Are Our Souls Compasses?

Don’t worry! My wife is not actually three thousand miles away. This is a rerun post. We’ve either had a baby, or are in labor, or are so close to labor that we’re getting everything together that we need.

This post about poetry and marriage is perfect for Valentine’s day though. Especially since this might just be our last one before Operation Eleanor commences.

So no comments about how I’m a terrible person for leaving my pregnant wife in Oregon. We are both in Georgia.


My wife is three thousand miles away. She is in Oregon finishing up some work and I’ll be picking her up at the airport in a few more weeks with the same excitement of our first date.

Click for SourceWhen we first embarked on this foolish idea of living in different states as I started my work at Emory and she trained her replacement, I had thought of John Donne’s poem, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” I had almost thought of sending it to her with the same intent of consolation. In the poem, the speaker uses a conceit, an elaborate metaphor that is sustained throughout, to understand the effects of absence. In this conceit, the souls of the lovers are one, like the legs of a compass, which are spatially apart but linked by the same handle and hinge:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

A compass may be a material thing, but this is a disembodied view of love. The soul is given precedence without a body. Other people are “laity” before the “love so much refined” of the speaker and his beloved. Mourning, the pains of the heart, are forbidden before the enlightenment of the soul.

I’m glad that that isn’t the poem I wrote down for her.

As I’m counting down the days until her plane leaves for Georgia, I’m experiencing the mourning that Donne forbids. I miss most the little things, her daily presence. Jack Gilbert describes this in Highlights and Interstices:

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,
vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other woman. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

Click for Source

Breakfast Time by Hanna Pauli

“Our lives happen between / the memorable.” All the action of love and familiarity is hidden in the enjambed line. The “two thousand habitual breakfasts,” the whole length of Waller Street, everything. Everything in a space between lines. An absence smaller than the gap between the legs of a compass but deeply felt.

Perhaps this makes me a “dull sublunary lover” but I miss my habitual breakfasts with her most.

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