It’s ridiculous, at my age,
to have to pull the car onto the shoulder
because Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash
are singing “Girl From the North Country,”
taking turns remembering not one girl,
but each of their girls, one and then the other,
a duet that forces tears from my eyes
so that I have to pull off the road and weep.Complete story available online at Salmagundi
I was expecting something quite dark to be lurking behind this poem. Some of the language is quite violent – wound, split open, necklace of stones, and the setting in the cold winds of the North Country. Then I found the wonderful audio linked above, which combines the poem, excerpts from the Cash/Dylan duet (the song is a reworking of “Scarborough Fair”), and an interview with Twitchell, and discovered it is indeed about the loss of a first love, and the lifelong pain that can cause.
It’s a layering of pains. Not only is there the sense of being used and discarded, there’s the shame attached to losing one’s childhood, a secret shame for girls that has no real equivalent for boys. Then there’s the emotional embarrassment of having been duped, and the extra humiliation of feeling the pain years later. But as the poem beautifully describes, this first hurt is “the sluice through which all of childhood pours”, the introduction to the world as potentially cruel, to people as potentially hurtful, and to loss as something to be feared. We get more cautious as we grow older because we know how much things hurt.
The most striking image for me comes towards the end:
… she grows up
wearing a necklace of stones,
one for each girl not her,
though they all live together here
in the North Country, where the winds
hit heavy on the borderline.
I like the image of the necklace of stones weighing her down, but particularly that they all live together, these discarded lovelorn girls. There is potential power there, camaraderie, but instead, it has a sad feeling. And we’re back to the shame and embarrassment. You can’t draw comfort if you can’t speak of your pain. Remind you of anything?