The Balance of Everything

by Jessica Stockton Bagnulo

She is as in a field a silken tent

At midday when a sunny summer breeze

Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,

So that in guys it gently sways at ease,

And its supporting central cedar pole,

That is its pinnacle to heavenward

And signifies the sureness of the soul,

Seems to owe naught to any single cord,

But strictly held by none, is loosely bound

By countless silken ties of love and thought

To everything on earth the compass round,

And only by one’s going slightly taut

In the capriciousness of summer air

Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

 

I first encountered Frost’s poem in 12th grade English, where a teacher (whom I now think may have been having some kind of midlife crisis) was trying to persuade a roomful of teenagers of the erotic sensuality of Frost’s wind. 

I was a little prudish at 17, but also logical, and confident in my explicating abilities. For some reason I can recall the words of the classroom dialogue exactly:

“Mr. Slater, are you saying breeze equals sex?”

“Oh Jessica, everything equals sex.”

I still find this exchange eye-rollingly hilarious, and I still disagree with Mr. Slater’s assessment of “everything.”  But of course I experience the poem differently now, nearly twenty years further into my life. The first line has been blowing through my head lately, and a vague image of that swaying tent pole, easeful in the midst of its obligations. I like that it seems a mature image of womanly beauty, motherly but yes, maybe sexy: that sureness and flow, that silk in a summer field. 

I have a husband now, and a child, and a small business, and a community of friends and neighbors. The ties of love and thought are many and their pull is insistent, but life is sweet just now, and I like thinking on this image of a moment of balance.

Rereading it though, I am surprised at how much darkness insinuates itself around that single moment. The strongest word in the last line, the sound we are left with, is bondage – all those domestic obligations, everything Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Gaskell were afraid of.  It makes me think of hearing an acquaintance say recently, I’ve tried working full time, caring for my children full time, working part time, working from home, and in every scenario I felt guilty. They all had their satisfactions but I always felt like there was something I couldn’t do.

 . . .

You hear a lot about women and balance. We talk about it lot: work-life balance. I know men struggle with how to find time and energy for everything too. But I think perhaps women feel that struggle as a push and pull in in our very bodies.

I love my husband more than anything in the world. I love my child more than life itself. I love the shop I created like I love my own limbs. I also have, like many women, a host of ambitions, and a swarm of secret benchmarks to live up to. And these are passions that are difficult to domesticate, though they fall well within the definition of the word domestic. They are wild and demanding and don’t always play well together. On anything but the calmest summer day, they pull at that tent with an unforgiving insistence, till the silk thrashes and stretches with the struggle.

. . .

Sometimes when I’m thinking of the tent poem, this other little ditty gets stuck in my head:

 She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect, and her eyes:

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

 

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

 

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

 

Along with that declarative first line, there are other echoes between the two poems. Here again is beauty in balance, this time between dark and bright. Again, it is delicate and precarious, with its destruction suggested in its description, “half impaired” already in imagination. And here also is beauty bound up with duty, with days spent in goodness, and a sense of calm.

But like “the sureness of the soul” at the center of the silken tent, that “mind at peace with all below” is written like it might be wishful thinking. It seems an oversimplification, a pious little homily of an explanation in the middle of this moody, strange imagery. There’s too much movement here for this serenity to be so easily explained: back and forth between day and night, blown between polar opposites. The perfect balance Frost and Byron describe seems to be something even the poets scarcely believe in. It seems, in fact, impossible.

. . .

On the one hand we could say: here are two poems by men, ol’ Bob and ol’ George, and of course they demand of women this impossible ideal of balance, and of course their idea of female beauty has no room for wildness, for chaos. We should be reading Rosetti and Plath, we should kill the angel in the house, literature should demand revolution against domesticity and order.

Certainly, there is room for a discussion of patriarchal assumptions in these poems, as ol’ Mr. Slater suggests. But in addition to being men, Frost and Byron are poets. Their work is not to expect, but to observe, the beautiful. These poems seem to me not tools of instruction, but great works of imagination, and perhaps, expressions of awe.

Here I find, in two poems written more than a hundred years apart, an unlikely moment, when against all odds one woman is the point where everything is in balance. Or perhaps, she flows through and past the point of balance, and back again, walks and sways, at ease, at peace. It is a wonder, not a permanent state. It is something of a miracle.

. . .

It is midsummer now, or just past.  I am thirty-five, neither very young nor very old, at a prime or maybe a pivot point of my life. My desk is piled with scribbled papers; my laundry basket is overflowing and the bathtub needs cleaning. There is nearly always something to feel guilty about, if I want to.

But just imagine that some evening, I’m walking home through the park between my house and my shop, and I leave the path and cross the grassy centerfield. Imagine that I stop in the middle of swishing through the uncut grass and look up. Maybe there’s a capricious breeze. Maybe it’s dusk, and there are no clouds at all.  I am looking out of my own eyes, an impossibly, miraculously happy woman. For a moment I can see, not just the points I am balanced between, but everything.

“She Walks In Beauty” by George Gordon, Lord Byron, first published 1815. (public domain.)

“The Silken Tent” by Robert Frost, first published 1942. © Henry Holt & Co., Inc.


Jessica Stockton Bagnulo

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo was born in Bakersfield, California.  She currently lives with her husband and daughter in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, and is the co-owner of Greenlight Bookstorea five-year-old independent bookstore in the same neighborhood.