The 7 Deadly Binaries of Love
February 13th, 2015
Valentine’s Day is a silly tradition. That’s that. But like most people who write, I enjoy writing about love.
So instead of doing that, I’ve decided to let much more accomplished writers speak for me. I’ve juxtaposed some of my favorite poems and songs in order to underscore the major paradoxes of being in (or out of) love.
This is a long piece because several poems are reprinted in their entirety, which takes up real estate. I’ve thus restrained my commentary to brief introductions, so the art can best speak for itself. Spend some time with what is featured below: if it’s important to me, it may harbor some meaning for you.
I. Mystery | Confusion
Paul Guest | David Berman
Mystery is excitement; Confusion is bewilderment. Mystery is being nervous; Confusion is anxiety. Mystery is ‘where are you?’; Confusion is ‘what’s wrong’. Mystery is mania; Confusion, depression.
Mystery is Paul Guest, who gets so caught up in his metaphors that he completely evades his conceit; Confusion is Berman, who croons, “Baby, there’s no guidance / when random rules”….
Mystery is pillow talk. Confusion is bad pillow talk.
“On Being Asked Who the You is in My Poems” by Paul Guest
You are always eighteen or married
or both, carrying inside you
a surgeon or a singer growing
away from you like a little cloud,
and you have just escaped
from the leprosarium hidden
beyond the horizon’s lead smudge,
slinking through damp kudzu
to rap at my window
in the slowly sprawling darkness,
in the sodden green glow
of these two nights, mine
and yours. Or you’ve retired
from a secret life,
the oath sworn upon your bleeding thumb
now broken. The petal,
a curled pink that fell
and boiled in the black mirror of my coffee,
for a moment today was you
just as you were the bone of a thin girl’s hip
swimming beneath her
skin like a fish.
bowling via surrogate
while a jukebox ate through change,
once broke the earth open like a bone
ribboned with silk red
marrow. In the smoke rank air
all the world did
was turn and turning
away I began to keep your secrets like my own.
II. Nostalgia | Fantasy
C.P. Cavafy | Hart Crane
Although Woody Allen would like to show you otherwise, Nostalgia isn’t such a bad thing. It is inevitable: as Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote, “I am much better at making things up than at remembering them.”
But of course, Woody Allen would love to remind you that nostalgia can be dangerous when it becomesfantasy. In the end, reality will prevail: if you dig too far down the rabbit hole, you are bound to kick up a lot of dirt. You might accidentally recall, for example, how she always late for things, how she never finished her meals, how she rarely wore that necklace you gave her…
Cavafy’s bags are packed: his speaker’s redolent memories of youth are mingled with sadness. But there is no remorse. Meanwhile, Crane’s speaker meets frustration: his musings of sacred, ancestral love are thwarted by no fault of imagination, but the impossibility of escaping the present moment.
These are both really gorgeous poems. The Cavafy is only one translation out of many from the original Greek, so I’d recommend a quick Google search to see how it stacks up against others.
“In the Evening” by C.P. Cavafy
It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway –
the experience of years makes that clear.
Even so, Fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly.
It was soon over, that wonderful life.
Yet how strong the scents were,
what a magnificent bed we lay in,
what pleasure we gave our bodies.
An echo from my days given to sensuality,
an echo from those days came back to me,
something of the fire of the young life we shared:
I picked up a letter again,
and read it over and over till the light was gone.
Then, bereft, I went out on to the balcony,
went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
something of this city I love,
a little movement in the street and in the shops.
“My Grandmother’s Love Letters” by Hart Crane
There are no stars to-night
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.
There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
That have pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.
Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.
And I ask myself:
“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?”
Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.
III. Respect | Jealousy
Terrance Hayes | Biggie Smalls
Jealousy hinges on respect: of yourself, of who you are with. If you’ve ever been cheated on, you know how it feels to excuse yourself for the same no-no, while still levying tremendous guilt on your ex. It feels great!
That is, so long as you can make a convincing argument absolving yourself. That’s what Terrance Hayes does, and in the process he meditates on the nature of respect as a function of culture, community, art, and love. Biggie is a jealous, hypocritical whiner on this track, but it sounds good so who cares.
“A House is Not a Home” by Terrance Hayes
It was the night I embraced Ron’s wife a bit too long
because he’d refused to kiss me good-bye
that I realized the essential nature of sound.
When she slapped me across one ear
and he punched me in the other, I recalled,
almost instantly, the purr of liquor sliding
along the neck of the bottle a few hours earlier
as the three of us took turns imitating the croon
of the recently deceased Luther Vandross.
I decided then, even as my ears fattened,
to seek employment at the African-American
Acoustic and Audiological Accident Insurance Institute,
where probably there is a whole file devoted
to Luther Vandross. And probably it contains
the phone call he made once to ask a niece
the whereabouts of his very first piano.
I already know there is a difference
between hearing and listening,
but to get the job, I bet I will have to learn
how to transcribe church fires or how to categorize
the dozen or so variations of gasping, one of which
likely includes Ron and me in the eighth grade–
the time a neighbor flashed her breasts at us.
That night at Ron’s house I believed he, his wife,
and Luther loved me more than anything
I could grasp. “I can’t believe you won’t kiss me;
you’re the gayest man I know!” I told him,
just before shackling my arms around his wife.
“My job is all about context,” I will tell friends
when they ask. “I love it, though most days
all I do is root through noise like a termite
with a number on his back.” What will I steal?
Rain falling on a picket sign, breathy epithets–
you think I’m bullshitting. When you have no music,
everything becomes a form of music. I bet
somewhere in Mississippi there is a skull
that only a sharecropper’s daughter can make sing.
I’ll steal that sound. More than anything,
I want to work at the African-American
Acoustic and Audiological Accident Insurance Institute
so that I can record the rumors and raucous rhythms
of my people, our jangled history, the slander
in our sugar, the ardor in our anger, a subcategory
of which probably includes the sound particular to one
returning to his feet after a friend has knocked him down.
IV. Ecstasy | Inadequacy
Frank O’Hara | Stephin Merritt
I had phases in college when I watched this video of Frank O’Hara reading “Having a Coke With You” every day. I was in love; that, or I just wanted desperately to know someone so intimately, who could prove to me all of Frank’s grand gestures are genuine. That life trumps art.
No such person exists, I’m convinced.
The Magnetic Fields pen a much more realistic tune. This is a Top 10 song for me: in one of my old notebooks, I wrote out the lyrics like a mantra…
If I was the Grand Canyon,
I’d echo everything you say;
But I’m just me, I’m only me,
And you used to love me that way.
So you know how to love me that way.
V. Longing | Obsession
Elizabeth Bishop | John Berryman
“Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances” – that’s from a poem by Robert Hass you’ll see reprinted further down. But man, what a killer line.
Bishop and Berryman are two poets who had difficult romantic lives: Bishop was a lesbian in the mid-20th century, and Berryman entertained an unhealthy relationship with his mother, Jane, who advised him to avoid partners for the sake of maintaining his persona as a tortured artist.
Hopefully, based on their verse alone, you’ll be able to parse out where an “endless distance” becomes, well, a good enough reason to throw yourself off a bridge.
“Insomnia” by Elizabeth Bishop
The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she’s a daytime sleeper.
By the Universe deserted,
she’d tell it to go to hell,
and she’d find a body of water,
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well
into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.
“Dream Song 4” by John Berryman
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her
or falling at her little feet and crying
‘You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry’s dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni. –Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.
–Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes
downcast … The slob beside her feasts … What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
–Mr. Bones: there is.
VI. Responsibility | Obligation
The Princess Bride | Louise Glück
The opening sequence from The Princess Bride spells out a romance in reverse: performing perfunctory tasks and being treated like a stooge pave the way for companionship filled with nothing but fun, fantasy, and adventure from then on.
In a non-fairytale world, Responsibility becomes Obligation the same way a plucky Boy Scout transitions to an Eagle: the cool knots, badges, leadership, and life skills are fun until you realize no one is paying you. For men, the tell-tale sign of an obligation-mindset is a fear that failing to give your girlfriend a ride from the library will lead to a night without sex. For women like Louise Glück, sex becomes an obligation when you hate the act, but do it anyways.
Real quick: some women feel shaving their legs is a “responsibility”; some feel “obliged”. I don’t care either way, as long as some regard for the issue is shown.
But if you feel “obliged” to stop checking your email as your significant other drags him or herself up your steps, having shlepped over after work just to see you, you don’t love them. You are wasting their time.
“Mock Orange” by Louise Glück
It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.
I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man’s mouth
sealing my mouth, the man’s
and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union–
In my mind tonight
I hear the question and pursuing answer
fused in one sound
that mounts and mounts and then
is split into the old selves,
the tired antagonisms. Do you see?
We were made fools of.
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.
How can I rest?
How can I ben content
when there is still
that odor in the world?
VII. Absence | Presence
Robert Hass & James Tate
No binary is more paradoxical: absence is the presence of absence, after all. The sting of something lost hurts more than the something lost.Is this nebulous distinction a convenient excuse for me to share a couple of my favorite poems? Absolutely. There is a little something more in these lines. Love becomes metaphysics, which is the only way metaphysics has ever made sense to me.
“Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
“Why I Will Not Get Out of Bed” by James Tate
My muscles unravel
like spools of ribbon:
there is not a shadowof pain. I will pose
like this for the rest
of the afternoon,for the remainder
of all noons. The rain
is making a valleyof my dim features.
I am in Albania,
I am on the Rhine.It is autumn,
I smell the rain,
I see children runningthrough columbine.
I am honey,
I am several winds.My nerves dissolve,
my limbs wither –
I don’t love you.I don’t love you.
Whew! If you made it this far, I am impressed.
Happy Valentine’s Day.