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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
            for Barbara


        There are words
I've had to save myself from,
like My Lord and Blessed Mother,
words I said and never meant,
though I admit a part of me misses
the ornamental stateliness
of High Mass, that smell

        of incense. Heaven did exist,
I discovered, but was reciprocal
and
poem
She pressed her lips to mind.
	—a typo

How many years I must have yearned
for someone’s lips against mind.
Pheromones, newly born, were floating
between us. There was hardly any air.

She kissed me again, reaching that place
that sends messages to toes and fingertips,
then all the way to something like home.
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