Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Let's Dance - The July Challenge

Dancing in the Dark

Tonight the band blares, “Celebration!”
then stops, and plays
a set of Golden Oldies.
All the aging couples rise
as one, drawn to the Maestro’s baton
like children, to the Piper’s tune.
He stands aside, a shadowy Timekeeper,
putting us through our paces,
“Ah-1, Ah-2, Ah-1-2-3-4!”

When we were young, we danced everywhere –
weddings, ballrooms, the Chez Paree.
Or we danced at home, while
Kate Smith sang, “Shine On, Harvest Moon!”
her voice amplifying the radio,
God and America. Later, exhausted,
we fell asleep on Kate’s bosom,
full-fleshed as the moon.

In World War II you danced
in a Texas bar if your boot-camp
was lucky and got a weekend pass.
At Normandy, you danced ashore,
dodging artillery. Back home,
I went solo to the local USO.

But tonight, we dance together.
And though your expression is remote
as the Man in the Moon’s, there’s
electricity in your arms. I dangle,
like Gepetto’s Pinocchio, obeying
every dip, every curve of your body.
For this strange blue dress I am wearing
has a wicked flounce that unlocks
my resistance. Yes tonight, we hear

strains of Sammy Kaye, Kay Kyser,
Count Basie and the Duke. Tonight,
we will show our children, our
moon-begotten children, our rhythm
& blues, rock & roll children –
(“Ah-1, Ah-2, Ah-1-2-3-4!”)

how we danced.

-- Gertrude Rubin

From A Beating of Wings
(Deerfield, IL: Lake Shore Publishing, 1991), pp. 62-63. Used with permission of the author.

Dancing in the Dark:
I recommend reading this poem several times, before reading my commentary on it. It has several layers. There are undoubtedly more subtleties than I discovered!

Dance is a popular theme among poets. Sometimes the poet uses the term metaphorically, as for instance, when waves or leaves dance. In other poems, what we find is a fairly straight-forward description of a dance, or a narrative of a specific experience of dancing.

In “Dancing in the Dark,” Gertrude Rubin’s narrator addresses her life partner, cataloguing times when “we” danced, usually together, but during World War II, apart. The poem seems at first glance to be a straight-forward record of a relationship told through literal dance. But there are other things going on, too. The line, "At Normandy, you danced ashore/dodging artillery" is metaphoric and hints that there were other metaphoric dances in their lives, other dangers to be dodged. One has to wonder, for instance, why the man, who is much older now, dances with an expression “remote as the man in the moon.” Is dementia now the enemy shooting bullets they try to dodge? This is one possible reading.

In the last stanza, the narrator says that tonight they will show their children how they danced. Not only is “how we danced” on a line alone; it constitutes the entire stanza, which gives it special strength in the poem. Here again there are levels of meaning. The couple literally shows their children how they danced, but they also model a life style in which they “danced” through difficulties and now they keep dancing, despite their age. Here is a subtle way of saying that they have maintained—and still maintain—their joy, intimacy, and love through all the seasons of life.

A well-written title can add power to a poem. Ellen Kort, who was the first poet laureate of Wisconsin, has said that often when a person finishes reading a poem, he or she may go back and reread the title. That is what I did with this poem. The title, “Dancing in the Dark,” furthers my sense that the poem is a metaphor for how this couple live their life together. There is no mention of “the dark” in the poem itself. Darkness is only hinted at in the mention of Normandy and the fact that the man’s facial expression is remote as they dance. The title, however, suggests that they did not know where the dance of life would take them or what steps they would need to learn, something which is true for all of us.

With that in mind, the Maestro takes on new meaning. The literal Maestro who directs the dancers and counts time (“Ah-1, Ah-2, Ah-1-2-3-4!”) may also stand for God or a “higher power” who is also a “shadowy Timekeeper.” In my reading of the poem, it suggests that the dancers live their lives with a theological and/or ethical compass, and accept the fact that the end of their earthly life together is approaching.

In regards to the artistry of the poem, it is interesting to see the repetition of the moon throughout the poem. Note also the spare use of adjectives, which gives more strength to the few which are used. I’m still pondering the “strange blue dress” and the “wicked flounce.”

My Papa’s Waltz—Another Dance Poem: One of the most famous poems on a dance theme is “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke ( Some interpreters give this waltz a positive meaning; others see it negatively. Is this a happy memory of a boy having fun with his father? Or an uncomfortable dance into which the boy is forced by his drunken father? You be the judge!

The Challenge:
The challenge for July is to write a poem somehow related to the theme of dancing. Your poem may use the concept of dance literally or figuratively. It’s up to you. To enter the challenge, use the “comment” feature below. The deadline is July 15.

(c) 2009 Wilda W. Morris