Two Poems, One Song

In high school, I was not college-bound. I did not know what I wanted to do with my life, I did not see how I could even afford to go to college, and I was damn tired of academics. But somehow I ended up in advanced placement literature my senior year. It was there that I encountered two life-altering poems. I wish that I could say that this class woke up my academic ambitions and opened a limitless literary world to me, but it didn’t. In spite of her wit and caring, Mrs. Hukari wasn’t able to get a whole lot of engagement out of me. And the poems themselves were not particularly engaging, though I did write the last stanza of “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold, in my journal. It was the “Ah, love, let us be true / to one another” (29-30) that got to me, the image of two lovers clinging to love and to each other in the midst of an unfriendly world. It fit nicely with my notion that romantic love was all that I needed to be complete, that when I met “the one,” all my troubles would be over. I don’t even remember reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I imagine that my literary laziness cried mutiny when faced with the barrage of imagery and potential themes in that poem. I’m sure I questioned how reading poetry would be at all useful in my transformation into adulthood. It would take the third piece of the puzzle, the song, to show me the power of such small moments in my life.

I got my first job a few weeks after graduation in June of 1986. I worked as a salesperson at Mervyn’s department store. Retail is a depressing segment of the working world, but I was resigned to it by the procurement of money, which was a welcome novelty. I was still living at home, and was thus able to spend my paychecks pretty much how I wanted to. I bought a lot of records that summer. One of them was the Bangles’ first album, All Over the Place.

I have some quarrels with the Bangles, and All Over the Place is certainly not a perfect album. There is mediocrity. There is filler. But there is also some good stuff, and there is the song “Dover Beach.” I wish I could precisely remember the first time I listened to it. It would have been in the family living room, which held the family stereo. There would undoubtedly have been family members around, since I had five younger siblings who were all still living at home, and time alone was rare. But I somehow see myself as alone, in a bedroom I shared with no one, and with my own private turntable. I know that I listened to the song repeatedly. The careful lift of the turntable’s arm, and the setting of the needle back into the groove that marked the song’s beginning was something I was very good at back then. And somehow, during those jangly-guitar repetitions, I had the minor epiphany that would reoccur regularly throughout my adulthood.

At its most basic, the epiphany was that Susanna Hoffs and Vicki Peterson, the two Bangles who wrote the song, were readers of poetry. I suppose it could have been coincidence that the song had the same title as Matthew Arnold’s poem, but was it coincidence that both poem and song speak to a lover in an imperfect world, longing for a place where there were no imperfections to pull them apart? And it was certainly no coincidence that the song contains a direct reference to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The image of those who “come and go and talk of Michelangelo” is pretty damn singular. Mrs. Hukari would have been proud to know that I had paid enough attention in class to recognize an allusion and an homage when I saw them. And at first, that was the extent of my epiphany. These musicians read poetry, and they liked it enough to reference it in their own work.

At this point, my cerebral musings about the interactions between these three pieces went dormant for a while. It was the pre-internet age, and I wasn’t impressed enough by the poetic references in the song to go to the library in order to look more closely at the poems and how their inclusion might affect the meaning of the song. It was just a point of interest for the next few years; whenever I heard the song, I got a little nostalgic for Mrs. Hukari’s class, and slightly curious about why the poems were made a part of the song. Life and its vagaries kept me plenty busy, as I sought the love that would bolster me in a world made up of clashing, ignorant people, and the struggle and flight of modern life.

Sometime in the first couple years of my marriage, my Bangles album disappeared. The album cover was there, and the flimsy paper sleeve, but the vinyl disc vanished, never to be found. So did my belief in romantic love. It wasn’t that my husband was an asshole. It wasn’t that there was any abuse or cheating or nefarious doings. It just turned out that all the movies and books and songs and religious doctrine regarding love and its role were full of shit. Even when two people are smart, and kind, and love each other and their children, marriage is a soul-sucking, zombifying undertaking, and the true ignorant armies, the clash and struggle, are two people trying to hold onto individual identity in an institution that breeds homogeny.

So my marriage ended. A new era began, with many challenges and trials, but with the joyous return to myself as me, and not just wife and mother. I went back to school. I watched my children grow and mature. They both graduated from high school and then I finally got my bachelor’s degree. They were both in college and I got my master’s degree in teaching. I began to look for work. I was endorsed to teach English at the middle school and high school levels. Mrs. Hukari would have laughed long and loud to see where I ended up.

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