Poetry is the platinum of wordsmiths. The brilliant Southern author Harry Crews, in whose Introduction to Literature course and Creative Writing classes at the University of Florida I was immeasurably lucky to have been enrolled long ago, said he believed a poem was the most challenging thing to write. He had a point: creating a novel is undeniably hard work, and a short story can be more so, both emotionally and editorially: its abbreviated length exhorts the writer to make every one of its handful of pages engaging and fully relevant; it forces him to make choices that often feel painful, cruel even. But with a poem, every word—every syllable—must not only shine like a jewel, but also fit within an impossibly cramped filigree of sentences, stanzas or rhymes already thickly studded with words of dire import.
So I cut my writer’s teeth on poems, most of them dreadful, many of them scribbled in the margins of my geometry notebook as I gazed out the window, theorems be damned (I recall reading that Sylvia Plath did the same thing, and while I covet her literary genius, I'm thankful to have avoided her fate). And how I loved that last class of the day: English. Sure, we also studied transformational grammar, etymology and spelling, but fortunately, we tenth-graders were blessed with a teacher—Ms. Carol Coleman—who loved poems (and stories and novels) enough to make literature, in all its forms, an ongoing and omnipresent feature. Who inspired more readers (and, I don’t doubt, writers) than you could shake a ballpoint pen at. And this was in a huge public high school in Miami (population when I attended: 4,500) that wasn’t computerized (!) or even air-conditioned.
My fondness for the poem My Last Duchess, I’d later come to realize, was really to do with my being so drawn to the spirit of its title character. The poem is narrated by her widowed husband as he woos the father of his next proposed marriage of convenience. While expounding on her portrait and the happy, blushing woman it depicts, he lets the prospective father-in-law—and the reader—in on a nasty little secret: he is a cold-hearted and materialistic cad who found his late wife’s optimism—indeed, her ability to find joy in every aspect of life—to be annoying at best, intolerable at worst:
A heart how shall I say? too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech…
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, in which your humble Bloggeress has put the last small boy to bed and finds herself responding to a friend’s email in the middle of the night, always a gorgeously quiet and indulgent time for mothers in general, writing mothers in particular.
…To answer your question, no, I still haven’t got used to being the only woman in a house full of men, and I suspect I never will. They’re utterly wonderful, but they’re wild beyond description—here, chaos isn’t a theory; it’s a daily reality. The fighting can escalate in a split-second: oftentimes the flashpoint is some tiny plastic creature or piece of Lego that would have no significance or desirability whatsoever if it weren’t, at that moment, wanted by someone else.
No, wait, I can sum it up in two words: underwear everywhere.
The love in my house is palpable and sticky and offered in generous helpings. I'm the only woman in this place! But I don’t exactly feel like a queen (yet).
Off to bed, then. With best wishes, I am
Deborah, the Duchess of Testosteronia
When I decided to screw up my courage and publish my own blog, I spent a long time pondering what to call it. Ultimately, The Last Duchess was the only real choice: it’s a nod toward the laughable self-righteousness I often affect while trying to keep my balance on the wobbly pedestal of womanhood, and it's also a way to honor the multifaceted interests and eternal optimism of Browning’s character. Finally, it’s my hope that readers won’t assume I’m hinting at royal pretensions—nothing could be further from my intentions!—but rather, will infer some sense of my awe at the creative geniuses past and present who walk among us, as well as my love and respect for family and literature alike, and my faith that a bright future awaits both.
* du'chess (-tsh-), n. Duke's wife or widow; imposing woman.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Oxford, England, UK: Oxford University Press, 1942.