I've often wondered why she laughed
On thinking why I wondered so;
It seemed such waste that long white hands
Should touch my hands and let them go.
And once when we were parting there,
Unseen of anything but trees,
I touched her fingers, thoughtfully,
For more than simple niceties.
But for some futile things unsaid
I should say all is done for us;
Yet I have wondered how she smiled
Beholding what was cavernous.
Listen to an audio recording
On the surface a poem about the failure of potential lovers to connect, Tate's poem contains both circular and enigmatic qualities that make it difficult to place. I think "wonder" is a good place to begin.
The poem begins and ends with the narrator "wondering" about the actions of a woman. She laughs at the narrator's wonder at the start, and he wonders at her smile in the end. A general sense of "wonder" pervades, the poem, I think. The woman's hands, "long white hands" are treated like objects of great beauty, clearly inspiring the narrator. He desperately wants to touch them, and indeed does, "for more than simple niceties," when he presumably expresses his love and desire for her.
The relationship does not work, as but for "some futile things left unsaid...all is done." And this brings us back again to "wonder." The enigmatic part of the poem for me is "what was cavernous." I have to wonder at what exactly was cavernous that caused the woman to smile and the man to wonder how at that she could possibly smile.
I think one sense is that what was cavernous was the emotional weight between them, perhaps a void or maw of love left wide open by their failure to connect. He is aghast that she laughs and smiles at love's failings, and she wonders how he can fail to understand. It's that massive gap in communication that so often we all fail to bridge when expressing our feelings to and for another.
The only real moment on connection in the poem is when he touches her fingers. The gap is bridged there, but as we know from the first stanza, the hands were not to stay together. It seems a waste to Tate that contact between two people can be so fleeting. What is there to do but laugh? Maybe not a mirthful laugh or smile, but a rueful one, that bittersweet smile one wears when parting from another? Even though I cannot fully understand what Tate means by "what was cavernous" I still feel an extraordinary sense of melancholy about the poem.