Anne Stevenson’s poem, “The Marriage,” is a playful, subtle and profound description of the differences between men and women, and the difficulties inherent in such, specifically in regards to the unification of the sexes, both physically, spiritually and in terms of societal conventions (thus the title). By portraying these difficulties in pure physical terms – as a couple trying to come together to rest comfortably in bed – Stevenson is able to build a vivid and surprisingly comprehensive and universal depiction of marriage.
The poem is from the point of view of the wife, perhaps the author herself, who is trying to figure out a way to position her body against her husband’s so the two will be able to rest snugly at night. With both of them facing the same direction, she in front, he in back, they are nearly successful, but only:
…if her backbone
Cuts exactly into his rib cage
And only if his knees
Dock exactly under her knees
And all four
Agree on a common angle
Thus positioned – provided their bodies willingly correspond – the husband and wife have achieved unification, or, at the very least, a modicum of comfort. But this is a small victory, or even a false one, for as the narrator continues:
All would be well
They could face each other
In three lines, Stevenson has perfectly summed up what plagues marriages, old and new alike: that men and women are inherently different. Not that one is superior and the other inferior – she seems to prescribe to the “separate but equal” doctrine that is the norm in her homeland of American and her adopted country of England – but that they are uniquely separate entities. Men and women think differently, act differently, and are proportioned differently. And any kind of union between the two, any form of coming-together, is marked my problems. The poet is also asserting that in order for this to occur, a compromise must be enacted. And in any kind of compromise, some things are won (the couple “fit”) and some are lost (they are not facing each other). While the partners have achieved a level of comfort and intimacy, with her backbone nicely fitting into his rib cage, and his knees docking perfectly under hers, they have lost a major component of such, as they cannot look at one another.
Stevenson’s vision of compromise is universal, and does not apply to merely physical situations. The implications correspond to any aspect of a relationship, including, for example, where a couple chooses to settle (one likes the city, one likes the country, so they move to the suburbs), to how they raise their kids (one is a fan of television, one isn’t, so the child watches a minimum amount), to how they spend their money (one likes extravagant things, one prefers simple things, so they buy items that are moderately priced). In all of these situations, both parties are content in that they have achieved satisfaction. While neither got everything they were asking for, each partner got enough (presumably, at least) to remain content. This “partial victory” is the crux of a successful relationship.
But Stevenson is not finished. She goes on with her physical description of the pair, who meet:
Nose to neck
Chest to scapula
Groin to rump
And yet, even though the situation is still not ideal – they are unable to face each other, after all – in even this there is a silver lining:
They look, at least
As if they were going
In the same direction
While this is merely a small caveat – notice her use of the phrase “they look, at least,” as if this is merely the appearance of agreement – even so, it is something. And this small something, again, this tiny “victory” is often enough to make all the difference. Stevenson is celebrating the small moments of daily life and the small “victories” that are won through compromise. Are the couple, or, in fact, are any man and woman perfectly matched? No. Are there differences between the two that will never be breached? Certainly. But does this mean that one cannot work with this other to achieve some form of balance, even if it is not perfect? Of course not. And, at least in the poet’s mind, this transcendence of differences makes it even more special.
In Stevenson’s world, a husband and wife half-consciously groping for each other in the middle of the night is as important as any other compromise made between the sexes. A man moves halfway across the world to be with the woman he loves. A woman changes her religion to be with the man she loves. Both are noble and tremendous acts, but are just as heroic as the couple fumbling in bed. Love, marriage, etc., is both gigantic and intimate, and every act of coming together is important.
But let us quickly go back to these words:
They look, at least
As if they were going
In the same direction
This passage holds another meaning, that of the fact that the couple is actually not going in the same direction, but only appear to be. Stevenson is saying that looks are deceiving, and while the pair seems to be in agreement, they are in reality far from it. This is a reinforcement of her belief that the sexes are different, and even when they don’t seem to be (a husband and wife both like the same television program, for example, but he enjoys it for the action, she for the sexy leading man), in truth their agendas and perceptions are widely divergent, more than ever.
To demonstrate her view of marriage, Stevenson adopts a casual, easy, free verse style, one that is relaxed and light. The words are simple and straightforward, and the situation is commonplace and routine. Underneath, of course, it is a different story, as the subject matter – the differences between the sexes, and how these differences can be overcome – is neither easy nor commonplace. And while she uses the couple’s awkward brushing of body parts to personify this subtext, even this is muted. However, her choice of illustration is highly effective, and she doesn’t need to cloud the issue with excessive metaphor or lofty language. In fact, her technique actually apes her point of view. The mundane act of a man and woman trying to sleep comfortably together is profound, as it not only acts as a representation for the larger compromises that couples must make, but is on its own special and meaningful. By keeping it simple, Stevenson demonstrates the complex and universal.
Anne Stevenson, unlike the never-married Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop (who she is often compared to), has been wed four times. Since 1987 she has been with the Darwin scholar Peter Lucas, and no doubt in those seventeen years she has learned a thing or two about compromise. Her poem “Marriage” perfectly captures the disparities between men and women, and the contortions that must be performed to unify the two. Marriage, relationships, love, etc., are wondrous, unique things, as are men and women themselves, but they are also universal. Couples must compromise to survive, sometimes in big ways, sometimes in small ones. But all of these compromises are significant, and all of them make us human. Stevenson’s poem, like marriage itself, is both incredibly simple and tremendously complicated. Her basic, straightforward words could not be more profound.
Hickling, Alfred. “Border Crossings.” The Guardian Unlimited. 2 Oct. 2004.
Stevenson, Anne. Poems 1955-2005. Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2005.