Poetry

Rachel Hadas: “Love and Dread”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Okay, everybody scared enough yet? I am, as I write this in the last week of March, and poetry has never seemed more vital than it does to me now. Reading and listening to it is getting me through the current crisis, and I am reminded of the amazing elasticity and adaptability of poems, the way they can stretch to fit situations far beyond those that originally triggered its writing. Just about everything I read now strikes a COVID-19 chord, and today’s poem is no exception. “Love and Dread”—the very title encapsulates our global state of mind. Love for family, friends, country, and the world. And, of course, dread—fear of contagion in the short run and of economic and other challenges later.

Love is what sustains us; it is dread’s nemesis and sometime antidote. What does dread do for love? Maybe it keeps us from taking love for granted, helps us appreciate it more. Today’s poem does not call for an eradication of dread, though it does lament its existence. Dread plays a necessary role in human life, and the poem seems to acknowledge it as the yin to love’s yang, the dark to the light side of the moon, despair’s counterpart to hope. Perhaps most significantly, dread just is, like it or not, part of the human condition. What “Love and Dread” seems to seek is balance, a way to hold the opposing forces of hope and despair in a kind of bearable equipoise. Maybe it is the best we can expect, and maybe it is enough.

“Love and Dread” is a formal poem constructed in regular iambic tetrameter (four beats/line) in aabb couplets—18 in all for a total of 36 lines. One couplet repeats, with variations, three times as a refrain (more on this below). All but three lines (21, 29, and 32) are formally end-stopped, meaning not only that each line makes its own, complete syntactic unit but also that it is formally “closed” by some mark of punctuation (period, comma, colon) indicating a pause. This, plus the couplet structure, is perfect for the call-and-response format of this poem.

Let’s take a closer look at those refrains, consisting of three couplets strategically placed near its beginning, middle, and end, forming the poem’s endoskeleton:

 

beginning, ending in a bed.
We have to marry love and dread.                  (lines 7-8)

as, dearest heart, we lie in bed.
Oh, we must marry love and dread:               (lines 19-20)

I reach for you across the bed.
Oh, how to marry love and dread?                 (lines 35-6)

 

As you can see, each couplet’s first line ends with the word “bed,” and the second line ends with “marry love and dread.” Isolating the refrains makes clearer an intensifying progression (the “crescendoing” mentioned in line 11) that happens in the poem as a whole. In the first instance of this couplet, things are general, universal, and abstract. “Bed” is given an indefinite article (“a”), designating any bed, anywhere, and the point of view is first-person plural, an instance of the community or universal “we.”

In the second iteration, point of view narrows to direct address (a “you” implied in the endearment “dearest heart”). The bed likewise becomes more concrete and personal; rather than any bed, we are “in bed,” evoking a specific bed shared with a beloved. At the same time, the assertion of the need to “marry love and dread” modulates from “we have to” into the more forceful “we must.” So, things are becoming both more personal and more pressing.

The third version of the refrain is the one that to me feels the most urgently human. Here we have the standard lovers’ pronouns (“I” and “you”) and the recording of an instance of actual touch (“I reach for you”). This time, “bed” is preceded by a definite article (“the”) that designates a particular (perhaps conjugal) bed, and what was an injunction has morphed into a rhetorical question that sounds like an outcry.

In these refrains and their modulations, everything is working together to build an arc of intensity and increasing frame of reference, one that comes more and more to include the reader. I’ve already mentioned the way marrying love and dread modulates from suggestion to injunction to full-throated lament. For another example, look at what mark of punctuation follows the conjunctive phrase “love and dread” in each case above. In line 8, the phrase is tamped down with a period. The second time it occurs (line 20), it is followed by a colon, which opens things up and lets us know there is more to come. The final instance of “love and dread” in the poem’s last line is followed by a question mark, arguably the most expansive possible form of punctuation.

That’s another balance struck in the poem, the one between abstractions and particularities. The opening image, “a desiccated daffodil,” is a case in point. The image is quite precise, and through it, we can envision exactly what is being so deftly and briefly described: a yellow daffodil past its peak, returning itself and its remaining nutrients back to the soil. But because of one tiny detail—the author’s decision to use the article “a” instead of “the,” we know that it is not one daffodil, literally speaking, being described here. Instead, it’s an exemplar, one that stands for the many and also perhaps for something else: the idea of the passing of the seasons, the subsidence of youth into old age, and of life into death that in turn will yield new life.

The movement here happens by means of sound, and in fact, the author told me in an email that “the rhymes were the engine of” her poem. Each couplet’s second line feels like a response to the end-rhyme expectation established by the end word of the previous line. It’s a wonderful illustration of one of the great ironies of form: Some assume that fixed forms and rhyme schemes are constraining and rigid, but in fact, they are what allows the mind to invite in a great many associations otherwise foreclosed by purely logical or sequential thinking. The lack of rational connection and sequence in the images as they appear in these lines is part of what makes “Love and Dread” feel so fresh and surprising. Regular rhyme and meter not only enabled the surprising leaps in logic made by the meaning of the poem’s lines but are also their foil in the resulting poem.

Sound drives things, then. One end word “calls” the speaker to think of its possible rhyme partners, and the resulting responses coalesce in a progression that is neither sequential nor logical. In just the first four lines, we have the images of a daffodil, a pigeon on a windowsill, an old cat, and then—“your mother” and “your daughter.” How interesting that this poem, with its many interior images, could be describing the housebound landscape most of us now find ourselves in! Once again, we see a blend of particular with universal accomplished through strategic diction. Use of the possessive pronoun “your” sharpens the otherwise abstract notions of mother and daughter, making them feel anecdotal and personal. In this case, word choice is especially canny because “your” brings the reader right into the poem and also encompasses everyone in the world who is “other” to the speaker. At the same time, “your” also functions as a “first-person you,” designating the speaker’s own mother and daughter. It takes a master to do this, and to do it as seamlessly as Hadas: encompass the personal and the universal within the same poem.

Associations mount and build as the poem continues, with very specific images like “dark clouds [are] roiling in the sky” balanced against abstractions like “the daily drumbeat of the lie.” Even those very particular images are themselves repositories of something more universal, functioning as metaphors or symbols of something else. Dark clouds, by convention, symbolize impending doom; just now, we can imagine them as the virus gathering its forces to converge on our community. The daily drumbeat could be read as the constant throb of current events pressing in on us through our screens: distant, insistent, and troubling at most times and getting closer and louder now.

As the poem progresses, we notice something else: the return of words and images seen before until some clear themes begin to emerge. The withered daffodil returns in the reference to another yellow harbinger of spring, “forsythia’s bloom,” in line 13, and explicitly in “daffodil’s aroma” in line 14. In the same way, the cat in line 2 returns as a “ghost cat” in line 17, setting up an associative link with the mother, whose “ghost” appears in the next line. The notion of balance, recurrence, and ensuing generations are pervasive themes.

The poem seems to suggest that love and dread are equally weighted forces ideally existing in the stasis of equipoise, and as if to enact this idea, about half the lines describe things that could go into the love “box” and half in the dread “box.” Lines 9-12, for example, go in the dread box. Lines 21-22 too, but then the next six lines, 23-29, describe things that we love: spring, a wedding, a new baby, etc. We often see the juxtaposition of positive with negative images, for example, line 15’s positive image, “daffodil’s aroma” immediately balanced by line 16’s negative image of a “rare sarcoma.”

Another recurrent theme is expectation—“Life bestows gifts past expectation” (line 24)—that is, how much of our time is spent looking forward to, or dreading, what is to come. “Premature deceptive spring” tells a whole, complex story that mixes love and dread in equal parts. Spring, which we love, appears to have come early but is illusory, a disappointment that perhaps teaches us to mistrust future signs of spring. It is like the bloom of crocuses just before the last snowfall, what we in Pennsylvania used to call the “bough bender” (if it was heavy) or the “onion snow” (if it was a light dusting). We feel joy when we see those brave purple and yellow blooms, and we also fear they will perish in yet another snowstorm. Love and dread both involve elements of expectation. They both assume a future. Some believe love to be a species of hope. Can it compensate for the dread? Can it save us now? So far, in my little spaceship of a home, the answer is yes.

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