Many of the poems Robert Creeley wrote in the 1950’s concerned some intense moment or passage in a man/woman, often husband/wife, relationship. Woman appears in several guises in these poems—sometimes, as here, in two (at least) in the same poem. The reader finds the woman who is in possession, so to speak, possibly the wife, asleep. The man, her lover, perhaps her husband, tosses and turns, unable to rid his mind of its preoccupations, particularly with another woman, to whom he has also apparently made love, and who is even now not far off. Finally, he complains of his anguish out loud, and this stirs the wife figure beside him into semiconsciousness—she utters a muffled sound and puts her hand on his back.
Transformed by this touch of the real, the man appears to calm down and to view the woman he is with in a light different from that in which he viewed her at the outset. Then, she was “a flat, sleeping thing”—somewhat insubstantial to him, unholdable, removed. This remove stirs the embers of his yearning for the other woman, the one “on the roof”—literally so, perhaps, a houseguest in the poet’s Mediterranean villa— metaphorically so, surely, since she is “on his mind.” His longing increases until he groans audibly, which causes his companion to hug him. This in turn changes his feelings toward her and toward the other woman, which makes him think that he has uttered this poem “wrongly,” because he had been misrepresenting his companion to himself.
One must allow that the woman on the roof could be solely a figment of the poet’s imagination, an ideal figure of compliant passion who is liable to spring into (mental) life whenever her “host” feels lonely. The “whip” of the title might be something with which the poet is beaten, or with which he beats himself—guilt, remorse, desire—but it also describes the way the phrases whip around as the poem abruptly shifts emotional direction. “Whip” can also have the sense of “spur”: to urge someone onward. Here, the chain of events whips the poet toward a conclusion.