The Saint’s First Wife Said
I woke to your face not looking at me
but at the bird that settled on your wrist,
lured by food. Its trust, for once, was rewarded.
You offered the bird everything you had.
I remember. That is how it began
with us: You held out your hand; I took it.
G. E. Patterson
I tutored Portuguese for many years. Generally, the students who need Portuguese tutoring hate reading and think that reading (especially poems) has no purpose. Usually, I tell them that they’re right: it doesn’t, and I don’t try to convince them otherwise. Normally this surprises them. They are used to hearing that literature is something very important, mainly when we talk about poetry, and when the text doesn’t occupy the whole page, they assume that must mean that it is very complicated. The first thing I used to do was explain to them that reading anything whatsoever was like solving a riddle, and I would show them an article from a newspaper of their liking. Afterwards, they would do an exercise in which they should paraphrase what they read, and then do the same with a poem. The goal was to make them realise that one thing wasn’t, in itself, that much different from the other.
When we read a newspaper article, or anything else, first of all, we must pay attention not to be fooled. Well, when I was helping a friend look for a text to be read at her wedding, I came across “The Saint’s First Wife Said”, by the American poet G. E. Patterson. The poem figured in several lists of love poems, and I was almost tricked, for like many of my students, I didn’t pay attention, and didn’t read the title. Reading the poem without the title (or misreading the title, forgetting the adjective, which often happens to hasty students) it really seems that it must be a good poem to be read during a wedding. Just like what happened to the narrator, the bird that settled on the Saint’s hand, has been rewarded with everything that the Saint had to offer it; and what is love if not giving the other everything we have, no strings attached? However, we cannot not read the title (and we should read it well), and when we do so we find out that the narrator of the poem isn’t the Saint’s wife, but the Saint’s first wife. This Saint has had more than one wife (we don’t know how many) and, despite the success of a relationship shouldn’t be measured according to how long it lasts, when one gets married one doesn’t get married thinking, we assume, that their marriage will expire.
Let’s move to the first stanza of the poem. If the Saint gives everything he has to the bird whom he’s watching (and I am not even going into the love one assumes a Saint has for God), what does it tell us about the love he feels (felt?) for his wife? This is the type of question we should ask a poem or any other text. If there is something we don’t quite understand, we should ask, and, in this case, the answer is: “it tells us that he no longer loves his wife because, looking at the bird and having it in his hand, everything he has belongs to the bird”. Finally, deep down the Saint’s first wife is telling us that the bird, just like her, hardly knows what’s expecting it, for the same happened to her: the Saint held out his hand for both of them, and they both took it. What we have here is a trick. The poem that, for those who are careless, looks as though it is a love poem is, after all, the description of a trap. Catching birds isn’t that different from catching people, and that which both birds and people thought would be there forever may end, which implies, in this poem, a betrayal of trust. And, therefore, the question whether the description of the recipient of the poem as “Saint” is ironic or not, for whatever the case, the poem shouldn’t appear in any list of good poems to be read in weddings.
In conclusion, this poem teaches us is that if we want to be good readers we need, like in love, to watch out for traps. However, there is a question that will always remain unanswered: does learning to watch out for traps guarantee the infallible success of an interpretation? The answer is, of course, “no”, but to do so is to do our best.
Maria Rita Furtado
Maria Rita Furtado is a translator and a PhD student. She knew by hearth a poem about hummingbirds, by reading a book on animals that her sister tore apart (true story, registered on videotape). She never memorized a poem ever since then, but she still likes reading and talking about poetry. She has translated some of the sections published by this site.