Friday, January 04, 2019

'Breathe Each Other Warm'

For years I have been fond of a sonnet, “Midcentury Love Letter,” written by the once popular, now forgotten Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), first published in The New Yorker in 1953 and collected in The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley (1954):

“Stay near me. Speak my name. Oh, do not wander
By a thought’s span, heart’s impulse, from the light
We kindle here. You are my sole defender
(As I am yours) in this precipitous night,
Which over earth, till common landmarks alter,
Is falling, without stars, and bitter cold.
We two have but our burning selves for shelter.
Huddle against me. Give me your hand to hold.

“So might two climbers lost in mountain weather
On a high slope and taken by the storm,
Desperate in the darkness, cling together
Under one cloak and breathe each other warm.
Stay near me. Spirit, perishable as bone,
In no such winter can survive alone.”

Nothing in the poem suggests it is not spoken by spouse to spouse, or lover to lover, though I suppose it could be addressed by parent to child. The poem is less about the loved one or the speaker than about the nature of their bond, the mutual trust, the knowledge that one will unquestionably aid and console the other. It expresses love by describing its nature, and avoids false sentiment. The speaker’s voice is convincing. The poem is concise and precise, without padding. “Breathe each other warm” is very nice, as are the final line and a half:Spirit, perishable as bone, / In no such winter can survive alone.” I thought of the poem again while following the most recent health crisis of Terry Teachout’s wife, Hilary. Looking a little deeper, I discovered that “Midcentury Love Letters” and four other McGinley poems were part of a song cycle composed by Alec Wilder.

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