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About this Poem 

"I've been working on a sequence of 'Mrs. Cavendish' poems, and this is one of them. I'm finding out who she is as I go, and likewise discovering who the speaker is. I have about eight of them so far. Working like this, I feel enormous permission to be various and (I hope) interesting."
—Stephen Dunn

Mrs. Cavendish and the Dancer

Stephen Dunn, 1939

Mrs. Cavendish desired the man in the fedora 
who danced the tarantella without regard
for who might care.  All her life she had
a weakness for abandon, and, if the music
stopped, for anyone who could turn
a phrase. The problem was
Mrs. Cavendish wanted it all
to mean something in a world crazed 
and splattered with the gook 
of apparent significance, and meaning  
had an affinity for being elsewhere.
The dancer studied philosophy, she told me,
knew the difference between a sophist
and a sophomore, despite my insistence
that hardly any existed. It seemed everyone 
but she knew that sadness awaits the needy.
Mr. Cavendish, too, when he was alive,
was equally naïve, might invite a wolf
in man's clothing to spend a night 
at their house. This was how the missus 
mythologized her husband – a man of what
she called honor, no sense of marital danger,
scrupled  beyond all scrupulosity. 
The tarantella man was gorgeous and oily,  
and, let's forgive her, Mrs. Cavendish
was lonely. His hair slicked back, he didn't
resemble her deceased in the slightest,
which in the half-light of memory's belittered
passageways made her ga-ga. And I, as ever,
would cajole and warn, hoping history
and friendship might be on my side.
Mrs. Cavendish, I'd implore, lie down 
with this liar if it feels good, but, please, 
when he smells most of sweetness, get a grip, 
develop a gripe, try to breathe your own air.

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen Dunn. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on January 6, 2014. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn

Poet Stephen Dunn is the author of over fifteen poetry collections, including Different Hours (W. W. Norton), which received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2001.

by this poet

poem
From her window marshland stretched for miles.
If not for egrets and gulls, it reminded her of the moors
behind the parsonage, how the fog often hovered
and descended as if sheltering some sweet compulsion
the age was not ready to see. On clear days the jagged
skyline of Atlantic City was visible—Atlantic City,
poem

When Mother died
I thought: now I’ll have a death poem.
That was unforgivable

yet I’ve since forgiven myself
as sons are able to do
who’ve been loved by their mothers.

I stared into the coffin
knowing how long she’d live,
how many lifetimes there are

in the sweet

poem
After the affair and the moving out,
after the destructive revivifying passion,
we watched her life quiet

into a new one, her lover more and more
on its periphery. She spent many nights
alone, happy for the narcosis

of the television. When she got cancer
she kept it to herself until she couldn't
keep it from