Jean L. Kreiling

After Reading Hemingway Late at Night

My clean, well-lighted room was light too late,
the pages of my book far more appealing
than darkness and surrender to a state
of unengaged oblivion. But stealing
another hour for Hemingway may not
have been a good choice. Though at last I’ve let
him go, he holds on: characters and plot
fill pages of my brain, his alphabet
too well-arranged to spell the spell of sleep.
And since I’ve missed the hour when eyes could close
and stay closed with the counting of some sheep—
their fleece can’t muffle echoes of his prose—
I’m counting wives of Hemingway instead,
and wondering about the lives they led.

Four women married him. The lives they led—
the roles they played as Mrs. Hemingway—
must have been challenging. Had they misread
the man who’d leave them all? Each woman may
have thought that she had wed a different man,
since recent chapters in a life revise
what years have written. Each marriage began,
I’m sure, with hopes that it would not reprise
the previous debacle. But not one
would last more than a decade and a half,
each tale familiar: vows made and undone,
love doomed from the initial paragraph.
Write one true sentence was his famous creed;
truth written by the heart is hard to read.

The truth of one man’s heart is hard to read,
but Hadley and young Ernest started out
(as lovers do) as if all they would need
was passion. I recall a time when doubt
or wariness could not corrupt my heart,
when my own Ernest—though his name was Jack—
slept here beside me. What broke us apart
is hardly worth recounting, but a lack
of passion wasn’t it. We had our own
pale version of their Paris (the café
downtown); we too drank freely. If I’d known
how it would end—that Jack would soon betray
our bliss—I probably would still have lain
beside him, Hadley-like, bracing for pain.

Beside her husband, Hadley braced for pain,
and in time, his deceptions broke their bond.
How long can love and tolerance remain
when trust disintegrates, when you’ve been conned?
He left her for Pauline—well-educated,
a journalist. I can relate to her:
although perhaps not as sophisticated,
I too earned a degree; I too prefer
to write instead of watching someone write.
I wonder if I too would have felt free
to bed the married Hemingway. Tonight
I would have liked some manly company,
but as Pauline would learn, a man can make
a mess of things, make love seem a mistake.

Though Ernest left her, is it a mistake
to think him merely faithless? Macho code
or not, the men he wrote have hearts that break,
and so did he. Another episode
of short-lived marriage started in Key West,
where he met Martha. I wish I were there;
a warm salt breeze would surely help me rest,
and in the morning I might even dare
to drink a Bloody Mary with a stranger.
But Martha dared far more, and zealously:
fearless war correspondent, she faced danger
repeatedly. She went to Normandy,
grew famous, and became widely respected—
and so, it seems, her husband felt neglected.

Maybe most wives and husbands feel neglected
at some point in their marriages; some days,
or years, leave spouses feeling disconnected
or undervalued. More than mere malaise,
it feels like the beginning of the end,
and sometimes it’s exactly that, I’ve learned.
For Ernest, endings had become a trend—
beginnings, too, I guess, for he soon turned
to Mary, his fourth wife. Another writer,
twice wed herself, she must have understood
that he would not be easy: lover, fighter,
serial husband. But this marriage would
endure until the day Ernest could not—
until the moment Mary heard the shot.

The moment Mary heard the fatal shot
is one I can’t imagine. I’ve known loss,
but not that fathomless abyss—the spot
a bullet finds—where grief and horror cross.
And though each new grief leaves a heart in pieces,
mine beats with a desire to keep on beating.
Until the chapter when my breathing ceases,
I’ll keep the light on and I’ll keep on reading—
and maybe counting: famous wives, the men
I’ve loved, true sentences, false vows. Hindsight
may favor caution, but the heart and pen
keep writing. And though I can’t sleep tonight,
there’s no one but myself to implicate:
my clean, well-lighted room was light too late.

The poet weaves the story of Hemingway’s life and the narrator’s own marriage to comment on the state of relationships in general and arrives at a conclusion about self-love. The rhythm and deft rhymes keep the narrative moving smoothly.

Jean L. Kreiling is the author of two collections of poetry:  Arts & Letters & Love  (2018) and The Truth in Dissonance (2014).  Her work has been honored with the Able Muse Write Prize, the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters Sonnet Prize, the Kelsay Books Metrical Poetry Prize, a Laureates’ Prize in the Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest, three New England Poetry Club prizes, the Plymouth Poetry Contest prize, and the String Poet Prize. 

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