She shakes out the blanket, wraps it around her middle, and sits down. The room is cold and dim and full of quiet. She takes the top book from the stack, and her marker out of the book: Sonnet 49. Against that time (if ever that time come). Against that time do I insconce me here. That time being, for her, tomorrow afternoon when the essay is due. 

For basic sense you can read each of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in a minute or two. For a little more chewiness and analysis, five or six minutes. The trouble is keeping them apart. Each one seems to annul the previous one: no longer that, but this. They dissolve into a mass of little qualifications and turns and particularities and withholdings and accusations and escapes. To make some speciall instant speciall blest. Let this sad intrim like the ocean be. Nor dare I chide the world without end houre. Like the small wheels of a great mechanism, always clicking into new relationships. Intricate is the word. Exhausting is also the word. The little packed blocks of text. He wrote them over many years, probably, and here she is trying to rustle up a theory in two days, elaborate it, and hook it convincingly on.

Last year, their tutor Sara advised them to spend as many hours as they could simply sitting with the text. Don’t keep your pen in your hand, just pick it up when you really need, or else your pen will get ahead of your thoughts. Look away from the text and out the window if you have to, try and pause your thoughts on the one thing. Focus on the experience of you reading this text now. But always remind yourself, it was written, sometime, by someone.

Afterward when they mentioned this to one of the grad students he said Oh yeah well she’s a phenomenologist at best. At best she thought was interesting: she wrote the whole phrase down on a Post-it and stuck it on the wall above her desk. 

On another Post-it is written Find the edges and breathe into them, but that was from a yoga teacher.

She takes a mouthful of water, turns a page, and reads. Time doth transfixe the flourish set on youth, And delves the paralels in beauties brow. 

Sonnet after sonnet after sonnet of iambic pentameter: which has raged like a virus through the English canon so that it begins to feel like the original meter, the only meter, the sole mode of reasonable speaking. How it shifts its weight slightly to accommodate things. Her eyes go to the notes: to transfixe meant to pierce, paralels could be military trenches. 

This man. She tries to picture him at some sort of table, cogitating. His sharpened pen. Or did he stroll whistling through Southwark letting each poem evolve in his head. All day long striding across the stage, making cheerful business decisions, laughing with a hand on a fellow actor’s shoulder, a slurp of ale, you’re right I’ll take another run at that scene, et cetera. Behind all this, the obsession beginning to build in his chest, shredding him from the inside. Then home. Muttering onto the page. The ornament of beauty is suspect. Why is my verse so barren of new pride. It is my love that keeps mine eie awake. It is so grounded inward in my heart. 

She needs to empty her bladder: it is starting to nip at the urethra, part of the complex that includes the clitoris. Holds that in her head for a moment, the word complex, thinking of castles and palaces and priories, little folds and pinches of flesh: like a series of side chapels around the great arched nave of her cunt. Concentrating the sacred forces. Providing a focus for worshippers.

A tiny snort at her own imagery. Back to the Sonnets.

Your friend Will: I’ve been working on a sonnet sequence, would you read it for me?

How on trend you are, Will. I’m not sure I’ve got time, Will. Oh, I’ll give them a glance if you really want me to, Will. Then sitting after supper with the manuscript in one hand, a cup of wine in the other. By the time your wife says goodnight you are struggling to control your breathing. Good God. Your friend Will.

She flicks her fingernail against the edge of the desk. Not exactly edifying, a balding man with middle-age spread and an embarrassing infatuation he can’t get rid of. At what point does the quality of the work start to redeem the pitifulness of the scenario. At what point does it no longer redeem. Better to embrace silence than to spout the same old shit. Spending againe what is already spent.

Turns to look at the window. The beginning of cold light outside, there are dark shapes now against the dark sky. A robin declares something sweet and firm. If she turned her lamp off she could really see it, the dawn being put together with great care, or perhaps reluctantly: the morning seeping in, the poem on the page slowly emerging. Working half in the dark. Pretentious of course, this fixation on silence and light levels. There is a perfectly reasonable nine-to-five day to be worked in the library if only she, et cetera. But this conviction of it all being one realm: the Sonnets, and the room in which the Sonnets are read. 



At last conceding to bodily function she gets up: or rather, emerges from her bundle and lets her blanket heap half across the chair half onto the floor. Staggers sideways a step, to her own annoyance. Yoga has made her both more supple and more fussy, with the high standards of a careful practitioner. There are now unsatisfactory ways of walking to the bathroom.

Pulls her pajama bottoms down and sits. The urine starts chaotically, it catches on some small vulva-fold and trickles its warmth around, she pushes until her anatomy releases and it becomes a comfortable stream. A long one, like a long exhale. At the end, senses her pelvis all light and clean. 

Coming back to her work she leans over the lamplit book, palms flat on the desk. Come on. Where is something. She lifts the book, flips to a random page, finds: That is my home of love, if I have rang’d, Like him that travels I returne againe, Just to the time, not with the time exchang’d— 

Perhaps breakfast.

Actually, as she reluctantly opens the radiator valve and collects together a bowl and spoon and the box of muesli, there might be an essay to be written on the particular dynamics of the male-male love affair in this period. Both men widely traveling, both freely sociable, and their fucking has nothing to do with the question of marriage, no energy is wasted on pedantic negotiations of that sort. The muesli splatters into the bowl and she puts the box down and heads for the door, and there are such men everywhere swaggering about the streets and taverns, she pulls her door open and puts it on the latch and “Baaargh” she murmurs squishing her eyes against the strip lighting, but then is there a way for them to be serious about each other—how could one ever demonstrate commitment, as she grabs her milk out of the fridge—how to reach a place of safety and confidence that yes, this is it, we belong to each other, and she pushes back into her room and shuts the door. It’s more like, there must always be an until: it will last, until it doesn’t.

Yesterday in Katherine Duncan-Jones’s essay she found this:

Perhaps there is something particularly attractive to women readers about the enclosed space of “the sonnet’s narrow room,” and its predominantly reflective, introspective subject-matter. Possibly, also, women readers are able to remain at once calmly observant of, yet emotionally receptive to, the masculine homoerotic thrust of 1–126 that has caused such upset to generations of male readers.

She copied out the whole of this passage, not intending it for anything, just a comforting dry little joke. A small smile gleaming through the scholarly prose. 

She crunches and flattens and swallows, staring into space. Would she call herself calmly observant of it. Emotionally receptive to it, yes—but more than that—there is a sense in which she feels somehow—what is the word—implicated. Looks down at the empty bowl, presses a wet oat and brings it to her mouth. Yes they are men and she is a woman: but she is somehow in there, with them, desperate for it. 

Anyway. Now coffee. She stands at the window with the kettle building to a boil. Down there over the wall is the garden of the college next door, very neatly kept, the lawn white with frost, the flower beds black. Sometimes, on weekdays, two men come and walk around that lawn. One musing with his hands clasped behind his back, about a passage of Aristotle she imagines, or Aquinas or Milton or Matthew Arnold. The other, younger, apparently trying to follow his thoughts. But they laugh too, they examine the odd shrub, then after ten minutes or so circling the flower beds they go away. Once they took turns pouring small amounts from a thermos into a cup and drinking from it. She only ever sees them together: never on their own, never with anyone else.

What if she stood naked for them at her window: hair down on her shoulders, breasts a little tight with cold, but her face calm, perfectly at her ease. One man murmurs to the other, Don’t be too obvious but if you look up there you’ll see something rather enjoyable. They would have no way of knowing if she was touching herself unseen below the window. Soon they would be glancing up to her every time. And perhaps one day they would beckon her down, and take her quietly back to a room deep in that ancient college, where finally, finally, she might learn something.

The coffee enters her like a hot dark phrase. Something in its fierce strength is deeply excellent: it reaches her stomach and she sighs. Behind her the room heaves with possessions, far too many. Really, being very strict, the only thing she both needs and wants—both needs and wants, she repeats to herself—is this, the small brown mug with the tiny cross stamped into it. She puts out a hand and touches its hot surface, its mottled brown glaze, circles its small diameter with her thumb and finger. Its handle is low down on its body, it has a strange shape, a foreign shape. It could accompany her to another existence: she could wrap it in a jumper, put it into a backpack with a few other bits, and go off to Greece or Persia or Morocco, without Rich, just her alone. Walk straight out of the airport with no luggage and get on a bumpy bus. A dusty knot of hair which will stay atop her head all day. She will be browner and a little thinner, she will move easily through the streets. She will sit and eat a spare but delicious meal of olives, hummus, extremely good salty bread, in a small courtyard. Not read, just gaze. Understand subtle, fragile things. Be like the courtyard, holding it all in suspension. Pour water from a glass bottle into the brown mug and sip, a few molecules at a time, seeping into her like a blessing. When she comes back she will be different. Her mind blinded by heat, only able to see angles and colors, sun and shadow.

She lifts the brown mug and takes another mouthful. Fuck coffee is wonderful. It takes hold of things in her mind and starts to pull them steadily apart: showing through like silvery light is nuance, subtlety, intricacy. Be where you list, your charter is so strong, That you your selfe may privilege your time To what you will, to you it doth belong. As the caffeine turns things faster all these words seem to pant in her: a word like privilege spreads itself out until she is top-heavy, saturated: she could let her head thump forward onto the desk with the weight of it.  

Twenty minutes later her body is starting to crawl with irritation: her nails are too long, her lips are dry, her mind is going all fuzzy and homogenous, with no power to separate or refine things. Across her scalp little nerve cells jerk one way or the other for no reason. Loose hairs suddenly visible on the desk or looping out wide from her cardigan catching the light. Tiny painful flaps of skin starting to peel around her fingernails. An almost constant need to take water in and push water out: sometimes she can’t wait to get off the toilet and flush so she can gulp some more water. Where the thinking is supposed to happen, how anyone can think in these conditions, is a mystery.

The hiss of the radiator, and its hot air. She makes a noise of annoyance. Up and over she goes with a kind of sonnet-lunge, and turns it off: Mark how I banish heat from this my room.

Then she looks outside. Holy shit. However long it’s been since she last looked: suddenly there is a huge mist obscuring everything, gardens, buildings, meadow, all flooded with strange muted white light. As if while she wasn’t looking they put it together in the long grass, smiling and holding their fingers to their lips, then said Now and it all lifted up in one go. The top of it steamy and cold, disappearing and glinting in the air.

She sits down at her desk again and keeps very still, eyes closed, listing things. Grass. Water. Cold air. Sunlight. Against this mist the trees will be picked out in fine black pen. She risks another glance out. Near the window is a silver outline down the edge of the birch tree. The mist beyond it is enormous and pale white.

Sits for one more clenching moment: then up out of the chair hauling off her jumpers and pajamas, steps naked to her chest of drawers and pulls out a load of clothes and drags them onto her body. Then coat—scarf—gloves—trainers. Grabs her cold keys from their shelf. 

Pauses to squint at this extraordinarily quick decision that she really should not be making. Sees her glass of water on the desk, lifts it up and takes one long drink. Then out.

In the porters’ lodge she meets big tall Emma Weeting coming back from her run. They say an extremely neutral hello.

She takes the avenue of trees toward the river. Behind her the colleges retreat into a single line of buildings in the mist, they let her go. She passes a tree: silence: now another tree: silence: now another tree.

Maybe while she is out here she should decide about Rich coming, so the time will not be entirely wasted. After all it was inevitable he would ask to visit her, she should have had an answer ready, it is unconscionable that she still hasn’t told him yes or no. He wants to come and relive their first tiny adventure—what, nearly two years ago?—when things went so gorgeously askew. The little restaurant on Walton Street, the Moroccan lamb he suggested she try. The wine. You know I genuinely meant it as a favor to your mum, he insists. He and Mum had stood talking after the concert with their violin cases over their shoulders, and she and Sophy and Caro were all clustered around ready to go home, and he said Actually I’ll be in Oxford in a few weeks, I’ll take Annabel out for a decent meal if you like, college food is so awful et cetera et cetera. He meant it as a favor: he intended to report back. 

Her whole front is already wet in the mist, in this chilly decorous morning. A curl of damp hair is stuck to her cheek. It does make a pleasingly tawdry tale: he ordered the red wine which they split, unequally: and there was a moment (unperceived by her) when his mind began to purr and soften. He started to steal food off her plate: and there was a moment (unperceived by him) when she thought, Is this really—might I really—I seriously could. He paid and offered to walk her home. Each of them now mentally redacting the report they would make to Mum. They stepped out into the raw February night and he said Fuck it’s cold, and immediately apologized for swearing. They walked. He stopped to point out some quirk of architecture, his hand was on her shoulder as he got her to look in the right direction: and he turned and his head was very close: and there was a kiss. She stood in his dark arms trembling and kissing. He drew her against his body, he asked in a hot breath would it be completely disgraceful if he invited her back to his hotel room. She managed to say, she hadn’t—she’d never—and he understood. They walked back to college and he kissed her very softly on the cheek.

For two weeks they corresponded, and for another two they spoke almost daily on the phone. Then she came home for Easter: she drove out to his village: in his bed it happened: a sharp exhaustive fullness in her pelvis, and blood. He assured her the sheets would come clean in the wash.

She reaches the river. A certain gray calm starts to settle in, an exhilarated calm. The walk is in her now, she lets her shoulders fall back with every exhale and slows her steps along the bank. A dark shape on the water suddenly shrugs and lifts its neck and becomes a goose.

She exhales hard and it puffs out in a cloud of vapor. Then came the bad period. That email: I really can’t honorably justify, you’re only eighteen, the secrecy is damaging to us both, your mum trusted me to, you deserve someone who will blah blah blah. Wishing you all the best with your studies. Rich. Two months later Mum reported meeting his new girlfriend Carmen and not liking her: which was alternately comforting and enraging.

So she found, firstly, Joseph Waller, a third year doing materials science at St. John’s, who all three times insisted on going to her room instead of his for reasons not obvious to her until she saw him coming out of his own college holding hands with a skinny girl with lots of hair and big sunglasses.

Next, things narrowed in on Miles, elusive and pale-mannered Miles, who kept her beautifully, delicately heartsore. 

And third in a rush of mercy came Virginia Woolf: who more than adequately filled the months. She read all the novels over the summer and came back to Oxford seized and clamped with Woolf, she ate less, she worked more, there were new hummings in her brain, her bowels turned ticklish, she lost weight, her sleep began to flicker and bubble, she was cold in the night. She reread the big Woolf biography in great gasping chunks, she stormed up Woodstock Road every week for her tutorials, she brought question after question to Patricia: how did Woolf do it, how did she find space in her day and brain and metabolism, in spite of her illnesses, to write and read and talk like that? 

Finally Patricia said to her, gently, She was atypical. 

She didn’t miss the gentleness, and sat there silently wishing the term would not end. 

Anyway she finished her last essay, went home, and sank straight into the flavor of Christmas, all dark and velvety and erotic. Everything seemed to point to the secret triumph of being pressed against a wall and slowly kissed. And then bumping into Rich in the department store: both of them alone: so brilliant a coincidence she had to double-check she hadn’t designed it herself. He hadn’t seen her for nearly two years and she watched him employ all his brainpower to keep the conversation going. Was Oxford fun, was she working very hard. Would they all come to the Christmas concert. Had her mum mentioned how difficult the violin parts were, or was she finding it easy, ha ha. Around them the desperate shopping bustle continued, no one was really paying attention to anyone else. It was the perfect moment if he could recognize it. Finally he swallowed his embarrassment among the glassware and invited her for a coffee.

On impulse she pitches this moment at the Sonnets, and something begins to unwrap itself: Will! calls a familiar voice, and Will barely has time to arrange his face, the beautiful boy is there in front of him, teeth white in the gloom, smiling. Let’s to the Rose and Crown, we’ll toast the coming of Christ together. Will nods. Tight-faced, wild-hearted, he follows his tormentor into the roar of the tavern. 

In the café Rich said things like Are you seeing anyone, and You know I still think about you a lot, and You talk even less than you used to. She gave a small smile and said I know. Then they went to a pub and drank mulled wine, sitting close enough at the table that when they wanted their knees to touch it was easy. He put his hand on her thigh and slid it upward and she froze with what he took to be discomfort but wasn’t. Perhaps her face had not accurately reflected what she was feeling. A look of lust would have been better: an intensity in the eyes and a faint smile or sneer to convey its full portion of encouragement. So often her lack of smiling renders her unintelligible in the world: and additionally Rich is always expecting her to hesitate. He apologized and took his hand away from her leg and she had to catch it and put it back before he understood.

A sudden noise behind: and then a tall runner in shorts overtakes her, his reddish rough hair bouncing behind him. She sees very clearly the lines of muscle sharpen in his calves and thighs as his feet hit the ground. Morning lust is nicely damp. 

The river is totally silent, stretching off into the mist toward London. A pollarded willow has put out a spray of thin orange branches. Oh Rich. Perhaps he should come and visit. Come to see her in this habitat, like an Annabel tourist. They can be out and about in chilly Oxford together, then together in a hotel bed under a thick patterned counterpane. Though, actually, all this stuff in the Sonnets, the nervous older lover and the impatient beloved, she is starting to know a little about that. Rich is also Dr. Richard French, thirty-six years old, general practitioner, he did electives in emergency wards and watched people die on operating tables, he prescribes opiates every day and briskly comforts old ladies, and once in his kitchen he took his stethoscope and slid the cold disk under her bra so she gasped, and he smiled—but he’s afraid of her, ain’t that the truth, he fucks her holding his breath. He asks to come and visit, and agonizes that she will say no. Everything has been tinged, from the moment they rekindled things, with his same slight dread. 

Actually she might be able to discover more about the Sonnets without them gazing coldly up at her. Tries to isolate a single sonnet in her head: she gets monuments and ships, a vial of rosewater, a sulky horse, a pair of dark eyes. Cankers in roses, rotting lilies, a locked wardrobe full of jewels. The foyzon of the yeare, which here means autumn. Death’s scythe, the black lines of poetry, the Young Man forever green. A phrase comes—the desperation of metaphor—

Also the love triangle. The Young Man has slept with, is sleeping with, has fully stolen away, the poet’s mistress. His and hers infidelities: but the Young Man’s is worse. Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all. Subtext: yea take them all, thou greedy selfish shit: a perfect pentameter. And there is a pleasedness there, no? He is pleased to say, Loving offenders thus I will excuse ye. So dry, so wounded, so haughty, enforcing his own nonsense logic. For my sake, he repeats: I can perceive, as neither of you does, that this all refers back to me, you’re just agitating the waters as I suck them irresistibly toward my plughole. Fuck each other if you like. I, structurally, am the winner.

Perhaps it’s inevitable, but it feels sudden. Something moves in her mind and the SCHOLAR appears, as if stepping out from behind a tree. Tall, solemn, in his black cloak. With pleasure she feels her body take on his taller, leaner body. She is walking the path now with his long careful strides, she is looking up into the trees and over the meadow, studying the mist with his precise eye. Now things are full of patterns and substance and wet luminosity. He understands the conditions that have formed this mist, he notes them and tips the knowledge like a little powder into his mind.

He came for a walk intending to solve something complicated about his work. But inevitably he is thinking about his friend, if friend is even the correct word: the SEDUCER. Not that seducer is the correct word either, since he himself has not yet been, technically, seduced: hence his endless brooding. He walks, he takes scattered impressions, he lets his thoughts dwell. What is it that happens when repeatedly nothing happens. 

The sound of footsteps makes him turn. The SEDUCER, catching up: Ah good, I thought I might find you out here. He looks very fine. His warm robes, breathtakingly expensive, are made of boiled wool in a charcoal gray. His long pale hair is tucked into the collar to stop it getting tangled on the wool. The SCHOLAR clenches his teeth briefly, trying to ignore the heavy line of all that hair. Those leather gloves he knows are lined with blue silk because he once picked one up to have a look. 

They fall into step together. She holds them on either side of her mind, walking as she walks. The SCHOLAR stops, crouches, parts some weeds, and takes gentle hold of a plant between two fingers.

What is it? The SEDUCER’s voice behind him.

The SCHOLAR turns his head half back. (She invents something rapidly.) Musk hellebore, he says.

Ah yes. A powerful aphrodisiac, am I right?

The SCHOLAR stands up in disgust, brushing earth and water off his hands: Aphrodisiacs are the only plants you seem to know about. He stalks away. The SEDUCER exhales in amusement, but also he is a little stung. He strides to catch up, already formulating how to win back his friend’s goodwill.

They have been with her for years now, these two. They are in the grain of her. Naturally she hauls herself in front of her own beady eyes about them from time to time. What do they imply about her. What does it mean that they are constantly going in and out of courtyards with cloaks billowing. That the SEDUCER has a wife, of course he does, and any number of mistresses, but will happily send apologies and excuses and gifts if the opportunity arises for an evening with the SCHOLAR. And what does it mean that the SCHOLAR is unattached, that he is thin and angular, that he keeps himself wound very tight, dosing himself with concoctions of his own invention to keep his mind sharp. Every so often, perhaps once or twice a year, his body gives out and he has to sleep it off for a few weeks at the SEDUCER’s house. His room there is kept ready for these occasions. Some evenings the SEDUCER comes up after dinner and finds his friend fast asleep with a book splayed open on the covers. Those feverish eyes running over the pages, then falling exhausted into unconsciousness. Sometimes when she can’t sleep she thinks herself into the SCHOLAR’s long, limp, sleeping body, his arms curled across the thick pillows: this usually works.

She comes back to herself, walking by the dark river. Stops on the bank and stands against a tree, watching with the SCHOLAR’s eyes. What would he see. The water endlessly filling the next space and the next space. As if desperate to stop, to rest in a pool and just move within itself. Where is water most comfortable. Not in a glass, exposed and helpless on all sides. Perhaps in a thick strong river, where the currents are deep and muscular. Or when it reaches the great black subterranean lakes and can vanish with relief into the dark.

Don’t be like that, the SEDUCER says softly as they stand watching the water.

She holds herself as the SCHOLAR, his stiff narrow shoulders, all cut up with his unhappy affections. He doesn’t answer.

The SEDUCER says, Do you want me to go?

The SCHOLAR still says nothing. Oh he can feel it’s a play for forgiveness, it’s laced with tactics. But he is laced too, very tightly. All he can muster is—now how would he say this—she searches through the possibilities. Well, you’re here now. Or a scornful little compliment about the SEDUCER’s aesthetic contribution to the scene. Or would he just say wearily: No, stay.

She has tried to creak open a door for the SCHOLAR, to allow him the simple daylight he deserves. At his college he makes a friend more like himself: the COLLEAGUE: a studious, mild man, working on something to do with (she casts about) maybe bees, or thistles. A small friendship so far, in gardens and courtyards only, but growing. They discuss the habits of birds, the patterns of frost on the windowpanes, the declining quality of college wine. They agree they might travel together in the summer, to look at alpine lichens.

The SEDUCER senses the new influence, he notices a new calm brightness in his friend’s face like mountain snow. He waits until the SCHOLAR is careless enough to reveal a name. Then he takes steps. Specifically he tracks the COLLEAGUE down, follows him to an inn, buys him something expensive to drink. Without especial difficulty seduces him. Then a few days later casually mentions it to the SCHOLAR, as if not recognizing its significance. The SCHOLAR is light-headed with fury and shock, but also he knows, he knows it was done because of him, and he is thrilled to be guarded so fiercely. He wishes he had been there to see the game being played, to see the COLLEAGUE’s expression of surprise, then suspicion, and finally helplessness. As if he has reached around with his own arm and plucked the COLLEAGUE away from himself. He wishes he wasn’t enthralled by such dubious scenarios.

The next day the COLLEAGUE is shadowy-faced at dinner: he meets the SCHOLAR’s eye and instantly looks away. Each now knows the other knows. Oh—she gazes sadly at it—oh this is the moment when the SCHOLAR should extend a hand: Perhaps we could discuss it, it may not be the end of the world, I blame him far more than you. But he is busy sitting in his own exquisite abjection, delighted at this flatteringly proprietorial move by the SEDUCER, even enjoying an indirect triumph over the COLLEAGUE, as if to say Yes, this is the kind of friend I have, he’s good, isn’t he. He knows he himself is at the center of all this: all the others have achieved is to multiply the angles.

Ah. She recognizes what she has done. What is the line. Loving offenders thus I will excuse ye. She wishes she wasn’t enthralled by such dubious scenarios.

Then again, Rich—stressing the word emphatically in her head, putting a new burst of momentum into her walking. Rich who is no complicated maneuverer: more a standard-bearer of love coming in through the front gate. But if he comes to visit everything will be different, all this, this chilled bright space in her head—all this will be squashed out for a few days, covered instead with a dark blanket which is his presence. She can see how it will go. She will be angry when he does or doesn’t put his hand on her waist as they walk. She will fling anxieties at him like starfish, and he will have to peel them off. He will say something like I thought we wanted to have a nice weekend together, and she will cry, and he will hold her, and they will waste a whole day or more while he tries to get her to accept, how did he put it before, that he likes her, for God’s sake. 

Also if he comes she will have to sit at her desk on Sunday night with a knot of sleep deprivation all through her throat and chest and stomach trying to read Antony and Cleopatra or whatever. Then go to her tutorial without an essay, work into Monday evening to finish it: wake up on the Tuesday already fatigued, and so on. It would spill down into her week like a series of waterfalls. Other girls have boyfriends to stay: how do they find the management of it anything but intolerable, how do they— 

No. She is getting boastful now: here it is in her walk, starting to swing with a kind of proud dilemma, which it needn’t be. She will make the decision like normal people do, like putting a book neatly onto a shelf.

So back into college and across the quad. A couple of doors and voices—here are Robbie Fisher and Alex Grosz coming out of staircase four. She gives them a small smile, they hail her easily. Both historians, both in their boat club windbreakers, probably off for a Sunday fry-up. Alex laughs loudly at something she didn’t hear. The whole breakfast will be like that, they are good-humored and good-looking and a bit callous, they both got scholarships when she did, they will probably get firsts and go off to do something interesting and well paid. Her legs are slightly tired going back up the stairs. Digging her key out of her pocket she palpates this idea: a scholar who is also brash, energetically brilliant, but not at all careful in ordinary conversation, swearing and generalizing all over the place. Scholarship without angst.

Her room is a bright tank of warmth. She throws gloves scarf coat onto the bed, lifts the glass of water and drinks the rest, goes into the bathroom to refill it. She looks better: a lifelike pinkness in her cheeks and nose. So then. That was all extremely unplanned. Whether it has been remotely helpful will now be available for judgment. She would like to believe the appreciation of beauty is never a waste. But this does not an essay write. With brute simplicity she calculates, an hour and eight minutes since she went out, so she will add an hour and eight minutes after lunch. 

Back at the window she looks at the sky, now mottled blue and white, no longer special. Robbie and Alex address each other, poshly, as mate. All those boys only ever hug swift and hard: no standing close, or holding tight, or cradling, or snuggling. She can hardly keep them apart with their brains and money and squarely cut faces and passion for alcohol—but just say: a drunken walk back from the pub, down Bear Lane or Wheatsheaf Alley, an embrace erupting out of sudden shock and blinding lust. Not implausible. A muffled but explosively pleasurable nighttime hour under the sheets. Becoming a regular, secret, urbane kind of hobby. Or maybe not: one of them grins and goes back to normal, the other starts to pine and suffer.

Speaking of which: she catches herself standing there, and touches one part of her mind to another in reproof. Turns back to the room, and sits down again at her desk. 

Time for some deliberate thinking. The Sonnets, then: slow, like any good poem. And like any good poem they are keen to be learned by heart and offer themselves like small jewels. The plays are quick, and they can be coaxed like that, you can sit with Twelfth Night and painstakingly close-read—but there is more urgency, more of a pace, striding with frequent changes of direction. Moving your head with quick turns back and forth to follow the dialogue. It’s fun, it’s sparkling. (It is slightly under the spell of Kenneth Branagh.)

Compared to this: staring straight down at the page at a poem. The Sonnets yawn and congeal, they are strenuous, they agonize. Even the puns and ironies have to be pushed very slowly through their holes. She takes a pen and starts to write things down. A sequence of sonnets of course is both one poem and many poems. George Eld the miserly printer of 1609 squashed them right up together, not even a single line break, just the number of the next one and straight in. Literally midpage the sequence swerves from the Young Man to the Dark Lady. Whereas this genteel modern edition gives each one its own spread: notes on the left and the sonnet on the right, suspended in white space like a silent, double-glazed room. Poems that are in the world, and poems that aren’t.

What else. Some of them are openly sequential, following straight on from one another to develop a set of arguments. Others are what, amnesiac? disingenuous? with no acknowledgment that these are repeated sentiments, of the sheer grossness of his effort. He flits around his subject, a small bird working over the same network of branches every day. 

She pauses thinking. There is a tiny urge in her cunt like a lit match. She considers it: it burns steadily. She could, she could, unbutton her jeans right now and add a new entry to her ledger of masturbatory self-interruptions. She really shouldn’t, especially after that unscheduled walk, but. Thinking again about those boys pressed against the wall in an alleyway, each with a hand deep in the other’s trousers. Fingertips brushing against the twitching length of an erection. Yes.

Maybe if she slid a pen down into the tight space between fabrics where her hand won’t fit. She has done. Continued to work feeling it snugly promisingly there against her knickers. Managed maybe twenty minutes more before taking herself to lie on the bed, or remaining at the desk began to twist and slide the pen to get little tweaks around her clitoris. But it’s a commitment of time: of which she has already wasted plenty today. She would rather not come at all than end up sullen and unsatisfied from a runty orgasm she didn’t bother to build up. The things she does, she does properly. Painstakingly finds them out anew every time, in an extraordinarily precise operation. Which strand of fantasy will make good today. Sometimes she goes partway down a certain route before abandoning it for something else. Or roams and shuffles through images, gestures, phrases, tempting herself with variety: this can work in the early phase, all the possible excitements: but she has to commit, to develop one fully, in the end. And her orgasms have species, and families. The feeble impatient one which hovers and flutters briefly, then diffuses itself through her cunt and is gone: just about good enough for getting to sleep, but that’s all. The solid, well-deserved one, carefully constructed: it thumps in her a few times, announcing itself with drums. Then there is an unusual one, arrived at swiftly but if, say, it’s been a while, it comes like a jolt of light through her, it knocks her into a surprise ahh! gasp. Her obscure flesh with its own rhythms and reactions.

Oh, she could. But, she takes a long breath, no, she won’t. 

Anyway shouldn’t she be thinking about Rich these days. Which is a different genus, a different class even: you have to close one book and open another, no longer fish but now ferns, or something. With him she is less interested in the orgasm, it seems too fussy and specific to bother with, other things become available. That unspeaking delight sometimes between them, when they look into each other’s faces: serious, and delighted. Also true that nothing in even the best of the Sonnets can convincingly replicate the sensation of being fucked by him, the degree and directions of force he can put through her. What if she kept her words over here, and her body and smiles for Rich. Seems as good an arrangement as could be found for her.

In less than four months she will have to bring the whole of her routine and quietness to bear on her Finals. This is what Rich cannot quite comprehend: that she doesn’t have time to be infatuated with him. He agrees with her making work a priority right up to the point where he doesn’t get to see her: he cannot follow her across the last leap, he cannot enter into the vision of it: where she is fully suspended in her work like a crystal in a glass of water, absolutely silent and solitary.

This is not, admittedly, so much about the exams as about her whole way of being. She wants to compress herself into something small and hard, something dense and complex, like a flint. An opacity that other people might simply bounce off. Or like the roots of a tall tree she wants to be ancient and unquestionable. A huge beech with its smooth gray bark. To be seen without being seen into: yes. She wants to stand all day in a deep part of the forest and be perfectly quiet.

She flashes a look at the window and the window flashes back an image of high blue skies which tempts her for a moment with the tip of itself, the smiling hints of spring, until she says quietly “None of that” and turns back to her desk, sits down at her laptop. 

She clicks and types and within two minutes is elbow-deep in articles about the Sonnets.

She reads about sincerity, literal and imaginative.

She enjoys the word sonneteer.

She reads about the safety of sonnet-writing, compared to love-declaring. Considers for a moment whether the safety of all lyric poetry is in fact another way of describing loneliness. Seems too large and terrible a thought to write down.

In William Empson she finds, to her pleasure, that Elizabethan poets reveled in the casualness of commas, the reader makes up the logic of the phrases for himself, the phrases go either way. Something about going either way: yes, exactly: she writes this down.

Pressing on toward midday. There is a very faint warmth coming through the windows, the sun is making excellent progress across its low portion of sky. She isn’t. She hasn’t worked well and she is getting hungry and her concentration is starting to unhinge. Here is the page of her notebook with a few half-developed sentences, the only thoughts she has been able to lay down. Partly the walk, the mist and meadow and water, and the SCHOLAR and SEDUCER: she has lived too much of her own existence already today to fully commit to what’s happening in these poems. Shouldn’t have swerved into whimsical scene-making so early in the day when she needed her mind to be sitting bolt upright. And they are irreversibly in the Sonnets now, the SCHOLAR and SEDUCER. She has rubbed them in, like butter into flour. 

She is not a natural scholar, that is the truth. She tries to tame her windy mind but bits of foam come flying off the surf, this sitting-thinking-reading isn’t her best aspect. Be damned the series of historical moves that created reading as a stationary activity. She wants to be walking all day. Her mind goes quiet along the river, along the field-edge path, across the rainy expanse of Port Meadow, or it’s like, the scraps and gusts become a steady and throughflowing breeze. She walks, and hot insight cools into a silent wisdom. But in what way that helps: well, in point of fact it doesn’t help. There is no writing it down. It’s vaporous, or is volatile the word: it lifts out of her without so much as a by-your-leave and returns to the grass, the trees, the water. It produces only a longing for more of the same, it creates an effect, that seems to be all. She can’t pick up earth from the ground and eat it.

Studying the Sonnets ought to bring out the best in all literature students: smiling in recognition of subtlety. Could an essay smile with all the smiles she has for the Sonnets: the sad smile of sympathy, the wry smile sharing in his self-mockery, the raised-eyebrow smile detaching from him when he gets too ridiculous, the soft sunlit smile when he offers an image of great beauty. She notices: no smiles of actual amusement. The Sonnets are not funny, when the plays are so often oh my God hilarious. Could that be an essay. She writes it down. Compared to the ravenous, jeering crowd of the theater: the sonnet’s tiny cell, where one can hole up and take oneself extremely seriously. 

In the kitchen she arrays celery, cucumber, tomatoes, parsley, a packet of mozzarella. Levers two sticks of celery out from the base, brushes some dirt off them under the tap, lays them down, takes the knife and positions the blade in the inside curve of one stick: then slices it from end to end in one careful motion. Repeats with the other. The brief joy of the knife: if only more things were like the efficient sharp action of a knife through cellulose, feeling each fiber give to the blade’s edge. The pile of parsley crumples under the strokes of the knife, turning from plants to an ingredient, a rough handful of chopped fresh herbs. Then six cherry tomatoes, each one given an individual attention, righted with the little dent on top to give the knife a point of purchase. This knife is not good: it splits rather than severs the tomato skin, it’s an effortful spurting execution not a gentle instantaneous one. At home her preferred knife is bigger-bladed and will cut goat’s cheese for instance or banana simply with its own weight. Its sharpness holds its own mini-legendary space in her mind.

The door opens and here is Sanjay, his hair puffed up, in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. “Hey” he says dully, crouching down to open the fridge. 

“Hi” she says, watching him rummage.

Fuck” he says in conclusion and thumps the fridge door shut.

She chooses not to respond to this. He smells strangely good—aftershave, cigarette smoke, sweat—a whole tangle of living bodily smells. Now he is leaning his head into his hands on the counter. “Your lunch looks unbelievably healthy” he says in a muffled voice.

She laughs. “You’re feeling unwell I’m guessing.”

He groans. “You probably don’t even get hangovers do you” he says, “you’re so fucking radiant with health. Do you think Grace would mind if I had one of her soups?”

She shrugs. “You’re welcome to some of my stuff if you want.”

“Thanks” he says, but it’s more of a moan, and he’s already going out of the kitchen again. She assesses her own behavior. Dignified yes, generous yes. Oh he smelled so wonderful. Honestly if he had asked her to come and get into bed with him— 

She takes her bowl full of texture and color back into her room, and sits down to eat. Starts thinking about compliments: the trickiness of them, the performance of them. Certainly from Sanjay’s remarks, which she did not find especially complimentary. Maybe also from the Sonnets, the dubious nature of the poet’s compliments. Indeed the dubious nature of all compliments. As Rumi says: What the sayer of praise is really praising is himself, by saying implicitly, “My eyes are clear.” And therefore the dubious nature of Rich’s compliments: You have such an incredible memory, your hair looks gorgeous like that, I really do admire your dedication. That is: Look at me, look at what I have meticulously noticed, see how piercingly I catalogue you. 

She lays down her spoon, wiped in straight lines between her lips, in the empty bowl. This is bad now, about the Sonnets. She still has nothing. Could she, she smiles, could she provocatively write an essay about her own failure to write an essay. Would the tutorial eyebrows raise. 

She stands and gathers everything up, the two bowls, the two spoons, the cafetière with its sodden layer of coffee, and the small brown mug which she hooks over her little finger. Holding it all in a careful arrangement she maneuvers the door open and steps cleanly out into the corridor. 

In the kitchen she places everything in the sink, turns to dump the coffee grounds into the bin, and opens the hot tap. Right: being realistic. Say an hour of very concentrated work, just select a few sonnets to analyze in intensive detail. The sink is filling with water and foam and steam. Do some close, closer-than-close reading, she squeezes washing-up liquid onto the sponge, turns off the tap and lifts a bowl, trust her chosen sonnets to provide everything she needs, excavate a huge pile of rubble from these granite poems, she puts the bowl on the draining board, then allow some preliminary sedimentation overnight, get up, make some bullet points and then just type the thing from start to finish, print it off and go cheerfully to her tutorial with the essay rolled up in her hand—

Oh God. 

The small brown mug is broken. She went to lift it and something happened, there was a sound and suddenly she is just holding the handle, a brown curl between her fingers, and the handleless brown object is lying in the soapy water.

She wants to make some kind of noise, a low whimper. Instead she picks up the other piece, rinses them both under the tap, and presses the handle back into its position on the body, examining the join on all sides like Mum would do. No missing fragments: a clean break: yes it can be fixed—but it won’t be the same, it will probably never be usable. What on earth happened. She didn’t drop it or knock it, the handle just came away in her hand. How long was that fault line instituting itself as she lifted the mug full of liquid, not knowing it was ready to break and flood at any moment. How long did it know before she did.

She brings everything clean and dry back into her room. Puts the crockery down on the shelf and picks up the two pieces of mug again and feels their unnatural separation in her two hands. Actually she feels quite upset. She went to do a simple task and is returning in disgrace. 

She could get Rich to mend it. His gentle doctor’s hands wiping the excess glue off the— 

No. She will do it. She will set everything out on the desk and plan it all, each motion she will make, where she will put the glue and where she will direct the pressure. Then she will mend it, slowly and carefully. The thought makes her want to cry.

She takes one final deep grieving breath: then with a surge of resolution she addresses herself to her desk. She sits down, opens the laptop, creates a blank document, takes up her book and starts to page through. Selects, on a whim, six of the love triangle sonnets—three to the Young Man, three to the Dark Lady—and types them out. That thou hast her it is not all my griefe. So now I have confest that he is thine. Even just typing them she is stirred, like grass.

She spaces the lines a little more, indents the final couplet of each, zooms out to check each sonnet occupies the center of its page—then hits Print, leans under the desk to turn the printer on, and brings the cable back up with her to plug into her laptop. A pause: then the electronics catch up with themselves and the printer clacks into action. The pages emerge rapidly one after the other. Six tight poems for her to lick with her mind, in a long slow lick right up the spine of each one.

And so. She spreads the pages out on the desk, picks up her pen, and begins to climb inside her chosen sonnets: limbers herself slowly into the tight vessel of each poem. Argument, tone. Choice of pronouns. Rhymes. Quatrains and couplet. Extended metaphors, or brief ones just thrown in: or none, or few.

And then more abstractly, how is he representing the gnarl of it to himself. What torsions are gripping him as he grips his pen. What prejudices. Thou usurer that put’st forth all to use: a flamboyant double bind of an insult for a woman who sleeps with his friend not him. Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well showes: you exquisite bundle of lust, you outraging boy. She writes, circles, underlines, lets drop a single exclamation mark onto the page.

At some point the bells sound all four parts of their sequence, and then chime the hour. One. Two. Silence. She looks over at the two pieces of mug on the shelf: lets a throb of feeling go through: then back down at the desk.

She notices she is also climbing inside something definitive about the Sonnets: that even poems about the same thing, by the same person, next to each other in the same sequence, they are different poems, the vessels are differently shaped. Each one released into the dignity of its own sheet of paper, they become like six oak trees growing huge in a park, with their own postures and views, their own patches of rot, their own patterns of autumn yellowing. Each needs a consciously refreshed effort of attention.

And, conversely, something definitive about infatuation: how it insists daily that everything is wondrous new, when really it’s just the same old tree in the same old soil. 

Some while later she heaves her head up, peels her mind off the Sonnets, and finds a couple of hours have gone by. Everything is in shades of white and brown. This civil desk, this excellent room. She has worked: here is the proof: a sheaf of poems annotated in her own narrow writing. She has had many small thoughts and written them down, they do not form an argument but there is at least a quantity of them, they have accumulated like seeds. Tomorrow she can mash them up and compress them, and it may not be her best essay ever, but a certain amount of thorough digestion will have taken place. 

She gets up. Lamp off, chair under, papers and books to one side of the desk, pens filed back into their pot: this can all be done now with conviction. 

Outside the sunlight’s own conviction is waning. In the next hour there will be a bone-sharp winter sunset: all the trees and walls and rooftops frozen, darkening under the empty sky. 

Her arms come up above her head in an almighty stretch, lifting her out of her hips. She promised to call Rich tonight and he will ask for her answer: so she had better have an answer. They that have powre to hurt, and will doe none, and all that. Who moving others, are themselves as stone. For sweetest things turne sourest by their deedes—

No. Not helpful. She must leave the Sonnets to themselves now. Somewhat grimly she takes the blanket and folds it neatly over the back of the chair. Picks up her glass and takes it into the bathroom to refill: and the bathroom has such an atmosphere of warmth and water she puts the glass down and sits on the toilet to piss. Empties herself into calm. 

It is only a few seconds she sits there, but when she gets up something slight has altered, something which was leaden has once again become buoyant. She stands, buttoning her jeans. In fact there is no need for anguish, she thinks as she flushes the toilet: no need for grief leaving this realm and entering that realm, as she washes her hands and dries them: this is all muscular and excellent, all of it: and she comes back into the room with the glass of water perfectly cold in her hand.


HOME PAGE IMAGE: RED REACH (2020) by Erin O'Keefe, FROM ISSUE NO. 235, WINTER 2020.