oxford Poets 2007 : an Anthology) does not present us with the corpse of a relationship but rather works through the parts of her body in an attempt to shut down her feelings for an ex-lover:
I will restrict blood flow and circulate the cold, deflate my heart and become shallow.
These lines wouldn’t be out of place in Drayton’s sonnet. In a similar way Polley, in The Weasel, takes the sentimental image of giving someone your heart literally and shows the agony that ensues when they can’t be trusted anymore:
For your whole heart is half my heart
my heart is half of yours
so we’re neither complete
and lie drunk in the street
white winter flowers.
Polley’s relationship isn’t dead yet, just passed out in the gutter, so there might still be a chance to revive it? In her first collection Slattern, Kate Clanchy has a sequence of poems about the end of a relationship which ends the book. In the poem that begins the sequence, Towards the End, she describes her and her lover’s attempt to rescue a lice-ridden “wrecked street-cat”. At first the cat responds well to the couple’s intervention but then takes a turn for the worse (given in quite gory detail) until the poet, who has been calling “baby, love” to “greasy bones in a bag”, concludes “There was not enough between us / to keep a cat alive.” John Burnside concludes his sonnet about a divorce, Notes Towards an Ending from Black Cat Bone, in a similar fashion, describing how:
every night, we tried and failed to mend
that feathered thing we brought in from the yard,
after it came to grief on our picture window.
Adcock’s dead bird again, this one too fragile to stand up to the ideal of marriage it flies into.
Don Paterson is also in the back garden with his breakup poem The Swing from Rain. He erects a swing for his sons “for the here-and-here-to-stay” but as he stamps “the dirt / around its skinny legs” both he and his partner know their relationship is over and she will abort their child in two days’ time. Using the word “dirt” rather than “earth” conveys so much and I’m back with the maggots. Like Polley, Paterson has used a ballad form reminiscent of nursery rhymes which adds to the poignancy of a break-up poem where young children are involved.
In Advice to a Discarded Lover Adcock writes that “Pity is for the moment of death, / and the moments after.” If the poems I have looked at so far are concerned with pity, mourning the end of a relationship and the stage that Adcock calls “decay… with the creeping stench / and the wriggling, munching scavengers”, then two poets, Sharon Olds and Selima Hill, have attempted to move on from pity and decay and, through long sequences of poems, clean their bones so they can face their ex-husbands again.
When I discovered that Sharon Olds’ marriage had failed I was slightly heartbroken myself; as Anna Woodford writes in a review of Stag’s Leap, “Throughout her work, Olds has embraced a happy-ever-after ending by incorporating poems of a difficult childhood into a narrative of a rich adult family life” (Mslexia Dec/Jan/Feb 2012/13). I felt I had come of age reading Olds’ poems of fantastic sex with her wonderful husband. But after 30 years of marriage he left her for another woman and the result was the T S Eliot and Pulitzer Prize-winning Stag’s Leap. Selima Hill’s sequence My Husband’s Wife can be found in her collection Violet, and again charts the end of a long marriage following the husband’s adultery.
Olds and Hill work through anger:
I imagine a flurry
of tears like a wirra of knives thrown
at a figure to outline it — a heart’s spurt
of rage. It glitters, in my vision, I nod
to it, it is my hope.
(Olds, The Flurry)
I know I ought to love you
but it’s hopeless.
Screaming is the best I can do.
(Hill, I Know I Ought to Love You)
If I pass a mirror, I turn away,
I do not want to look at her,
and she does not want to be seen.
(Olds, Known To Be Left)
They tell me to be tough: be tough, they say.
Be tough yourself.
I refuse to be.
(Hill, Chocolate Sardines)
Once in a while, I gave up, and let myself
remember how much I’d liked the way my ex’s
hips were set
(Olds, Once In a While I Gave Up)
The luxuriant ears of someone I won’t mention
(Hill, The Visitations of Prejudiced Angels)
In Since There’s No Help, Drayton hopes that,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Unlike Drayton, Selima Hill wants to try and retain some of her love for her ex-husband;
but what I want to think of is the man
I want to still be fond of when it’s over.
And when she finally comes face to face with her husband’s mistress and tells us “I could have almost licked her” (Her Little Turquoise Dress), which could be a deliberate Freudian slip from ‘liked’, continuing
At precisely six o’clock
I definitely loved her.
which could be a Freudian slip from ‘defiantly’, I sort of believe her, though I think it’s probably temporary. And we certainly don’t believe Drayton who on the one hand tells us “so cleanly I myself can free” but then ends his sonnet by telling us that a bit of attention from his ex-lover “From death to life thou mightst him yet recover” Sharon Olds almost manages to face her ex-husband with clean bones in the poem Running Into You. She begins the poem:
Seeing you again, after so long,
seeing you with her, and actually almost,
not wanting you back
but her jealousy undercuts it with what Anna
Woodford describes as an “audacious” image:
But you seemed
covered with her, like a child working with glue
who’s young to be working with glue.
Her bones are “almost” clean but a little maggot rears its head.