"Poems and Weddings"
Weddings, I have been thinking, have to do with a moment, and marriages have to do with time. As Stephen Mitchell and I read around and talked about this book, our main purpose was to try to find words that would help to deepen and enrich a ceremony, but of course we found ourselves talking and thinking and reading a lot of poems about love and marriage. And these three concerns suggested a shape for a useful introductory essay: first a word about love, then a brief history of the wedding ceremony, and then something about marriage and time.
Love first. Here is a little poem by Emily Dickinson, who never married, written probably when she was twenty-eight or twenty-nine years old:
Wild Nights-Wild Nights
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
To a Heart in port-
Done with the Compass-
Done with the Chart
Rowing in Eden-
Ah, the Sea
Might I but moor-Tonight-
I've just recently realized why this poem is so mysterious and beautiful to me. When you first read it, you get the impression that the speaker in the poem is throwing out the charts to navigate by the freedom of her feelings in the open sea. But it isn't so. She has thrown them out because she is in port, in safe harbor.
And that, I saw, is what we want from each other most intimately: wildness and safety, or a magical space that includes both. That is what it means to row in Eden. Dickinson herself came to believe, I think, that this dreamwedding was only possible in a passionate mind, which is to say in a poem. I don't think she thought you could have both in the real world. It's my experience that you can haveboth, not all of the time but some of the time, and that this possibility depends on the other more durable things that love means. And that the root of these is trust. Another poet, John Donne, described it this way in the sixteenth century:
And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear.
It means to live with eyes open, not fearing what you will see in the other person or what they will see in you. And that means, in turn, not hiding what might cause fear but showing it and seeing it through. The word for that quality in a person is "presence." None of us have a lot of it by the time we are adults because we've all learned, in order to get love, to hide what is unlovable in us. To unlearn that is risky and it takes time and it has to be done, in a marriage, while you are doing other things, making a living, living a life, raising children. The reason for doing it is that it is the only way to the dream-marriage we wanted at the moment of the wedding. And, as often happens, the process itself may turn out to be more surprising, may be a wilder and deeper thing than the dream. A wedding can't do this for us, of course, but it can express that intention clearly, for it too is a kind of poem, or at least, like a poem, it is a human invention to hold a kind of magic in place. And a wedding, unlike a poem, is partly a collective creation. Parts of it are designed by us, but mostly it is inherited from what others intended it to express. Which is why it seemed useful here to sketch a sort of history of the wedding ceremony.
Some friends were married recently. It was a large wedding in a very beautiful old Protestant church in Atlanta, andduring the ceremony the minister, who seemed to some of us overstimulated by the splendor of the event, delivered himself of a twenty-minute sermon against divorce, conducted the rest of the ceremony rather gracefully, and at the end charged the groom with "leadership and strength of purpose" and the bride with "a quiet and submissive spirit."
Afterward one of our party claimed that he had also said that marriage was instituted by God to subdue lust and provide comfort in old age. None of the rest of us heard that, or perhaps we had let it go by, but it did make for amusement at the reception-which was gorgeous, full of sweetsmelling Southern flowers, and music, and tart, sparkling champagnewhen we wondered what went on between the defeat of carnal appetite and the onset of senility. "Rituals of female submission," one bridesmaid suggested. The groom was of Scots-Irish stock, the bride of Chinese. The bridesmaid was African-American and she was the one who said, "The broomstick might have been better."
Which had a certain bitter force. During slavery, when couples were allowed to marry, the ritual in many places seems to have taken a particular form. A broomstick was placed down in the yard and the couple jumped over it. That was the marriage. I haven't been able to find out where or how this custom originated, but I found it moving, in a couple of ways: first of all, by contrast with the richly complicated West African wedding ceremonies I had been reading about, and second, because the human need for ritual is so deep that it had reasserted itself even in this simple form. There is some record of how the African (-becoming-American-the-hard-way) slaves felt about it. In my readingfor this book I came across some verses, passed down, I guess, through the oral tradition, which are an ironic, probably outraged parody of a slave master's wedding speech:
Dark an'stormy may come de wedder; <BR" jines dis he-male and she-male togedder,
Let none but Him dat makes de thunder,
Put dis he-male and she-male asunder.<BR" darfore'nounce you bofe de same.
Be good, go'long, an'keep up yo'name.
De broomstick's jumped, de worl's not wide.
She's now yo'own. Salute yo'bride