“Guilt Is Magical”: Adultery as Poetic Villainy

By Catherine Pierce

The best villains—or at least the most compelling—are those who own their villainy, and, in owning it, reckon with it. And the most compelling poems tend to be those that do the same kind of reckoning; as Yeats famously wrote, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”

Adultery is, certainly, one of the quieter types of villainy—not nearly as flashy as murder, bank robbery, or comic-book citywide destruction—but also, like all domestic villainies, far more commonplace, and insidious precisely because of that. It’s no surprise, given poetry’s historical attraction to passion, high drama, romance, and regret, that the genre is lousy, so to speak, with cheaters and homewreckers quarrelling with themselves all the way to revelation.

Not all adultery poems succeed in reaching the revelatory. Louis Untermeyer’s 1936 poem “Infidelity” is, to my reading, a failed opportunity to explore a complicated topic, and it fails precisely because there’s very little quarrel here, and arguably no reckoning at all. In this short poem, Untermeyer offers a delicate defense of adultery without acknowledging its darker aspects. The assumption, of course, is that one already knows what these are and so the poem needn’t belabor them—but by relying solely on flowery defenses of infidelity without troubling that defense, the poem offers a reductive view of its speaker. Untermeyer’s speaker admits to being in love not with a particular person, but with the thrill and possibility of adultery itself, and offers a sort of “who could help it?” defense, hands thrown up, albeit elegantly, in resignation:

It is your name I breathe, your hands I seek;
It will be you when you are gone.
And yet the dream, the name I never speak,
Is that that lures me on.

It is the golden summons, the bright wave
Of banners calling me anew;
It is all beauty, perilous and grave
It is not you.

    Lovely though these final stanzas are, the poem, given the potential ferocity of the topic, is a relatively toothless one, refusing to grapple with the perceived domestic villainy inherent to the act of adultery. Far more riveting are poems where the players in the drama of infidelity—adulterer, Other Woman, or both—are represented in the fullness of their human selves, rich with nuance, capable both of gladness and regret, and willing to enter into the self-quarrel.

James Dickey’s “Adultery” is everything Untermeyer’s poem isn’t: complicated, brutal, and fully acknowledging both the terrible guilt and (for the speaker here) the irresistible pull of cheating. The lovers here both atone for and own their villainy. Where Untermeyer writes about infidelity as a concept, Dickey makes it specific and as real as the seedy motel where his poem’s lovers tryst: “We have all been in rooms / we cannot die in,” the poem opens, “and they are odd places, and sad,” adorned with questionable murals of Americana, including “cattle . . . browsing on the walls  / Far away gazing down with the eyes of our children /  Not far away . . . ” The watching cattle-children offer the admission of guilt that Untermeyer’s poem never does, and the guilt is accompanied by bleak sex; Dickey’s speaker refers to his own “grim techniques,” to the woman who has “sealed [her] womb / with a ring of convulsive rubber.” And yet there’s something drawing the two together, something far more compelling than the vague “all beauty, perilous and new” that compels the speaker of Untermeyer’s poem.

In Dickey’s poem, cheating offers nothing less than immortality. “Death is beaten,” we’re told, by this depressing room and the thrill of what goes on there. Through the desperation of the final stanzas, in which the lovers prepare to part and make plans for another clandestine meeting, the lines become increasingly breathless until, after the poem’s implied climax, the speaker says: “We have done it again we are / Still living. Sit up and smile, / God bless you. Guilt is magical.” Here, there’s not only an admission of guilt, but a celebration of it. Although these lovers are certainly villains in their own domestic lives, they are consumed by guilt; although they are consumed by guilt, they revel in that guilt; although they revel in it, they are consumed by it; and so on. Guilt and thrill function like the ouroboros here, and it’s the complexity of this poem that makes its villains believable, sympathetic, and brutal.

Poetry has no shortage of poems exploring the archetype of the Other Woman, often from the perspective of victim (Anne Sexton’s “You All Know the Story of the Other Woman” is a famous example). In her poem “For All Tuesday Travelers,” however, Sandra Cisneros explores the archetype of the Other Woman as victor rather than victim. Here, at least at first, the speaker exults in her own infamy, and in the freedom that comes with it. She names herself “the back-door sneak,” and enjoys the stares and jealousy of the neighbors, whom, she imagines,

. . . yearn to know
the luxury of love delivered.
Love that comes and goes
without the ache,
without the labor.

Like the lovers in Dickey’s poem, this speaker gains genuine pleasure from the secrecy, the illicitness of her position. Unlike Dickey’s speaker, though, this Other Woman isn’t wrestling with guilt—she cherishes her position, saying flatly, “It is a good life. // I would not trade it / for another wife’s.” She doesn’t feel abandoned, but, rather, in control, relishing the freedom of her role. The poem’s ending, however, suggests an edge of melancholy that the speaker has tried to tamp down. She is, she tells us, the one who

Correctly travels with a toothbrush,
her own comb. Says thank you,
please, goodbye, and runs along.

The word “correctly” here, and the implications of praising a woman for knowing to be polite and then “run along,” as one would expect of a child, work together to show a bleaker dimension to this Other Woman’s life—even in embracing her role, she is still denied the power she imagines, or wants to imagine, she has. In the best of all situations, she retains her freedom but is required to be polite and unobtrusive, should she want to retain her position. Yeats’s selfquarrel is hinted at here with a subtlety that suits this speaker’s urgent denial. In this poem, it’s the unapologetic voice that initially attracts us—who can look away from a villain who relishes villainy?—but it’s the quiet turn to pathos at the end that shifts our attraction to empathy.

Carol Ann Duffy’s “Adultery” takes a broader view of the enterprise of cheating, giving voice not to one particular adulterer but addressing the whole scope of them, genderless and unnamed. In this poem, the second-person address functions both as castigator and conscience—adulterers are being addressed, but the closeness of the voice suggests that they are addressing themselves.

The poem opens with what seems a straight directive for how to be efficiently sneaky—“Wear dark glasses in the rain”—but quickly accelerates into a chaotic mishmash of imperatives and ruminations that run together:

 . . . Suck a lie with a hole in it
on the way home from a lethal, thrilling night
up against a wall, faster. Language
unpeels to a lost cry. You’re a bastard.

Do it do it do it. Sweet darkness
in the afternoon; a voice in your ear
telling you how you are wanted,
which way, now. A telltale clock

 wiping the hours from its face, your face
on a white sheet, gasping, radiant, yes.

Even the syntax is breathless and ragged here, mirroring both the passion and the loss of control the tryst engenders. As in Dickey’s poem, guilt and desire are inextricably linked. Here, though, it’s regret that ultimately wins out, as the poem ends with the “you” reflecting on the fact that the affair has ended in the same lovelessness as the marriage that prompted it:

. . . And all
for the same thing twice. You did it.
What. Didn’t you. Fuck. Fuck. No. That was
the wrong verb. This is only an abstract noun.

“You did it,” the poem tells the adulterer, and drives the point home by turning the question “Didn’t you” into a statement—everyone knows who bears the responsibility for this, the “you” most of all.

It’s this acknowledgement of guilt and shame and all of their complex ramifications that elevates this poem, and the others here, so far beyond the simplistic breeziness of Untermeyer’s. As Yeats suggests, a good poem includes some quarreling. And a good villain knows he or she is a villain and owns that villainy, even if—especially if—it ultimately means a breathless destruction.

Catherine Pierce is the author of three books of poems, most recently The Tornado Is the World (Saturnalia 2016); her new book, Danger Days, is forthcoming in October 2020. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, the New York TimesAmerican Poetry Review, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and elsewhere, and has won a Pushcart Prize. A 2019 NEA Fellow, she co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.

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