One Flesh – Elizabeth Jennings
Elizabeth Jennings lived most of her life in Oxford, England, though she was not born there. Her Roman Catholic belief colored much of her poetry. Her life was marred by attacks of severe mental illness when she has to go into care. Though the poetry Jennings wrote had themes taken from her life, her poetry is not explicitly autobiographical. She was influenced by poets like Auden, Graves, Hopkins and Muir.
This poem is about the poet’s parents who have now grown old and moved apart physically. Though the passion that existed between them has dried up, they still remain bonded to each other. They have become unemotional and go through life as though they are strangers. They have nothing to speak to each other. It is not that there is any animosity between them; their need for each other has gone. Instead of being ‘one flesh’, they have become two distinct entities. The passion from which the poet was born has by now died down.
In these three stanzas, the poet explores the state of her parent’s marriage. The passion that was there in their marriage has died and all that now remains is a slack bond. The first stanza shows them sleeping on separate beds, her father tries to concentrate on his book but all he does is stare at the open page. Her mother on the other hand, stares overhead at the shadows dreaming of her childhood and all the men who have passed through her life. They are both hoping for some exciting event to happen in their lives.
In the second stanza, the poet compares their bodies to the jetsam and flotsam that litter water bodies. Here it is the sea of passion on which their bodies float like detritus. There is hardly any physical contact between them; they get by without touching each other. It is as though all life they were preparing for this chaste life. When they do touch, it is like an apology for human contact.
Though they have grown apart, in some ways they are still close; they have not been able to shake off their closeness. There are long silences between them; these silences are like a thread the ends of which they hold stretched out keeping them apart. It is not like a thread to pull each other close. Time is like a feather that touches them gently, so gently that they have not felt it go past. The poet wonders whether they realize that they have grown old. These are my parents and I was born from the fire of their passion, says the poet.