by Michael Woods
Two lovers carry out their unusual clandestine affair through the secret exchange of letters. The woman, whose voice we hear in the poem, is the mistress of a fashionable house.
This poem should be read along with 'Postcards', 'Telegrams' and 'Telephoning Home' as all of them explore communication between separated lovers by various means. In the case of 'Correspondents' a boundary is being transgressed or transcended depending on the perspective from which it is viewed. Certainly, the furtive nature of the relationship is exciting to the woman who is clearly tired of her 'marriage-bed' (stanza 4) She is bored by her husband's 'language of stuffed birds, teacups' (line 2) and craves the erotic 'language of bodies' (line 3). The anticipation of the handing over of the letter is almost as much a source of arousal for the woman as the actual reading of it. This is emphasised in her effort to control her excitement through such detail as, 'I shall inquire after your wife, stirring his cup / with a spoon and my hand shall not tremble.' (lines 4-5) We may read the poem as a dramatic monologue, as one side of the correspondence referred to in the title, or as a mixture of these two modes.
The basic opposition between the restraint that the lovers must display in their regulated, social circle and the fantasy world of their affair carried on through language is marked. Their correspondence is characterised by 'wild phrases of love' while 'strings of pleasantries' hold the woman down like 'Gulliver'. This is a most effective image as it emphasised the power of the woman's feeling and the seemingly insignificant but powerful ties of social constraint. In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver is trapped by the Lilliputians, men one twelfth of his size. The sexual frustration of the woman is emphasised in 'I ache' while her arousal is clearly signalled in 'my breasts / swell for you lips, belly churns to be stilled / by your brown hands.' (lines 10-12)
Although the woman writes about her response to her lover's letters and what they drive her to do to herself, 'The words blur and I cry out once', such masturbatory and orgasmic experience is by implication possible for the man if we read the poem as a text as one to which he might be privy. The secrecy of the relationship is paramount and the reflexive pronoun 'myself' repeated in stanza three emphasises the autoeroticism of the woman.
The polyvalent symbol of fire in the poem represents heat of passion, destroyer of evidence, consumer and reminder that passion is short lived. The letter that 'flares up in the heat and is gone' is analogous to the brevity of the orgasm suggested by the woman's cry at the conclusion of stanza three. Her sexual experience is expressed further as she writes or says: 'I have called you name over and over in my head / at the point your fiction brings me to.' (stanza 4) The fact that she responds physically to 'fiction' is telling and reinforces the impression that their affair is only ever conducted through the medium of uncensored, written language. As such it is testament to the power of words shared by those who correspond not only in the literal letter writing sense but also as people with a shared desire to escape the confines of unsatisfactory marriages. The reality of the social restrictions and imperative for secrecy is returned to as the woman is presented in a tender vignette kissing the man's 'name on the paper' before burning his letter in the fire. The question in the mind of the reader might well be whether or not an affair has actually taken place since it appears that no physical relationship has been conducted. Some would contend that it is possible to commit adultery in the mind.
From the point of view of form, this poem is very regular in its stanzaic structure which, it could be argued, reflects the restrictions and regularity expected of the man and woman who want to escape such limitation. It is also a reminder that a poem is a construct and as such shares a degree of artifice with the very letters that form its subject matter. Above all, 'Correspondents' is testament to the power of words in a particular context.