The Bell Jar: Jo Bell's blog

"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde

NaPoReMo #23: The architecture of pleasure

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Rhetorical Questions
Hugo Williams

How do you think I feel
when you make me talk to you
and won’t let me stop
till the words turn into a moan?
Do you think I mind
when you put your hand over my mouth
and tell me not to move
so you can “hear” it happening?

And how do you think I like it
when you tell me what to do
and your mouth opens
and you look straight through me?
Do you think I mind
when the blank expression comes
and you set off alone
down the hall of collapsing columns?

*

Hugo Williams’ writing about women often makes me uncomfortable. The poem where he speaks of his relief at realising that the child his ex-lover is carrying can’t be his; the poem where he imagines a woman he sees on a train to be pissing on his face; these and others are written by a person from a different time, gender and class than mine.

Which he is, of course. We aren’t obliged to make the reader comfortable: we are poets, not sick nurses. A poem that challenges my world view may stick in the mind just as firmly as the ones that confirm my prejudices. There is after all a word for writers who always leave their readers feeling comfortable, and that word is BORING.

It isn’t the subject matter that makes me uneasy. I’ve sometimes been asked why I write about sex myself. The question suggests that there are certain things we shouldn’t write about, or certain things that I shouldn’t write about. I’m not having that. Sex is one of our richest, most intimate and isolating experiences – as fitting a subject for a poem as war, or a walk in the Lake District, or rubber ducks. Certainly if you write about it solely to shock, then it becomes a lazy kind of pornography (and second-rate pornography too). That applies equally to writing about war.

This poem is not pornographic. In fact it isn’t even graphic. Only ‘hand’ and ‘mouth’ bring the body into it explicitly; the rest is implied. The poem is, as its title says, a set of four rhetorical questions which provide a simple framework. I’m not certain why it’s in two stanzas and not four, and only at the fourth line was I quite certain that he’s speaking to a lover. The four questions each take us a little further into the love-making until (ahem) the climax. The line breaks all follow the sense of the sentence – no surprises or booby traps. There is a dense scattering of pronouns, ‘you’, ‘me’, ‘I’, appropriately for a poem about making love. There are plenty of ‘ands’ to give the lines a flow, a sense of energy.

What is it, then, that makes me mildly uncomfortable? And why in spite of that do I include it in this series of poems which all illustrate something important about how poetry works?

Those four questions, all beginning ‘How do you think I like it…’ or ‘Do you think I mind…’ sound aggressive and interrogative. This may be the joke; that the questions which so often begin a domestic argument are used here in a very different context. But the tone doesn’t seem quite right for such a very private moment. That sense of curiosity and objective detachment in the man, at precisely the moment when the woman loses control of herself and becomes vulnerable, seems unsympathetic and mechanical. There is for me a slight air of menace or control in it. That may be precisely what Hugo Williams intended.

The reason this poem stays with me as one of the best poems about sex, despite my squeamishness, is its last image. When I started putting these posts together, I knew I had to include the poem that contains this line and conducted a little search of my mental database to find it. How does the lover feel, asks Williams, when ‘you set off alone/ down the hall of collapsing columns?’

It’s a perfect analogy; the moment when the bomb goes off, when the architecture of pleasure reaches both completion and destruction at the same instant. It’s the moment when she goes off ‘alone’ and he can’t follow. For this particular couple, in this particular relationship, it feels completely sincere. Both parties are vulnerable in different ways. At this moment when romantic novels tell us that lovers should be perfectly united, one of them feels excluded and terribly alone. It’s this kind of exposure, not the physical kind, that earns the poem a place in my memory banks. Sometimes one line is enough to hook you forever.

 

[Rhetorical Questions appears in Billy’s Rain (Faber & Faber), which won the TS Eliot prize in 2000 – and in The Poetry of Sex, ed. Sophie Hannah (Penguin/ Viking, 2014).]

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3 comments on “NaPoReMo #23: The architecture of pleasure

  1. john foggin
    April 23, 2017

    It’s a problem, isn’t it, the rhetorical (?) question on the page…..you can’t hear the voice. What is it? curious, needy, jealous, angry, sarcastic, playful, sardonic, ironic, petulant…….it’s likely that the first one you hear will be extraordinarily difficult to shift. Maybe it’s because of the relentlessness of the question after question it feels to me like an interrogation. I thought: this is a bully, this one who wrote the poem; it feels nasty, and I can’t get it out of my head now. No amount of sympathetic exegesis like yours, Jo Bell, seems to help. But it’s an intriguing problem. So thanks, anyway xxx

    • Jo Bell
      April 23, 2017

      I’m glad it’s not just me, I wondered if I was being unfair. I don’t generally like questions in poems because too often they are questions which the poem should answer rather than ask. Perhaps the menacing effect is deliberate here but it makes me uneasy anyway. Reassuring that you share my reading!

  2. john foggin
    April 23, 2017

    Someone told me that a kind of default setting in a lot of my own poems is a diffuse kind of questioning…not exactly ‘why this?’ or ‘why that’…but a lot of conditionals…maybe, perhaps, I wonder….puzzlement I suppose at the lovely contrariness of the world. But I didn’t like this poem. That’s for sure

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