Mothers Who Think: Wedding bell blues

In her first collection of poems, Deborah Garrison charts the ambivalent territory of love and work and longing.

By Deborah Garrison

Published March 24, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

EDITOR'S NOTE: There is a certain stereotype of the dissatisfied, 30ish, single career woman who thinks all of her problems will be solved if she could just get married. Her future would fold out perfectly, like a map; she'd never know another moment of unmatched towels or of loneliness.

We've all heard of women like this or maybe spent some time in this particular misguided purgatory ourselves. But once immersed in the murky evolutionary stage that is marriage, we discover something that we couldn't have known before: As heartening as it usually is to know you'll go home each night to the same person, who is in turn heartened by coming home to you, you will find yourself often bemused and bearingless in unknown territory. Some of the terrain you can guess at; other parts will forever be moonscape. Chances are your lousy boss will still be a louse after you get married, and matching towels provide only a facet of life satisfaction. The rest you must still plot every day.

Poet and New Yorker editor Deborah Garrison, in her first collection, "A Working Girl Can't Win," proves herself a skilled cartographer of the ordinary ambivalences and subtle ease of urbane, post-single life. Her short, subversive narrative poems chart the familiar labyrinth of love and work and longing, all the while maintaining a droll tenderness about the strange, comfortable dissonance that is marriage.


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She Was Waiting to Be Told

For you she learned to wear a short black slip
and red lipstick,
how to order a glass of red wine
and finish it. She learned to reach out
as if to touch your arm and then not
touch it, changing the subject.
Didn't you think, she'd begin, or
Weren't you sorry ...

To call your best friends
by their schoolboy names
and give them kisses good-bye,
to look away when they say
Your wife! So your confidence grows.
She doesn't ask what you want
because she knows.

Isn't that what you think?

When actually she was only waiting
to be told Take off your dress --
to be stunned, and then do this,
never rehearsed, but perfectly obvious: in one motion up, over, and gone,
the X of her arms crossing and uncrossing,
her face flashing away from you in the fabric
so that you couldn't say if she was
appearing of disappearing.

An Idle Thought

I'm never going to sleep
with Martin Amis
or anyone famous.
At twenty-one I scotched
my chance to be
one of the seductresses
of the century,
a vamp on the rise through the ranks
of literary Gods and military men,
who wouldn't stop at the President:
she'd take the Pentagon by storm
in halter dress and rhinestone extras,
letting fly the breasts that shatter
crystal -- then dump him, too,
and break his power-broker heart.

Such women are a breed apart.
I'm the type
who likes to cook -- no,
really likes it; does the bills;
buys towels and ties;
closes her eyes during kisses:
a true first wife.

The seductress when she's fifty
nobody misses, but a first wife
always knows she's first,
and the second (if he leaves me
when he's forty-five) won't forget me
either. The mention of my name,
the sight of our son -- his and mine --
will make her tense; despite
perfected bod, highlighted hair
and hip career, she'll always fear
that way back there
he loved me more
and better simply
for being first.

But ho:
the fantasy's unfair to him,
who picked me young and never tried
another. The only woman he's ever left
was his mother.

The Firemen

God forgive me --

It's the firemen,
leaning in the firehouse garage
with their sleeves rolled up
on the hottest day of the year.

As usual, the darkest one is handsomest.
The oldest is handsomest.
The one with the thin, wiry arms is handsomest.
The young one already going bald is handsomest.

And so on.
Every day I pass them at their station:
the word sexy wouldn't do them justice.
Such idle men are divine --

especially in summer, when my hair
sticks to the back of my neck,
a dirty wind from the subway grate
blows my skirt up, and I feel vulgar,
lifting my hair, gathering it together,
tying it back while they watch
as a kind of relief.
Once, one of them walked beside me to the corner. Looked into my eyes.
He said, "Will I never see you again?"
Gutsy, I thought.
I'm afraid not, I thought.

What I said was I'm sorry.
But how could he look into my eyes
if I didn't look equally into his?
I'm sorry: as though he'd come close, as though this really were a near miss.

A Working Girl Can't Win

Is this the birth of a pundit
or a slut? Is she the woman
they courted for her youthful edge
or a kiss-and-tell bimbo,
a careerist coquette?
The loyal daughter to spin doctors
losing their hair or soul sister
to feminist essayists everywhere?
Is her meteoric rise the source
of her potential demise?
Is her worldview equal parts
yuppie whine and new-age rumor?
Can we get a biopsy on her latest
breast tumor? Is she a failed
anorexic, or a diet-pill faddist
who'll let it all go and get fat
in her fifties? Are her roots
rural, right-leaning? Is she Jewish,
self-hating? Past her sell-by date,
or still ovulating?
Will her husband talk?
Does he mind her success?
Does anyone know -- does he see
her undressed? Has she been
photographed? Will she play
truth or dare? And more to the point,
does anyone care?
Come next year, will the masses
be reading her story? Will she be
on the cover, or well past her glory?
Either way, we'll move on, and she'll tire
before long: only her children will grieve
at the way she was wronged.

Deborah Garrison

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