The intimacy of the poem, “Emma Bovary,” is unmistakable. After all, its title is the character’s true name—not “Madame Bovary,” the novel’s title--for Emma’s mother-in-law and her husband’s first wife also held it. No. With this poem we are looking at Emma, up close and personal: her feelings, desires, essence, and legacy.
What drew me was the first line. Written in the vernacular, it sounds more like a letter, and her tone is one of confidant, inspiring me to lean closer: “I would have liked then for someone to touch me.” Wow. Confessional, transparent, courageous. No distance felt like it existed between us, whether I wanted to hear her or not... and I wanted to.
The poem kept me guessing, too. The contradictory second line: “So I could know the purpose of this hardship” conveys a contradiction in life: we can truly understand hardship only by encountering kindness. Clearly, Emma is familiar with strife through the amazing imagery she uses, so alive for her that it is personified as “black-eyed and impassive” and captures not only how hardship appears but how it feels: hard, cold, and indifferent. Interestingly, the word “show” appears three times in the next two lines, which expresses Emma Bovary’s two realities: what she shows and how she actually feels. She is a character on the page, yet we know her more deeply than some human beings we see every day. Don’t we? Alas, do we ever truly know anyone?
Images collide in this poem, its juxtaposition unsettling and beautiful. Throughout, the metaphor of garden: fruit, flowers, vegetables, the sun—and from this backdrop of paradise jumps the picture of a knife’s reflection. Again, wow. A mirror that possesses innate danger. (Is it dangerous to look at oneself too closely? Perhaps we might be frightened of what we see.) While Emma describes taking down her hair—a lovely Venusian image—she mentions a gravedigger. Teeth and headstones, a gravedigger and new potatoes… some burials signify birth, others death. I grappled to gain my footing while taking in the largesse & truth of life, and I loved it.
Finally, beneath Emma’s Bovary’s skin, alphabets. A birth again, but through the written word. For she is born and reborn in our minds and hearts through the life of the novel. In the story, Emma Bovary dies from her own hand, but continues to live on the page nevertheless. The last line: “This world could not get rid of me if it wanted to.” Here is her transcendence, affirmed by the writer, who gives Emma the last word in a testament to her all-to-human contradictions, struggles and beauty.