The first reason for the title is the traditional form. A quick metre reminiscent of colonial writers like Kipling; a classic rhyme-scheme, a-b-a-b (though the second stanza has slant rhymes, neither/other, edge/bridge). But the poem challenges any protocol this formality implies by not using punctuation, the most basic formal tool, properly: like a three-stanza lyric, "Buggery", five poems earlier in the same collection, which is also about unfinished sexual business. This poet makes clear he only plays by rules, poetically or sexually, when it suits. Buggery or empire, he is always in charge, and in the second line he does what imperial patriarchy expects of men: silencing a woman. Her words begin the poem but they are traditionally vulnerable, a request for male reassurance. I covered her mouth with my own is the male reassurance expected by Hollywood but also a poet silencing the source of his inspiration, the Muse, so his own words - ie the poem itself - have their way. We hear no more of her thoughts. "Imperial" is man's conquest of woman. The debate (presumably, whether to go to bed or not) was jaw-jaw, two jaws against each other. Now one mouth covers the other.
The sex is trade. The first stanza played with speedy dactyls in a 19th- century supremacist rhythm (I covered her mouth with my own). Now we are in Elizabethan territory. In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, music is "food of us that trade in love". Sounding like a quotation, No trade was ever so fair and so tender gives the situation, from a male poet's vantage point, a spuriously graceful authority. But this is a made-up quotation: the point is the appearance of authority. The male voice says the trade was fair. Was this "equal", or just "nice"? The sequence win ground, surrender, prisoners suggests a trade war, which the imbalance (girl silenced after one line, man expounds for 11) suggests the man wins. According to him, both give. Give themselves up - to pleasure, to each other; give in to desire, give up the struggle against better judgement. Both choose the white flag of surrender. But they wake on the flag of Japan, one of the last imperial flags, emblem (in western myth) of the most sexually unequal society in the developed world, and visually a white ground with a red spot on it. Like the poet's mouth, the heraldic Elizabethan aura is covering something: namely, a conquest, a blood stain. Remember normal, wet, frightened in the first line. Whatever the politically correct intentions, the poem ends by accepting male supremacy. That storm-window stood at their heads like a stone, a tomb of good intentions. There is no question mark after where was the flaw. It is not a real question. "Japan", western code-image for ritually atavistic, male, military empire, was waiting for them both.
Musically, the poem tracks the plot by the or-sound of normal in her question. (A real question, with a question mark.) The poet echoes it in storm and jaw-jaw (the battle of wills), then the key word of his unreal question, the flaw in the scenario. Which is (the poem suggests) that men (or anyway male poets) just can't help conquering women they sleep with. It is politically inevitable. ("She is all states, and all princes I," says John Donne in a similar situation.) In she lay, the poet echoes the woman's next accented vowel, the ay of Baby. She lay - where? In my arms. Then we lay - where? On the flag of surrender. She began things, but he covered her mouth, contained her in his arms and poem, turns her vowels, her surrender, into his words.
Her line ended in frightened, a "feminine" ending (a more-than-one-syllable word whose last syllable is not accented). The second stanza's rhymes don't quite match (they are acting out the unequal struggle for equal pairing) and the feminine endings here refer to the unequal combatants; neither/other. The third stanza's feminine ending, tender, is the climax - the trade, the sex. It was fair (the equality battle was won OK, wasn't it?). It was even tender. Yet tender leads to surrender which (given the battle imagery of the second stanza, the blood hidden by Japan in the last line) suggests male victory. The endings that win the poem's own ground are "masculine" ones, the accented monosyllables own, stone, edge, bridge, plan. The exception among the two-syllable endings proves the rule of masculine victory: the only two-syllable word whose accent falls on its last syllable is that imperial word, Japan. Empire has the last word.
Many male readers love this poem. Do they know they are responding to a brilliantly self-mocking, part-guilty part-jokey part-helplessly gleeful acceptance of male supremacy?
c Ruth Padel, 1999
'Imperial' is taken from God's Gift to Women (Faber)
Is it normal to get this wet? Baby, I'm frightened -
I covered her mouth with my own;
she lay in my arms till the storm-window
and stood at our heads like a stone
After months of jaw-jaw, determined that neither
win ground, or be handed the edge,
we gave ourselves up, one to the other
like prisoners over a bridge
and no trade was ever so fair or so tender;
so where was the flaw in the plan,
the night we lay down on the flag of surrender
and woke on the flag of JapanReuse content