“For Her Surgery” — Jack Butler

“For Her Surgery” — Jack Butler

Greetings, adoring public! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I haven’t had much time for reading or writing recently (I can hear your sighs of relief from here), but everything is finally calming down and it looks like I may be returning to your screens relatively frequently, if you’re unlucky. So hold in those moans and groans, and while away a wee moment while we wend our merry way through a poem that is extremely topical for me. Panic not; it’s also the usual hellish combination of unutterably* complex and deeply depressing.

* So, because a) I love you all and value you and your clear-cut opinions on spelling more than ANYTHING**, and b) I have a strong tendency to use words which sound just perfect in context and have the added exotic lustre of not actually existing, I did a cheeky google of the word “unutterable” and found this website which makes me wonder what I did before an online dictionary of Victorian slang made itself known to me (and you, unless by sheer chance my reader base is comprised entirely of Victorian undergarment aficionados). You’re so welcome.

** Apart from the essentials, obviously, so clearly food, sleep and obscure Scandinavian crime dramas take precedence. Apologies.

I raise a glass half water, half alcohol,
to that light come full again.
Inside, you sleep, somewhere below the pain.
Down at the river, there is a tall
ghost tossing flowers to dark water—
jessamine, rose, and daisy, salvia lyrata . . .

(stanza two)

The Big (or slightly reduced depending on how eager you are) Scoop

The poem begins with a throwback to the poetry of Sylvia Plath (and indeed quite a few natty persons throughout history who have caught on to the fact that the moon and months are related somewhat to the menstrual cycle, funny that) with its big ole image of “the moon” as representing the female element: and thus the mysterious “her” of the title. It is not until the end of the first stanza, with its bleak, endstopped final line — “All possibility we will have children is gone.”– that the full poignancy of this image, replete with exactly those connotations of the menstrual cycle and thus fertility, can be appreciated, and it all clicks into place; for whatever reason, whether intentional or no, this female person has been rendered infertile by this surgery. Again, the phrase “over the city” which starts this stanza takes on new meaning as representing their alienation from the rest of society, as does the use of the word “scrim”. According to the dictionary definition I googled again incredibly academic and reliable sources I used, a “scrim” is the curtain used in theatre which is opaque when lit from the front and transparent from behind; not only does the use of this word here then anyway convey a certain element of performance and staged deceit, but its literal meaning, especially in conjunction with “mist”, suggests facets hidden depending on your position. To their wider circle, the “city” if you like, it might appear that this couple have chosen not to have children. Their keen sadness at being “scarred”, imperfect in this way, is rendered more acute by the fact that they are so ashamed at this failure as to put forward this pretence, this “scrim”, themselves.

Natural imagery and that of pregnancy pervades the language in each stanza –not only do all of the light “com[ing] full again”, the “flowers”, the “bloom”, reflect this, but the reference to “Easter”, time of vernal rebirth and resurrection– but this is interspersed with an acrid undertone. The clouds are too “slow, slow”, the wind “bleeds”, the lawn is “dark”; nature has been thwarted here, as in the case of the grieving couple. Even the flowers are haunted by the “ghost” that is “toss[ing]” them away, and the meanings of the flowers named are significant in themselves. “Jessamine, rose”; both of these are traditionally used in wedding garlands, and represent purity, while “dais[ies]” are similarly symbolic of innocence. However, not only is the “daisy” the flower customarily given to new mothers, but it indicates that the recipient is skilled at keeping secrets. Could any other flower sum up the bitter anguish of not being able to have children more appropriately? “Salvia lyrata”, lyre-leaf sage, is known for its medicinal properties, but the ellipsis highlights what the narrator is unable to reconcile himself with: here, all thoughts of healing are fruitless.

The final stanza aches with blind suffering. Those who cannot conceive are deemed anti-nature, abhorrent; the repetitive “goodbye[s]” refer not only to the “possible” happiness that could have been but also to their place in a society which demands fertility at any price. “Children bear children”, the reader is told; once that role and function has been removed, there is no use for them any longer. Notice, on the other hand, that the “her” from the title and the “I” who is drinking in the second stanza have become “we” and “us” at every other opportunity; even this merging of pronouns to create a solid, united front emphatically underlines that this “us” is destined to remain just “her” and “I”. In the final line, the maternal aspect is removed from the “moon” that was an object of such longing at the beginning of the poem; she is “timeless” in a world in which “time” is of the essence, and thus destined to remain ever virginal, ever detached.

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