The Murmur Massage- Molly Peacock
At 5pm almost every day early in the pandemic my husband and I would meet for the Murmur Massage. It took place in bed. But not for sex. We were there for that unguarded talking that usually only happens late at night. Our big bed, almost a square, took up most of the room, sort of the way a sonnet takes up a page. At first, we would lie there together. Then we’d slip into our mode, soft and sweet and familiar as a blanket in a world that could be hard and mutating and unfamiliar for us—my husband was on his 12th melanoma recurrence. Hey—he just played badminton! Yes, we might just have come in from a masked, distanced badminton game. Well, health is complicated, and contradictory. Like marriage. And personalities. And poetry, for that matter. Aren’t sonnets supposed to be perfect? Iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme, fourteen lines? Actually, the sonnet taught me, a poet, all about imperfection. There in bed, my husband and I just had to talk. And touch each other. Not, as I said, for sex. Just for…
Well, we were lying there together in our big square sonnet-shaped bed. Snuggling up. I’d sniff him. It was so great that he smelled sweaty and human and not like metal from some medication he used to take. He smelled like fall. Like school. We met in high school, when I started learning about sonnets. Stuff about the day would bubble up as our murmur began. Trifles about our online work lives fizzed up, then evaporated. Or dinner details. I’m the intuitive cook. He got out a ruler to measure sweet potato cubes. We were like two bits of jigsaw puzzle sky cut so irregularly that it looked like we would never fit. Then we turned the pieces the other way. I have to say, making thoughts fit into fourteen lines with a rhyme scheme is a little bit like that.
At the age of twelve I thought, as my father tore the legs off the kitchen table and the liquor bottles clattered in the garbage can, that all I wanted was a nice calm house where the lady cooked and the gentleman read the newspaper and then they sat down together at an old oak table with four sturdy legs. A classic cisgender 1950’s Anglo vision born of… Fear.
Writing a sonnet reminds you that a poem is a hand-made object— like a hand-hewn oak table. Those tables always have stress marks on them.
“Are you ready for your turn?” Of course. He was more purposive and massaged my legs before he started on my back. (I have a hip glitch that got exacerbated in a more rousing badminton game). He’d be completely silent. I always spilled the beans. “Sometimes,” I once said, (I had to work my way up to this, but one day it came out), “because of your brain tumor, I feel like we’re living through a tragedy.”
There, I murmured it.
Nothing from Monsieur Masseur. Steady strokes on the spine.
“Well,” he muttered, “just don’t say that too often.”
I obeyed. I neglected to mention that my husband had Stage 4 melanoma for forty years. That was survival to the max. (And caregiving, too). That’s why we needed the safe space of our sonnet-size bed, which, in a diminutive way, was like the outlined space of a badminton court. Psychologist D.W. Winnicott would have called this a holding area. Transitional space. The place for creativity. In holding each other, we were enfolding our whole histories and a whole pandemic world. And mumbling the truth. Sonnets only have two subjects: love and death. If you only have fourteen lines, it makes sense to blurt out the truth.
Our conversations would last less time than it takes to describe them. But in the days since that particular murmur massage, talented oncologists at first shrank his tumor to a manageable blip, and our whisperings became about how scared we were rather than are. I realized I’d had no idea how many people are walking around, buying sweet potatoes with managed brain tumors. You never know.
Fresh thoughts come to a prone person. Lying down—as Freud famously suggested with his image of the couch—lets ideas come. I’ve always preferred to write my sonnets in bed. Colette lounged in the covers as she wrote about how to live. Proust wrote seven volumes in bed! Romare Bearden cut out a reclining figure and flung it into his collage Patchwork Quilt. To draw the lines for thought as play, as Dutch philosopher Johann Huizinga reminds us in Homo Ludens, is to reassemble ideas—with whimsy. Even in the most serious sonnet, there’s a bit of whimsy because you really have to mess around with language like play-doh.
It got serious again after the brain tumor, because another recurrence happened; that was the last one. There’s a shift in every sonnet that is called the turn. You never have to worry about making the turn because it happens on its own. You realize, after about the tenth line, that you’re going to have to finish it, and suddenly the drive toward the end intensifies and turns the thought around. After sixty years of knowing each other, after twenty-eight years of marriage, after four decades of cancer, well, we knew the sonnet had turned. But back to our backs, pleasantly relaxed. Toward the end of that murmur massage, we were whispering and chuckling about Roz Chast’s Instagram posts of her cartoon-decorated eggs. Dithering about how we would ever replace, in our video hearts, those five cherished seasons of the romantic French spy thriller, The Bureau. Our talk shifted from memories to politics… and books… Almost time to get up. Then we were out of bed, that day’s sonnet turned, done. And a tectonic plate of everyday had shifted.
Molly Peacock is the author of seven books of poetry, including The Analyst, The Second Blush, and Cornucopia: New & Selected Poems. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and other leading literary journals. She is also the author of several books of prose and a memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece. In Canada Molly is the series editor for The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and the Poetry Editor of the Literary Review of Canada. Molly’s most recent book Flower Diary: Mary Hiester Reid Paints, Travels, Marries & Opens a Door is a biography that uncovers the history of neglected painter Mary Hiester Reid, a trailblazing artist who refused to choose between a marriage and a career.