A couple days ago, I posted Robert Bly’s “It’s Hard for Some Men to Finish Sentences”; today in class we read “Home Burial” by Robert Frost. So it seems that the subject of poor husband/wife relations is here in force. With that in mind, I remembered this Louise Gluck piece that makes me either want to laugh, cry, or sigh (I don’t know which from one reading to the next).
PURPLE BATHING SUIT
by Louise Gluck
I like watching you garden
with your back to me in your purple bathing suit:
your back is my favorite part of you,
the part furthest away from your mouth.
You might give some thought to that mouth.
Also to the way you weed, breaking
the grass off the ground level
when you should pull it up by the roots.
How many times do I have to tell you
how the grass spreads, your little
pile notwithstanding, in a dark mass which
by smoothing over the surface you have finally
fully obscured? Watching you
stare into space in the tidy
rows of the vegetable garden, ostensibly
working hard while actually
doing the worst job possible, I think
you are a small irritating purple thing
and I would like to see you walk off the face of the earth
because you are all that's wrong with my life
and I need you and I claim you.
It looks like it’s just a simple clichéd idea that men are dumb and women are smarter. I’m not really going to argue that point (I’d lose) but I am going to say that this poem is so much deeper than that. The man is weeded and doing it wrong, but at least he’s not facing the speaker. She loves his back, because seeing his back means that he’s not talking to her. So she’s either married to a really annoying man, or Gluck is making a statement that all men (or all lovers?) get annoying after a long enough time.
It’s a funny idea, this older, larger man sweaty as he weeds while wearing an absurd purple bathing suit. And she has so much scorn for him, which is comical and makes me laugh. But is it meant to be funny or sad? I can never tell which. What I do know is that the last line changes everything. She’s spent all the previous lines letting her audience know that her husband is a bit of a fool, and yet in the end she says simply “and I need you and I claim you.” Is that love? Needing someone even if he/she isn’t perfect? Or is that selfish; she wants to possess someone that she doesn’t “like” maybe just because she wants to possess something? It’s not clear, and I think that may be why I like it so much.