The first thing I’m drawn in by in Margaret Rabb’s “Love’s Alchemy” is the lusciousness of the language. Alliteration and rhymes abound, and the iambic pentameter of the sonnet form holds the sounds together. Then as I re-read, I see that at the poem’s center is the wife of the 17th century poet John Donne. Anne Donne did indeed bear twelve children, and the final birth killed her: so there’s historical truth to the line “A dozen births Anne Donne undone.” This pun on her name comes from her husband’s pen: they had married secretly, incurring the anger of John’s employer; John was imprisoned and lost his post; when he wrote a letter to Anne with this bad news, he ended it “John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.” John Donne underlies Rabb’s poem in its poetics as well: she is masterfully imitating his famous poetry of metaphysical conceit—even making this “conceit” (line 6) the subject of her poem’s center lines. These lines implicitly draw in Christ’s sacrifice (“Posit word made flesh, flesh nailed to wood”), then seem to glide seamlessly into Anne’s tomb (“Wood struck in stone, stone chiseled back to words”). The poem’s final couplet stretches out the meter and leaves us with the mystery of what might “stand for” what in “a curling universe” where thoughts, like birds, swirl intertwined with our language.
She swam to death and death ran her aground,
Delivered earth, a dry land at her feet.
Late drowned in salt she beat her blood’s retreat
To bargain circulation back around:
A dozen births Anne Donne undone. Unwound,
Compound—she wasn’t done with this conceit
While language lasted or her breath held heat
And she gave more to meter out the sound.
Posit word made flesh, flesh nailed to wood,
Wood struck in stone, stone chiseled back to words
Spoken by a voice entwined with birds
Who peck at limestone grapes, their beaded food.
Inhabitants of gaps in a curling universe,
They stand for us, or we for something they rehearse.
Margaret Rabb’s books of poetry include Granite Dives (New Issues) and the chapbook Old Home (New American). Her poems have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Light Quarterly,and elsewhere, and her awards include the Arts & Letters Rumi Prize and North Carolina’s Roanoke-Chowan Award. She has taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Washington; next year she will direct the creative writing program at Wichita State University.