On Top

These days, the woman has to be on top,
astride the guy with whom the roles have flipped –

she sets the pace on their erotic trip
until her flagging partner pleads – stop . . . STOP!

On stage, an actress plays the male lead part;
on screen, she’ll be the bright detective who

solves murders, managing a family too,
attractive, empathetic, super-smart.

About time too: for centuries their role’s
been whore or virgin, while assertive blokes

were down the pub exchanging dirty jokes
or in the cockpit, at the plane’s controls,

or in the pulpit, putting all the blame
on Eve, for having knowledge as her aim.

All well and good, and yet the gloomy stats
reveal that worldwide men remain the sex

who make the rules, earn more, and – more complex –
are still the longed-for (even by mothers) brats.

The charge sheet darkens: most murders are committed
by men, on women – often husbands killing

wives they’ve used as punchbags after drinking
sessions with their mates. And why’s God pictured

in most religions as a bearded male?
Why should it be crack-brained even to hope

that one day there might be a female pope?
Did a feminist colleague hit it on the nail? –

ninety percent of culture and belief

is men claiming the right to give us grief.

The issues nowadays of course go wider:
LGBTQIA+, Roe/Wade,

what to think of comments JK Rowling made . . .
Yesterday's liberals are now outsiders

unless they’ve learnt the Newspeak. When the Taliban
kick women out of schools and jobs, and gays

in Africa are treated as depraved
it’s easy to know exactly where one stands,

or when Putin sends his troops into Ukraine.
But here what’s right/politically correct

can change so rapidly, with no respect
for those with question marks, although Montaigne

observed that while we’re hard-wired to seek truth
it’s only known to God, for all we sleuth.

Time to confess: I wasn’t the perfect husband.
My own career came first, and even now

I flunk my half of household chores, somehow
(despite myself) instinctively old-fashioned.

I can claim to be a victim in my turn,
of upbringing, of school, of peer groups or

the era I was born in, and ignore
the voice of conscience and this deep-down churn

about my failure to do as well as you
in translating love into daily life

and keeping pledges made when, man and wife,
we promised to be not merely physically true

to one another, but also that we’d dare
much more than tasks, our inner worlds to share . . .

Dover Beach has always been a favourite
but I wonder, did she feel a bit ignored

and (Dover Bitch!) rate him a gloomy bore
to be fussing over a verse on their wedding night?

In any case, that yearning still hits home,
to bind together, in bold equality

in a world in which there is no guarantee
of anything but taxes and the tomb

and loss, and suffering. Is it too late for us
to start again, to try this time to find

a way to be as gentle and as kind
as look the couple Larkin could not trust,

lying movingly – since hand-in-hand – nonstop
for centuries, with neither one on top?

Tom Vaughan


If you have any thoughts on this poem, Tom Vaughan would be pleased to hear them.