Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Please Do Not Persist,” by Martha Rhodes

This week’s poem is another sonnet, and one that delivers a tremendous wallop of information, feeling and backstory in its 14 short lines. Written in the first person but addressed directly to a “you,” the poem is epistolary in form, almost like a letter or email. In this it reminds me of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, many of which address a beloved second-person “Thee.” In “Please Do Not Persist,” the speaker addresses a “you” who has been persisting in references to (and perhaps invitations to repeat) a tryst alleged to have taken place the night before. I say “alleged” because the speaker claims—in fact spends the whole poem insisting—that it was not she who was kissed at the bar. No, she was “here in bed, in this house, / alone,” in fact, not even in the neighborhood of that “downtown” bar. Moreover, she never goes anywhere anymore, not even to places she once loved visiting in the past: the Cape, her sister’s cottage in Maine.

But in the same breath, the speaker also says things like, “So last night when you and I drank up / the bar. Why does she both seem to admit and deny the previous night’s encounter? What you are seeing here is a poetic and rhetorical technique called “Recusatio,” a kind of denial-as-affirmation in which the speaker invokes a subject by “refusing” to write or talk about it. Note how the technique delivers more information than would straight affirmation; in this poem, we know not just that the liaison may have happened, but also that the speaker is resisting acknowledgement that it happened.

And that, of course, makes us wonder why. If there’s an answer, it lies in the details given in the poem. Let’s look more closely at the list of the places the speaker used to—but vows no more—to visit. As a longtime summer visitor to Cape Cod, I can tell you that only residents and repeat visitors call it “the Cape.” The precision of detail about the place in Maine—it is “mid coast” and a sister’s “cottage” there—similarly betray the speaker’s intimacy with and longing for the place.

So the speaker loves these places but avows her refusal to visit them. In the same way, she resists further contact with the “you”—not because she does not like her suitor but precisely, we suspect, because she does. The speaker, for reasons not disclosed by the poem, wants to be done with longing. The way the shortened, indented lines are broken betrays a great unspoken loss. Read on its own, “Delivered, the world—to me” suggests receipt of a very large gift that the second indented line (“So tell me, how there, then?”) yanks away. We sense a deep grief or wound and a speaker who is, at least for the moment of this poem, unable or unwilling to allow herself access to joy.

All this makes “Please Do Not Persist” sound like very sad poem. And yet, when I read it, I laughed aloud and had to figure out why. To begin with, it is obvious almost immediately that the speaker (whose diction has a delightfully Shakespearian bent) “doth protest too much” and clearly does not mean what she is saying; the scope of her renouncements, from visiting beloved places to going out for shampoo, is comically hyperbolic. But the real “tell” is in line 10’s “let me show you how I held myself” and in the last line’s “Not I who kissed you, nor kiss you now! Nor ever will be.” The bolded words tell us that at the precise moment the speaker is making her long string of denials, she is actually in the arms of the rejected “you” of the poem! And that is funny, in the ouch-kind-of way I like best.

 —Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor




when I’ve told you that I do not go downtown.

Nor anymore out of state. No Cape, no

Mid Coast Maine at Christmas, my sister’s

cottage empty of me. Not to the pharmacy—

no refills, no shampoo bought. Everything

                        delivered, the world—to me.

So last night when you and I drank up

the bar you’re calling Puffy’s, I confess

only this: I was here in bed, in this house,

alone—let me show you how I held myself

precisely at 9:45 until dawn, asleep.

                        So tell me, how there, then?

Last night, leave here? for Puf-fy’s? No, mistaken.

Not I who kissed you, nor kiss you now! Nor ever will be.


from THE BEDS (c) 2012 by Martha Rhodes. Appears with permission of Autumn House Press. All rights reserved. First published in Pleiades.


Rhodes_5-15-15Martha Rhodes is the author of four collections of poetry:  At the GatePerfect Disappearance (winner of the Green Rose Prize), Mother Quiet, and The Beds. She is the director of Four Way Books and the Frost Place Conference on Poetry. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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