Friday, February 12, 2010
It’s that time of year again when all but the very jaded point cupid’s arrow in the direction of their beloved, the more thoughtful attaching to the shaft a written testimonial to their undying affection. Not to be outdone this week I offer half a dozen poems about love, romantic love featured prominently, of course, but other kinds of love as well, by some of my favourite poets. I hope they strike your heart just a little, too.
Live with me on Earth among red berries and the bluebirds
And leafy young twigs whispering
Within such little spaces, between such floors of green, such
figures in the clouds
That two of us could fill our lives with delicate wanting:
Where stars past the spruce copse mingle with fireflies
Or the dayscape flings a thousand tones of light back at the
Be any one of the colours of an Earth lover;
Walk with me and sometimes cover your shadow with mine.
(Dig Up My Heart: Selected Poems 1952-83 by Milton Acorn. McClelland and Stewart, 1983)
The lovely collision of colour in the first and third lines, the delicate imagery to match the emotion underneath make Milton Acorn’s love poem “Live With Me On Earth Under the Invisible Daylight Moon” one of my favourites. I love the undulating rhythm which opens the poem, but also the way Acorn leaves lots of space after “whispering” at the end of line 2, to give the line and the reader air to breathe. The poem is sweet and brief with just enough darkness at the end to provide emotional contrast with the primary colours which dominate the opening of the poem. A lovely poem.
We’re all familiar with the next poem, unfortunately one so heavily overworked and satirized that its original beauty has been obscured. But if you re-read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 43" you’ll discover why it remains a model of technical virtuosity and feeling. Interestingly, the use of biblical anaphorae or repetition was supposed to have been an invention of Whitman’s, but here Browning uses it to enormous effect. Pay special attention to the wonderful rhythmic and syntactic variety that follows each repetition of the phrase “I love thee”:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
My favourite sentiment in Browning’s sonnet is the line “I love thee to the level of every day's/Most quiet need...” Curiously, the same quotidian of love gets a slightly earthier and more amusing treatment in this traditional Scots poem “Supper Isna Ready”:
Roseberry to his lady says,
“My hinnie an’ my succour, O
Shall we do the thing you ken
Or shall we take our supper?”
Wi’ modest grace, sae fu’ o’ grace
Replied the bonnie lady,
“My noble lord, do as you please
But supper isna ready.”
As I suggested earlier poems about love come in many shapes and guises. Rhona McAdam’s love for her late mother is expressed in a moment of uncanny metamorphosis in “Making Sense”. The poem demonstrates why McAdam is one of the best at supporting plain, unadorned narrative with a deep, yet playful imagination.
Fed from my mother’s hand
for a dozen years, my dog knows more than I
of my own flesh. She is watchful.
When I rise, she rises. She follows me room
to room, keeping track so one day
she can report to my mother
what I wore, who I saw, what I ate.
It is tiring work. She sighs on the square rug
at the foot of my bed, smacks her lips,
tasting sleep, and liking it.
As my mother slept her final years
so the dog sleeps on through the day
only waking at my footstep
or sensing the keys in my hand.
She sits in the car as my mother sat
in her final months, looks out
at the trees, dumb with joy,
and we walk in my mother’s
favourite park, her gait unsteady
now as my mother’s at the end,
her eyes as milky.
Evenings when I sit in my mother’s
easy chair, the dog lies beside me,
paw rising to my hand, insistent
that I take it, that I not let go,
that I stroke its soft back
with my thumb, and when I squeeze,
someone squeezes back.
(Cartography, Oolichan Books, 2006)
As many testimonials as there are to love there are at least as many devoted to unrequited love. They are not always, as you might imagine, characterized by forlorn looks and weeping. A case in point: The Daughter of K’ab Rabia in “A Curse”:
This is my curse. God send thou love
One like thyself, unkind and obdurate,
That knowing Love’s deep cautery, though mayst write
In loneliness, and know my worth too late.
Disappointment in love comes in many forms, too, as evinced by “The Kiss” by Sara Teasdale:
I hoped that he would love me more,
And he has kissed my mouth
But I am like a stricken bird
That cannot reach the south.
For though I know he loves me,
Tonight my heart is sad;
His kiss was not so wonderful
As all the dreams I had.
Is there anything more painful than unrequited love after romance or marriage? Consider this trenchant offering from Vera Pavlova’s “He marked the page with a match”:
He marked the page with a match
and fell asleep in mid-kiss,
while I, a queen bee
in a disturbed hive, stay up and buzz:
half a kingdom for a honey drop,
half a lifetime for a tender word!
His face, half turned.
Half past midnight. Half past one.
A confession. Despite his reputation for great love poetry, I struggled with Pablo Neruda. Then I stumbled upon this gem entitled “Lone Gentleman":
The gay young men and the love-sick girls,
and the abandoned widows suffering in sleepless delirium,
and the young pregnant wives of thirty hours,
and the raucous cats that cruise my garden in the shadows,
like a necklace of pulsating oysters of sex
surround my lonely residence,
like enemies lined up against my soul,
like conspirators in bedroom clothes
who exchange long deep kisses to order.
The radiant summer leads to lovers
in predictable melancholic regiments,
made of fat and skinny, sad and happy pairings:
under the elegant coconut palms, near the ocean and the moon,
goes an endless movement of trousers and dresses,
a whisper of silk stockings being caressed,
and womens breasts that sparkle like eyes.
The little employee, after it all,
after the weeks boredom, and novels read by night in bed,
has definitively seduced the girl next door,
and carried her away to a run-down movie house
where the heroes are studs or princes mad with passion,
and strokes her legs covered with soft down
with his moist and ardent hands that smell of cigarettes.
The seducers afternoons and married peoples nights
come together like the sheets and bury me,
and the hours after lunch when the young male students
and the young girl students, and the priests, masturbate,
and the creatures fornicate outright,
and the bees smell of blood, and the flies madly buzz,
and boy and girl cousins play oddly together,
and doctors stare in fury at the young patients husband,
and the morning hours in which the professor, as if to pass the time,
performs his marriage duties, and breakfasts,
and moreover, the adulterers, who love each other truly
on beds as high and deep as ocean liners:
finally, eternally surrounding me
is a gigantic forest breathing and tangled
with gigantic flowers like mouths with teeth
and black roots in the shape of hooves and shoes.
After all is said and done, the poems that linger longest are the ones that remind us of who and why we love. I could have cited any number by Donne, Herbert, Dickinson et al, just as I’m sure your own favourites come to mind. This final poem by e.e. cummings is a favourite of my wife’s and one I grow fonder of with each re-reading. Happy Valentine’s Day, Gael.
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
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