“At the Bungalow” was originally published in the September 2, 2013 issue of The New Yorker (here).
“At the Bungalow,” by Elizabeth Danson is terrific. Proceed no further! Read it first!
The poem is a snapshot of a woman’s interior erotic life, one whose freedom sustains her, one she keeps private, one that derives part of its intensity from the fact she keeps this freedom private. I guess — I do not know — that this woman’s relationship to her husband is that of inferior, given that his remarks to her are dismissive, and given that when she imagines being free, she still thinks in terms of being tied down.
The extreme power of the woman’s interior erotic monologue, however, is such that it could be read a variety of ways.
The poem is also a snapshot of a relationship that is probably a marriage, in which a man and woman each appear to occupy a separate emotional space. First of all, the title: they are At the Bungalow. They are not in it, they are at it, the way one might be “at” the vacation house. The phrase indicates a temporary nature to their being there. The bungalow is definitely a representation of their marriage, something they have arrived “at,” but something at the moment they are not within, or not within as far as they could be. In this relationship, they are on the veranda, and the interior awaits.
The “not here, not there” quality of their relationship is reflected in the fluid sense we get of the setting, which could be India, but could also be New Mexico. The monsoon has just ended, but the word monsoon could also indicate either the seasonal torrential rains of India or the summer rains of the American southwest. Given that monsoon is a loan word from the Arabic just intensifies the instability of place.
The “where are we, anyway” feeling is echoed by the use of a hummingbird as the central image and metaphor. Hummingbirds are indigenous only to North and South America, not India. Although the language includes lots of hints we are in India, I think not. What the poem seems to be about is not just the freeing power of the imagination but also not being where you think you are, not being who you think you are, or who you appear to be. The husband thinks he is a husband at his bungalow with his wife, but, given what’s going through his wife’s mind, this is not exactly where he is. The wife imagines herself as tied down, but this is not exactly where she is, given that her imagination has given her the power to slip her bonds.
Several other words beside monsoon have slipped into English from other languages, giving the whole poem a “morph and slide” kind of feel. Bungalow is a Hindi word meaning “a house in the Bengal style,” but it also is an English word that describes a ubiquitous, almost-out-of-style style. Veranda is a Hindi word derived from the Portuguese, although that Portuguese word might have been derived from the Tamil. But never mind; a veranda might still grace a modern McMansion, or an old bungalow, or a southern plantation. Cheroot is a loan word from the Tamil used to describe a kind of cigar that was once everywhere but is not any longer. Bougainvillea is a well-traveled, much hybridized flower that originated in South America but was planted around the world by the British in the nineteenth century; the name long appeared in a variety of forms before it became standardized.
These well-worn words occur in the first two stanzas, a place where setting is established. No particular town or state is mentioned. These well-traveled words suggest a world where everything is on the move: no word or plant or bird is ever tied to any one particular place or any one appearance or identity.
At the center of the poem a woman lolls on the verandah with her husband, but, taken by the vision of a hummingbird feeding at the bougainvillea, she moves into a flight of erotic fantasy regarding herself and the hummingbird that takes her far from the reality of the veranda, far beyond, it seems, the reality of her marriage.
Being tied or not tied to the spot is a concern of the poem. In her fantasy, the woman is tied to her hammock, but transported by the fantasy. In reality she is tied to her relationship, but powered by her imagination, she’s able to slip away. The bougainvillea, known by so many names and so many hybrids, is a representation of the woman as well: she is several selves; she contains hybrids of herself.
The fact that a bird like the hummingbird exists in India underlines the idea of morph and mask that the poem presents. The woman is like a wife, but is this really what a wife is like? And does the man ever see this version of his wife?
Not only is there a shifty sense of identity and place in the poem, there is a distorted experience of time as well. Specifically, the bungalow and the cheroot are dated and out of style. They are each items of the past, items that are perhaps — over. So we also have the sense, from the language, of something being used beyond its sell-by date. The separate sex lives that this poem presents also imply another, more repressed time; although, like the bungalow, this waspy sexuality probably maintains a ubiquitous presence. I am reminded of the great On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. Perhaps it is the marriage is what has reached its sell-by date.
The poem is in six rhymed stanzas (ABBAB), and, although the rhyming is elegantly off-hand, the form from which the poem takes its life is also, like the bungalow, slightly old-fashioned. The level of sexual intimacy in the marriage echoes the slightly antique form, and yet both have survived well into the present. I would also comment that the startling erotica in the middle of the poem is well served by the poem’s formality.
The husband smokes a cheroot in the course of the poem. With his “Where’s the ashtray?” we catch a whiff of death — the stubbed out cheroot, the ashes, the end of something, an “okay, I’m outta here” moment or signal. Is the marriage one that will ever be fully experienced within the bungalow, or is it, like the cheroot, at its ash-end? Is the death of the marriage the poem’s true time and place? Or is the time and place merely the afterward to a sexual encounter that has already taken place inside the house, and thus, the satisfied man’s desire for a smoke. In the event that the veranda scene is after sex, the intensity of desire reflected in the woman’s fantasy is startling and puzzling. Is she withholding? unsatisfied?
In the very last line, when the husband asks, “Who’s doing cocktails on Saturday?” he emphasizes this fluid time zone, cocktails being both old-fashioned and the very latest thing. But he’s also emphasizing his non-presence in the marriage. Is he the one doing cocktails? Will he be taking his act on the road?
But this is all putting off the poem’s star-turn. Simply, over the course of several stanzas, an elbow away from her husband having a smoke, the wife imagines offering herself naked, tied to her hammock, and anointed with honey — offering herself not to her husband, but to, of all things, the vision of the hummingbird who has aroused her with his passion for the flowers just beyond the veranda. With his tongue (yes, hummingbirds have tongues), sip by sip, she imagines the hummingbird probing her. This waking dream sweeps both the woman and her reader away. The husband, sensing something askew, demands his ashtray, and thus re-establishes his preferred balance of power.
So that is another way of establishing the setting of this poem: her place is where he thinks he has put her. As if he senses her erotic pre-occupation, he interrupts by asking for an ashtray, swats at her with his mention of cocktails, the word so preening, so male-centered, so entitled, so in charge.
Power is at play here: the husband’s off-hand power to have a wife who keeps his house; the woman’s offhand power to have an interior erotic life which is secret from him; the power the woman obtains from being submissive; the power the hummingbird has by being dazzling and wild.
Possibly the veranda where they sit is the porch upon which all relationships sit, the man and the woman both fenced in by their own particular erotic point of view, or their own particular role. But if words and flowers and birds and housing styles can travel the world, Danson is asking if understanding cannot also travel from one wife to one husband.