Subtle Cargo

Another tropical depression, this one called Bonnie, is heading toward us. Jeez, they’re coming in like jetliners at an airport. This Bonnie is losing steam, it sounds like. Maybe she’ll ramp up to a tropical storm. Maybe she’ll settle down and not give us too much trouble. We’ll see.

Emily remains unmoved by storms. She is still dithering on about love.

#580, c. 1862

I gave myself to Him —
And took Himself, for pay,
The solemn contract of a Life
Was ratified, this way —

The Wealth might disappoint —
Myself a poorer prove
Than this great Purchaser suspect,
The Daily Own — of Love

Depreciate the Vision —
But till the Merchant buy —
Still Fable — in the Isle of Spice —
The subtle Cargoes — lie —

At least — ’tis Mutual — Risk —
Some — found it — Mutual Gain —
Sweet Debt of Love — Each Night to owe —
Insolvent — every Noon —

All this mercenary language in a love poem can really put a girl off at first. Gives me a chill. It’s embarrassing to see a love relationship as a transaction, even though it’s true, when I give myself time to think about it. Even under the best of circumstances with people who have the best of intentions, a love relationship inevitably requires some contractual exchange. A quid pro quo so that all parties are satisfied—each got what each wanted. We seek something in another person. Otherwise why go looking, right? In order to get what we seek, we understand without explicit direction that we’ll have to give in order to get.

It’s vulgar but true. No one gives anything away for free.

I’d like to say that the relationship between mother and child is characterized by unconditional giving, but that’s not true. Even the best mother requires some quid pro quo for the life she gave. Children may not realize they’re paying for all that breast milk, but they are at some level. Mother always exacts her price. She may do so in ways that are perhaps more subtle than the robust exchange between adults, but there is a price all the same.

Emily says: No one can go into or out of any meaningful and intimate relationship with another person without some commerce. If your goal is to remain pure of these conditional exchanges—where you do this for me, and I do that for you—then you have to remain utterly solitary. Once you open the door to other people (or dogs for that matter) you stoop to commerce. There may or may not be literal money changing hands, but there is some form of legal tender making this relationship happen.

The line that keeps playing on my thoughts is “Subtle Cargoes” buried in the center of the poem. It seems to me that she points to an important shift here. That subtle cargo has no real inherent value. Its value is determined by who wants it and how badly they want it. The price of a house is set by the competitive vicissitudes of the marketplace. (Girls, girls, girls: Haven’t you noticed that as soon as one boy asks you to dance, all of a sudden, all the other boys who had previously been ignoring you, all of a sudden, as if out of nowhere, these boys practically break their own legs in the rush to dance with you? Writers: Haven’t you noticed that as soon as you get one story published in a pretty good journal, all of a sudden, all the other editors who had been studiously treating you like a nonentity, all of a sudden these editors are practically breaking their pencils to get you to write for them?) Emily suggests the same here. The value of the cargo she holds is subtle, not fixed or obvious. It is elusive, ephemeral. Without an interested buyer, she loses value. As a woman, as a poet, as an object. It’s a cold view, I’ll warrant.

Yet, the subtlety of her cargo stays with me. As something so fluid and unfixed it may rise as easily as it falls. This cargo may find another port if there are no interested buyers at the first stop. She’s thinking about the ups and downs of the marketplace. Wealthy at midnight. Broke at noon. We have to believe that wealth may return again. One is just as meaningless or meaningful as the other. So where does she locate her real value? In that subtlety, which may be another way of saying “agility”. The value of her cargo lies in its very mutability, it’s ability to shift, to rise to the next bidder as the market demands.


Filed under Emily Every Day

2 responses to “Subtle Cargo

  1. Dor

    Hurricane Bonnie (Connie?) left us some monster waves in Jersey. Epic, Dude.

  2. Well said, Emily and Constance.

    That’s something I taught my children, that unconditional love is for children, adult partners must negotiate their terms and make sure they put all their cards on the table. Unromantic, perhaps, but a more solid foundation for a workable union…

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