Pauline Pfeiffer’s Folly

“It lights up at night…so the pool must be visible to Mars.”
-Elizabeth Bishop

Some said Pauline did it to spite Hem,
others said she did it to lure him back
by making him an oasis,
a beautiful deep swimming pool
on a barrier island next to the sea,
its cool, silken waters
a refuge from heat behind a house
that had withstood 150 years of tropical storms.

In 1938 it cost a fortune to build
and fill—over eight feet deep
at one end and four feet at the other—
with 80,00 gallons of sea water.
The digging had to be done by hand
with picks and sledgehammers,
excavating through limestone
and remnants of ancient coral reefs
studded with shells.

Hemingway was off at war in Spain,
chasing the next journalist
who would become his third wife.
He opted for danger and discomfort,
picked fights, smashed up in accidents.

He fell in love with Pauline
when he was married to Hadley,
and he never forgave her
for that first divorce.
He complained her breasts
were too small, her hips too narrow.
He wanted daughters, but he got sons.
In her difficult childbirths, he abandoned her.
He fled the home she made for him.
Their children he grudgingly loved.

She was stylish and witty,
smart and charming,
she knew what he needed
to produce his best writing,
and she was rich—
a powerful aphrodisiac
he pretended didn’t attract him,
because he couldn’t admit
how much it mattered.
Anything he couldn’t resist,
he disparaged.

When he came back to Key West
and saw the pool, all he could think of
was its cost. He reportedly threw
a penny at her in accusation,
“You spent my last red cent.”
But it was her money.
It was always her money.

He put a urinal from Sloppy Joe’s
next to her pool to offend her.
She converted it into a fountain,
topped by an earthenware jug
faced with ceramic tile,
and planted with flowers.

In their war, there were no winners,
only losers.

Maybe she really loved him
against all reason,
but he couldn’t accept it,
because he didn’t love her.
A miserable husband
and a worse father,
he spoke of himself as a prize,
but brought her only grief.
For her devotion to him,
she earned her sons’ enmity,
an early death, and an unmarked grave.

Maybe she built the pool
only a little to win him back
and only a little to spite him.
Maybe she did it for herself,
to create something extravagant,
unnecessary, and sublime
for her own pleasure.

At night, when the sea breezes
stirred the heavy leaves of the tropical trees,
and the scent of jasmine wafted in the warm air,
she would turn on the lights in the pool,
so bright they outshone the lighthouse next door,
and swim with her friends
in green luminescence under the stars.

 

Anne Whitehouse is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Meteor Shower (Dos Madres Press, 2016). She has also written a novel, Fall Love, which is now available in Spanish translation as Amigos y amantes by Compton Press. Recent honors include 2018 Prize Americana for Prose, 2017 Adelaide Literary Award in Fiction, 2016 Songs of Eretz Poetry Prize, 2016 Common Good Books’ Poems of Gratitude Contest, 2016 RhymeOn! Poetry Prize, 2016 F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City.

Artist Sally Deskins is an artist and writer focusing on perspectives of women including her own. She’s been published internationally and exhibited nationally and has curated several exhibitions and books.

 

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