Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750
Marilyn Hacker’s “Villanelle for D.G.B” describes the repetitive cycle of union and separation that defines a relationship between two lovers. The union is that of physical and emotional intimacy; its stage appears to be night. The separation is the parting of the lovers as they must answer the demands of the day; it is also each lover’s separation from self as a result of their union.
The poem is at once private and universal. In the opening stanza, the speaker declares, “Every day our bodies separate.” At one level, the collective pronoun “our” indicates the private union between the speaker and her lover. At another level, however, the “our” can be read as universal, and the poem thus describes human relationships in a more general sense.
The relationship’s constant back and forth between union and separation is echoed by the frequent use of repetition, a natural feature of the villanelle form. Indeed, the phrase “our bodies separate” is repeated three times in the poem, and the word “separate” four times. The phrase “not understanding what we celebrate” is repeated four times. This latter phrase, “not understanding what we celebrate,” implies that the constant back and forth in the relationship creates a confusion between the two lovers. The implication is that they move so often and so suddenly between the two markedly different modes in the relationship (union and separation) and thus cannot fully understand either.
This sense of confusion is implied elsewhere in the poem too. In the fifth stanza, the speaker says that, “In wordless darkness we learn wordless praise.” The repetition of the word “wordless” suggests that the lovers are unable to articulate any form of understanding. They are silenced by their inability to understand the relationship. The “darkness” in the quotation is also symbolic of disorientation and the unknown. Earlier in the poem, in stanza two, the speaker says that the lovers “grope through languages,” and in stanza three the speaker confesses to being “afraid.” The metaphorical image of “grop(ing) for language” emphasizes the idea of confusion indicated by the repetition of “wordless” in the fifth stanza. The lovers cannot find the language, or the words, to understand the relationship. The fact that the speaker is “afraid” is the consequence of feeling confused and disoriented. And yet, despite such fear, the lovers’ wordlessness is in aid of “praise,” indicating a sense of joy and appreciation at the heart of the relationship.
The separation is characterized as sudden and even violent, as indicated in the first stanza by the phrase “exploded torn.” This quality is also hinted at in the final stanza of the poem by the phrase “the wind tears off the haze.” The cold feeling of the lovers’ separation is arguably mimicked by the poem’s rhymes. Thirteen of the poem’s eighteen lines end in the suffix “-ate.” The sharp “t” sound here conveys a crisp, cold tone. The repetitive “-ate” suffix is also emphasized by the iambic meter of the poem, which ensures that this final syllable is always stressed. For example, in the final line of the poem, the iambic meter stresses every second syllable thus: “our bodies. Every day we separate.”
Hacker uses other aspects of the poem’s form and structure to emphasize the idea of continual separation. This idea is embodied in the form of the villanelle, whose first five stanzas are tercets, having three lines. Each of the tercets focuses on one of the two alternating stages of the relationship, either union or separation. Restricting each stanza to only three lines means that each state of the relationship feels brief. In this way, the structure of the poem perfectly echoes the rhythm of the relationship.
Focusing still on the structure of the poem, it is also notable that the poem begins and ends with the image of separation. The first line of the poem reads, “Every day our bodies separate,” and the final line of the poem reads, “our bodies. Every day we separate.” The fact that the poem is book-ended by the image of separation implies that this separation is the only constant of the relationship—and perhaps its most defining characteristic. Moreover, the final line can be read as a sundered and reconfigured version of the first line. The phrase “our bodies” is excised from the center of the line and placed at the start. In this way, the syntax of the lines reflects the theme of separation and subsequent reunion.