Essay published in Adanna Literary Journal,
A Collection of Contemporary Love Poems, Winter 2012
On love poetry
Once, to prepare a best man speech, I looked up the definition of love, hoping my joy for words might give me the inspiration (and the courage) to stand in front of a couple hundred people to speak about something I pretty much knew nothing about. The dictionary provided me the following definition: “Love: an ineffable quality or state of being.”
Possessing at that age—and, I’d like to point out it was a long, long time ago—such a limited vocabulary, I soon found myself thumbing backward through the dictionary looking for ineffable, only to find: “unable to express or define in words.” How great that was! Not even twenty-four short hours until I’d be mic-in-shaking-hand, sweat dripping down my back, my voice cracked and magnified over the vast distances of banquet halls, and here I was playing hide-and-seek with both Merriam and Webster. But no sooner did the realization come to me: write what you think about love, because they don’t know what it means either.
At some point, we end up at love’s essential paradox: not being able to define it, allows poets and artists to continually reimagine it. The love poem, however, more than any other subject perhaps, forces an artist to move beyond the immediacy of the moment. The poet must acknowledge the myriad lyrics pulling him back into the vast history of love, the countless poems that already line the pages and pages of anthologies and collections, while conceiving, at the same time, some way to make love new.
One of my mentors, in a letter, once asked me: What is the difference between poetry which acts like poetry, and poetry which is poetry? What’s the difference between the gesture and the real thing? Ross was, at the time, trying to instill in me the idea that poetry (like any art) must continually sound foreign, must see the subject at obtuse angles, resonate with strange harmonies. Only then, would we be assured our poems did more on the page than simply retell old stories, share the visions of familiar dreamers, and sing the songs we already know by heart.
“The woman of deep song,” Lorca wrote, “is called Pain.” Love does not link individuals to a common understanding of the human condition. Love is an ideal. Which is why at every juncture, it must at all costs deny sentimentality, otherwise it fails to speak its inherent truth: what binds all people is pain. This dialectic returns me continually to love’s end, how in order to truly write love, to know what it means to love, perhaps we must first feel the absence of love.
Cain didn’t know anything. Thought he did. He was in love once. And a few things stayed with him. Her hair in the fig tree hanging her shoulders. How he could hear her outside singing. The way she crinkled her nose when she laughed at her own jokes. How she never once glared as if to say how could you. The notes she sometimes left for him.
But she also woke one morning with a sadness, drank her coffee for the first time in silence, and folded four baskets of laundry before the afternoon. At dinner she raised her eyes to his, holding a cup of water near her lips, and said she could not touch him ever again, stood from the table, and left the house.
That winter when the ground thawed, though his hands were torn with blisters and his arms ached like never before, he dug out the backyard turning over grass for dirt, fertilizing the earth, so it might one day give something he could praise—okra, squash, tomatoes so ripe and full—just touching them would almost bruise.
Perhaps the best thing a love poem can do is show us how fragile and fleeting our desires, how quickly and easily love leaves us. Or, to help us understand the importance in cherishing what we love since nothing in life is forever. These thoughts often arouse in us uncontrollable utterings that spring forth in some of the most compelling love poems. Love as obsession. Love as pitfall. Love as monotony. Love in fear. Love as danger. Love trapped. Love as torment. Love without escape. Love falling.
Tomorrow’s Love Song
What if your name
is the timing belt
screech under every hood
of every green hatchback
idling this traffic light
what if these lanes stopped
riding straight stopped
killing time what if
the power lines
from their wooden cells
as whirlpools of sparks
jump around the car
in rubbered chains
what if the air saturated
in the slap
of rain drowned
this committed wind
what if there’s no way
to breathe cause the mouth
plunges so far in
“Without impediment,” writes Linda Gregerson, “the lover would have no need to resort to poetry.” Maybe the love poem must remain as mysterious as love’s own interworkings. Maybe the love poem means to show us the parts of ourselves from which we often shy away. Though how to put into words the heart’s condition? The love poem must simultaneously picture desire and personify fear. It must lay claim to the joy of love while hinting at its vast loneliness. It must be obsession as much as disillusionment. It must usher us toward a sense of completeness, right before it deceives us in its transitory nature to disappear. It must bring us into the immediacy of the moment, while reminding us of the vast empty space of eternity.
Of course, I write all this, still knowing so little about love and the love poem. So carefully, I then, listen to the sentiment of others. Once, at a reading, W.S. Merwin looked up for a moment to preface his next poem and said, “It’s not what you love, but how you love it.” Merwin’s wisdom speaks to the heightening sense of control many of us feel in our daily lives. That intense grasp of which we keep hold over what it is we love. Thus, it becomes the object itself, the end of our desires that maintains significance, finally superseding the actual act of loving. And in so doing, we miss the mark.
In order to bring to the page the love poem’s essential ineffability, in order to insure we neglect sentimentality, neglect writing poems that act like poems, we must somehow give voice to how we love, the individuality of experience that each of us hides, how love consumes our entire sense of being, how love climbs into our bodies and shakes the leaves until they fall, how love wraps and traps us in our own sense of longing and distance and desire. So the love poem edifies us: to truly love means we must first love enough to let go.
Think of Gustav Klimt’s painting The Kiss. Think of the kaleidoscopic color, the strength of an embrace, the melting of forms into a oneness. All beautifully romantic. But this joy does not come without jeopardy. It does not come without the precipice, foreshadowing a potential fall. It does not come without the vast golden void that surrounds and reminds us of time’s undefinable future. It does not come without the great strength of embrace that both asks for and takes love.
(after Gustav Klimt’s painting)
What’s under those robes? Why is her neck
not broke? And some feminists I know
would not like her on her knees.
But I see her face. In all this symbolism
and color—the precipice of black-eyed susans
and blue flax and (what must be) cosmos
(too dark for showy primrose), all the yellow
or gold, god, whatever, call it honey
and the washings of daytime stars—
I’m drawn to her face.
And her face reminds me of yours—
the red in your cheeks, the frame of your eyes
(like perfect parentheses), and your eyes
how they open in the morning (like iris).
When I think of kissing your mouth
the scent of wildflower
in a field’s far distances
and when my hands pull your head into mine
your hair like grass.
It’s somewhere between vista and horizon,
air, dirt. Please open your mouth,
there are worlds spinning beneath our feet,
my fingers tremble, space
sinks, the pines calling.
Touch works like alchemy. I don’t believe in magic. This is my argument for love.