Susan Terris

of San Francisco, CA

Winner of the lou_ham_mem_awa_20120706_125307 in 2012

MADAME BOVARY'S OTHER DAUGHTER

 

                                                                               — May 6, 1937

Day—day the Hindenburg burns near New York harbor—
Oh the humanity! and in St. Louis a baby born,
lusty and dark. The new mother, still drunk on gas,
looks across her hospital room, sees Emma Bovary in
a swagged gown and feathered bonnet reaching for the child.
The mother, breasts swollen, leaking, struggles,
"Mine," she says. "No, this one is ours," Emma replies.
"Belongs to us both." The mother, practical even when
drugged, struggles to sit, flings damp cotton balls
and sends a vial of boric acid splintering to the floor.
"You're nothing but paper," she says. "No second chances.
Go! No willing suspension of disbelief. . . . "
Baby—yet unnamed baby girl—blinks, kicks to unswaddle,
offers her two mothers a knowing, half-focused gaze.

 

                                                *

 

                                                                                — November 20, 1947

Princess Elizabeth is getting married, and the unmarried
St. Louis girl is pregnant. Well, she's tied the waist of
her practical mother's lace wedding coat high to emphasize
a hopeful belly. Emma, who's adopted the post-war
New Look, bums a smoke from the other mother, blows
rings, while laughing about their ten-year-old slut
at the wedding dress party. Emma, proud, is hoping for
a new translation, which will give her credit for how 
she's shaping this young one to be not so St. Louie
but to pout and vamp and look about for a better deal.
"Men are such children. Playthings and bagatelles,"
she tells the lace-draped daughter, substituting a
Parliament for a candy cig. "Do as I do—forget babies.
Use your dark eyes. Gaze at men with fearless candor."

 

                                                                                 — October 4, 1957

A dog is up in space and Howl was declared an obscenity,
though Emma had memorized it before she opted for
the lower bunk in her daughter's dorm room. "Ask
your other mother for more allowance," Emma says.
"We need a stereo. Fox furs. A car would be nice.
Thunderbird—baby blue. And some Perrier-Jouët."
The St. Louis daughter has developed what shrinks call
Mother Deafness. She can no longer hear maternal pleas.
Besides, her midwest mother has withdrawn, golfs,
plays bridge, is a woman who thinks she has a life.
Emma, unconcerned, is filling perfume flasks with cognac.
As long as her girl is a siren, who can find love, keep it,
she will not have to worry, like Emma, that the best minds
of her generation have been destroyed by madness.

 

                                                *

 

                                                                                —July 3, 1967

Detroit, birthplace of Emma's daughter's husband,
is rioting and burning. "And what have you done with
your life?" Emma asks. "Bourgeois husband, bourgeois
babies. Aren't you burning?" Emma says love is never
found in marriage. Her girl-woman must look elsewhere
for excitement. Enter Berthe, unbuttoning. "Who
is she?" the daughter asks. "And why's she here?"
"The girl I left behind," Emma answers slyly.
"Berthe—don't we look like sisters—can play piano
and embroider slippers. Here for your husband. 
And if he does, you can. But be sure to ask for a ring."
The housewife daughter folds laundry, chops onions,
swabs fingerprints from the wall. "No effing way," she
tells Emma." A lover will only be one more needy husband."

 

                                                                               — August 16, 1977

Elvis is dead. Long live The King. St Louis Daughter has
become a poet, spends time in a hidden garret with
a man to whom she is not married. Emma, though, has
lost interest. That man has no money, can't provide 
Emma with any of the luxuries she craves. Weed and
blow cost. So do couture clothes. Berthe, too.
She's a high-priced call girl now, but the money goes to
her pimp. Emma's daughters are failures, while
she's in debt again.  America is a pit of uncivilized Yahoos
who corrupt everyone. Sex in a garret is not sex.
The newest translation is useless. It doesn't do justice
to her finer points. Delicately, she sniffs up
one more white line. "Now take my hand," Elvis tells her.
"Take my whole life, too. 'Cause. . . I can't help. . . ."

 

                                                *

                                                                                —October 19, 1987

The stock market is crashing, and Andy Warhol died
before he could frame Emma in a triptych,
so she decamped for Ry to look for Léon or Rodolphe.
American life has not been fulfilling. Even Charles
might be all right for a while. Her daughters are both
bores. "Children," she tells herself, "are not assets
but asses and liabilities." Her creditors will never find
her in Ry. Her old wardrobe and follies await,
though they may need new ribbons and furbelows.
M. Lheureux—Mr. Happy—may need to be happied.
Hope springs eternal. La vie en rose awaits. Celibacy is
bad for digestion and for the complexion. Emma, unlike
her middle-aged children, hasn't aged, and by moonlight
in the garden, she'll physic herself with love.

 

                                                                                 — August 31, 1997

A comet has passed through the skies, and Princess Diana
was killed in a car crash in Paris. Emma would have
liked being shacked up at the Ritz with Dodi Fayad, since
he was so rich. But she would have insisted on marriage,
so she could inherit and pay off her debts. "Life is
the shits," Emma declares again and again. Both Berthe
and the St. Louis bitch have sent their offspring to Ry,
so Emma's translation of Flaubert is spoiled by seven
dei ex machina—her descendants—a denoument for which
she is ill-suited. She rings for Félicité, but the wretch
never shows. Léon, damn him, is captivated by
one granddaughter, and Rodolphe gave a ring with
Amor nel cor to another. Life is not fair. Not worth it.
"I wonder," she asks herself, "if I can kill myself again?"

line

Mary Ann Caws on Susan Terris

"Madame Bovary's Other Daughter" has everything to recommend it: wit, history, allusions, sparkle. I very much love the way each of the sections is prefaced by AN EVENT, as well as a few contextual references to it. AND the informality is remarkably fetching. All the quotes, all the costumes (Emma's swagged gown and feathered bonnet and the lace-drapings), make it soar into the intellectual parodic sky. I loved Emma's waiting for a new translations, and, boy, does she have one right now to be costumed in and deeply proud of!

So, as of this moment, the poem is relevant as well as funny, and the characters are all there: Léon and Rodolphe (the man we love to hate) and the ghastly Mr. Lheureux, so happy does he make us this time around, when, maybe, Emma won't have to commit suicide after all. Certainly not over this delight of a poem. 

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