Guest Editor: Jane Hirshfield, Academy of American Poets Chancellor, January 6, 2014
Mrs. Cavendish and the Dancer

Mrs. Cavendish desired the man in the fedora

who danced the tarantella without regard

for who might care.  All her life she had

a weakness for abandon, and, if the music

stopped, for anyone who could turn

a phrase. The problem was

Mrs. Cavendish wanted it all

to mean something in a world crazed

and splattered with the gook

of apparent significance, and meaning 

had an affinity for being elsewhere.

The dancer studied philosophy, she told me,

knew the difference between a sophist

and a sophomore, despite my insistence

that hardly any existed. It seemed everyone

but she knew that sadness awaits the needy.

Mr. Cavendish, too, when he was alive,

was equally naïve, might invite a wolf

in man's clothing to spend a night

at their house. This was how the missus

mythologized her husband--a man of what

she called honor, no sense of marital danger,

scrupled  beyond all scrupulosity.

The tarantella man was gorgeous and oily, 

and, let's forgive her, Mrs. Cavendish

was lonely. His hair slicked back, he didn't

resemble her deceased in the slightest,

which in the half-light of memory's belittered

passageways made her ga-ga. And I, as ever,

would cajole and warn, hoping history

and friendship might be on my side.

Mrs. Cavendish, I'd implore, lie down

with this liar if it feels good, but, please,

when he smells most of sweetness, get a grip,

develop a gripe, try to breathe your own air.



Copyright © 2014 by Stephen Dunn. Used with permission of the author.

About This Poem 

"I've been working on a sequence of 'Mrs. Cavendish' poems, and this is one of them. I'm finding out who she is as I go, and likewise discovering who the speaker is. I have about eight of them so far. Working like this, I feel enormous permission to be various and (I hope) interesting." 

--Stephen Dunn

Most Recent Book by Dunn

(W. W. Norton, 2014) 








Launched during National Poetry Month in 2006, Poem-A-Day features new and previously unpublished poems by contemporary poets on weekdays and classic poems on weekends. Browse the Poem-A-Day Archive.  

Stephen Dunn's seventeenth collection of poems, Lines of Defense will be published by W. W. Norton this month. Among his honors is the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Frostburg, Maryland. 


Related Poems
by Cedar Sigo
Prayer from a Mouse
by Sarah Messer 

Love reading Poem-A-Day?
Help support it today.

Thanks for being a part of the Academy of American Poets community. To learn about other programs, including National Poetry Month, Poem in Your Pocket Day, the annual Poets Forum, and more, visit
This email was sent to [SUBSCRIBER EMAIL] by [SENDER EMAIL] |  
Academy of American Poets | 75 Maiden Lane | Suite 901 | New York | NY | 10038