Happy Thanksgiving from Hannah, Her Sisters, and E. E. Cummings
A holiday explainer plus a palate-cleansing sampling of poems about gratitude to offer at your own Thanksgiving celebration this year.
I guess this is the time of the year when I write about E.E. Cummings’s poem “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond.” Last holiday season I wrote about the poem’s role in I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Disney’s box office bomb starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas.
Apparently that poem is also the ultimate tool of seduction, because in that film and in Hannah and Her Sisters it’s used as a tool by somewhat unscrupulous men who are seeking the affection of a woman who doesn’t initially want to be with him.
Hannah and Her Sisters is a pretty good film made by a bad man. I consider this post to be a rescue mission to excavate the poem that resides in it and is recited in some very fine scenes between Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey.
American Thanksgiving, in our cultural folklore, is also an empirically bullshit revisionist holiday that attempts to wallpaper over the genocide of native peoples that helped pave the way for this country’s founding. The way I approach this holiday is as a practice of gratitude and abundance with the full knowledge that this doesn’t change anything on a macro level. Part of my practice of abundance this season will involve donating to the First Nations Development Institute, and I encourage you to consider incorporating traditions like this one as well.
In Which I Decline to Make Lewd Puns
I don’t think of Thanksgiving as a particularly sexy holiday, what with the football and rich food and thinly suppressed familial rage that permeates many households. But at the opening of Hannah and Her Sisters, we meet Elliot (Michael Caine), who is married to the titular Hannah (Mia Farrow) but lusts over her sister Lee (Barbara Hershey) in ravenous internal monologues on one Thanksgiving in the director’s imagined 1986 New York.
The proximity to three vivacious and beautiful sisters—one of whom Elliot is married to, one he longs for, and another who floats about the house in a haze of laughter that hides her artistic and financial struggles—is what turns Elliot on. The love lives of the three titular sisters are at the heart of the movie, which is organized around three successive Thanksgivings.
Eventually, Elliot turns to poetry in order to up his chances with his wife’s sister Lee. Cummings is a favorite choice of lovers everywhere and was known for poems with an inscrutable and often sexy bent in addition to unusual and detailed punctuation schemes of his own design.
E. E. Cummings wrote many poems with a sexual charge, and these were collected along with some drawings in the Norton collection titled Erotic Poems.
Cummings’ erotic poems are vivacious and playful while also offering a deep sexual thrill that rises and falls away again like a sensitive bit of skin we return to again and again.
Here’s the famous Cummings poem that appears in the film:
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose
or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
You can hear Cummings himself reading this poem in the video below. His thunderous reading isn’t at all how I imagine it sounding in my head, but it provides a nice tonal contrast to the sweetness of the text, in some ways.
“Your slightest look easily will unclose me” is one of my favorite lines, and gets right at the heart of the disarming quality of fast love.
My post on I’ll Be Home for Christmas discusses the poem in further detail, but if I were to summarize this undulating, deep-breathing poem, I would say that Cummings uses dreamy floral imagery to compare the slowly revealing mystery of intimacy. The speaker finds himself enraptured by the “you” of the poem, and though he does not yet understand the object of his affection, he feels incredibly drawn to them.
But there is also “fragility” and things the speaker “cannot touch” yet. This is poem of first blush, of the initial apprehension of a potential lover that still speaks in the language of dream rather than reality.
Michael Caine Has Zero Chill
In other words, “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” is the perfect poem for someone who is more interested in the idea of an affair with his wife’s sister than his wife’s sister in reality.
After loitering near her apartment so he can pretend to bump into her one day, Elliot ends up at a bookstore with Lee. They talk and he tries to awkwardly flirt, but it goes nowhere. Elliot sees a collection of E. E. Cummings’ poetry and professes his liking of the poet. He tells Lee he’d like to buy her the book. She demurs but ultimately accepts the gift.
As they part, Elliot asks her, repeatedly, to make sure she reads the poem on page 112. He says this more than once, then follows up with her later, asking her feverishly if she’d read the poem on page 112.
Lee does end up reading it, and is deeply affected by it. Barbara Hershey’s reading is lovely, and her reaction felt quite true—who doesn’t want someone to show them a love poem that makes them think of the other person?
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe today and have PopPoetry delivered to your inbox weekly.
The answer is “someone who is in a relationship and being pursued by her sister’s husband.” Elliot’s whole approach to seduction is unbearably cringe and even verges on stalking. It’s the kind of obsession that the hot-blooded poem might seem to venerate. But the poem is also about how delicate love can be, and more than anything, it’s Eliot’s relationship with his wife Hannah that ends up proving the reality of love’s mercurial tenderness.
To cool things off, Lee says that she finds Cummings “adorable” rather than moving or powerful or sexy or interesting. But when she attempts to dismiss Elliot’s obvious affections for her in this way, Elliot just resorts to kissing her unexpectedly. Not cool, guy. But the gambit works, and they have a tumultuous year-long affair.
By the time the third Thanksgiving of the film comes around, Elliot discovers, however, that he loves his wife Hannah “much more than [he] realized.” That mystery of long monogamy has its resonance with the Cummings poem perhaps even more than his fleeting affair with Lee.
Pop Palate Cleanser: Thanksgiving Poems to Share
Here’s a selection of poems I love about gratitude and giving thanks from women and writers of color to help you celebrate Thanksgiving and the harvest season in a less dead-white-male way.
Joy Harjo, “Perhaps the World Ends Here”
Craig Santos Perez, “Thanksgiving in the Anthropocene, 2015”
Ross Gay, “Thank You”
Sharon Olds, “First Thanksgiving”
Alberto Ríos, “When Giving Is All We Have”
One of the many things I’m grateful for is having you as a reader. If you liked what you read today, consider sharing this post!
Happy Holidays from PopPoetry
Check out this small collection of other holiday-themed posts from PopPoetry.
Mother’s Day: The Poet-Husband of Mother!
Halloween: The Simpsons, Edgar Allen Poe, and Dante
Christmas: I’ll Be Home for Christmas and E. E. Cummings