A poem by Mona Van Duyn, published in The Atlantic in 1986
Photo illustration by Miki Lowe
Being called a “domestic poet”—a chronicler of home life, of small, private matters—never sat well with Mona Van Duyn. The first female poet laureate, Van Duyn did write about love and marriage, but she was quick to push back against reductive labels. “It is a limiting term,” she once said, for a poet who “uses domestic metaphor to describe ideas, bizarre scientific developments, the possibility of nuclear destruction.”
It’s probably fair to say that “Late Loving”—written as Van Duyn neared her 43-year wedding anniversary—is not about nuclear destruction, and is about marriage. But it also probes deeper into other themes: the passage of time, the way that even the most familiar relationships keep changing, how we rely on societal structures such as marriage to anchor us when the rest of love and existence feels overwhelming.
She quotes the writer Mary Gordon on the biblical story of Mary and Martha, in which Jesus praises Mary for choosing full, spiritual love over material practicalities: “We must not deprive ourselves, our loved ones, of the luxury of our extravagant affections.” But Van Duyn’s poem is a rebuttal. It’s an ode to “matrimony’s turned-down thermostat,” and to those practical banalities—a haircut, an ointment, an anniversary—through which extravagant love is expressed.