Reviewed By: Jan Schreiber
Read: X. J. Kennedy’s “The Pacifier”
It’s rare nowadays to find maxims and adages embedded in poems, though verses were once a common and accepted way of transmitting received wisdom. But X. J. Kennedy violates many contemporary norms and expectations in poems that wander the ill-defined territory between humorous and whimsical. Now and then he produces a poem in the voice of an invented person. Sometimes the fictional voice is a convincing imitation; at other times the tone is elevated beyond the colloquial, though the subject matter is not. “The Pacifier” is such a poem.
[private]The poem is composed of three-line tetrameter stanzas with the same rime used in all three lines of the stanza. The structure allows the poet to give certain passages epigrammatic force, as in the last line of the penultimate stanza. Starting with a homely example-a baby’s pacifier-the poem develops two ideas: that a substitute can often work almost as well as the real thing, and that loving relationships often benefit in the process by sparing the party who might at the moment be stretched too thin. The poem purports to be the musings of an infant’s mother. Perhaps a little guiltily, she observes that it profits her to play a cheap trick on her baby, who ceases wailing when given a pacifier, even though he gets no nourishment from it. Her summary epigram (“He cries for bread. I give him brick.”) is harsh with herself, since the pacifier does have some satisfying qualities, in that the softness of the rubber teat appeases the sucking impulse and creates, at least for a time, a sense of comfort and security in the infant.
From this reflection the mother proceeds to muse on the parallels to be found in the other important relationship in her life-with the child’s father. He too is seen as needing physical closeness-a sexual connection-at times when she is unable to respond. Here too, a substitution is sometimes the answer. The poem is too discreet to say exactly what the substitution is, and the bovine and digestive figure in which it’s expressed (“then let that raging bull chew cud”) gently leads away from graphic details, though it suggests he may have to find his satisfactions within himself. But the epigrammatic statements sum up the point: that buying time to replenish the self allows the young woman to give more love-both maternal and connubial-than she could have mustered otherwise.
The poem ends with two sententiae, or moral maxims, one packed inside the other. To illustrate that her ardor and her husband’s will revive in due time, the young wife observes, “Fire lingers near a kindled urn,” but she extends the sentence to broaden the observation. The fire will spread “on real as on imagined beds”-meaning that at the proper time their physical affection will make the transition from imagination to actuality, “held fast by things that stand in steads”-that is, secured to the real world by the appropriate deployment of substitutes. (There is, of course, some devilish wit in this phrase, since “steads” can be bedsteads. etc. The reader can devise his own connections here.)
Physicists and logicians might quibble with various points in this argument: whether an urn, once heated but no longer aboil, will keep the fire at hand, and whether substitutes can always hold passion firmly and at the ready; but at least some psychologists, poets, and veterans of long marriages will recognize the astuteness of Kennedy’s observation.[/private]