this modern love

There’s a rather disturbing rumor floating around the Interwebs; perhaps you have heard it. People are saying that Poetry is dead; long live Twitter.

This was alarming.  I adore poetry; I always have.  Some credit for this can go to my mother, who would read to me from a beautifully illustrated book (which, alas, was thrown away, or lost somehow while moving) poems like “The Tiger” by William Blake, “Spanish Johnny” by Willa Cather and “When You are Old” by W.B. Yeats.

Today, I have anthologies of poetry, as well as the collected works of most of my favorite poets: Sidney Keyes, Anne Sexton, Анна Ахматовa, ee cummings, Pablo Neruda, &c.  Lately though, I’ve realized that I know practically nothing about contemporary poets.  Last I checked, Carl Sandburg was the hottest young thing on the scene…and he died in 1967.  It was time to investigate further.

What I have found, Gentlefriends, is that poetry is not dead.

It just wishes it were.

Poets have always had a reputation for being moody and glum, but these guys are adamantly hopeless.  The despair, there is so much of it!  Even Poe’s verses seem downright cheerful compared to these dirges.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

This poem, by Libyan-born Khaled Mattawa, really captures the essence of our globalized present, where everyone is plugged in, but no one is really connected.  Which, you might have guessed, really bums everyone out.

Samovar Love Compendium
I love the word samovar, and I love
to break it into syllables, “samo”
meaning self, “vari” burn. Quickly
I return to Buddhist monks, saffron
fire lapping their saffron robes,
as though it was all for art.  A sweeper
arrives later, handpicks the last grains,
and a procession follows, white roses
and flutes, leading to a cold room–
ashes stored in clear crystal jars.

I love the word samovar, and I love
how it rhymes with czar, conjuring Nicholas
in captivity, hours before his death,
stupid and taciturn, clutching the arm
of a chair, chewing the end of a cigar.
And his son, the hemophiliac, who
one morning, pretending to be
of peasant stock, placed a rock of sugar
between his jaws and waited hours
for his young nurse and her poisoned cup.

I love the word samovar, and I love
the diplomat, my uncle, who brought us one
from Moscow–“The best thing the Russians
make. This, and nuclear bombs!” From
his balcony in Alexandria, his hands clasping
a warm mug, he watches the street, thinks of
a wife, ashes scattered in Sinai, another
in Jakarta, sons in Denmark, daughter
in Madras. Then he sighs–too proud
to call them home, to tired to depart.

I love the word samovar and I love
hats, skull caps my mother brought
from Mecca, one I wore rising at dawn
to pray, a fedora a lover bought me
because my face matched the dreary green,
and the one you hid under all summer,
the times I needed to touch your hair
but tucked my hand in my pocket instead.
It’s hard to love your hiding, my hesitancy,
and the words that die unsaid.

I love the word samovar, and I love
fajitas, the way they’re served, the meat
crackling, the hot plate’s snake-like hiss.
And I love reading Qais, Laila’s Fool,
who wrote line after soppy line knowing
she’ll never be his. And I love the times,
my bones giddy, my feet a crooked dance,
I turn to you and recite his lines
“Come close, dear love,
eat from my sizzling heart!”

At least Mattewa can take a longer perspective, and is not above a little self-mockery.  Jennifer Moxley on t’other hand compares love to an unwarranted execution in a rather deadpan way; here romantic happiness is as fleeting as the heady sensation of flying the condemned feels before the rope snaps his/her neck.  Of course, you’ve got to feel sorry for the girl…her boyfriend does sound like an ass.

Love’s Sentence
A scaffold is a sturdy place to stand
for those who wish to skirt the law of love
and keep their independent hand
in play, choosing alone the way to move
through life’s illegible trajectory.
There one is free from the heart’s doubt-pendulum
and the guilt that stems from worry,
there no one’s fated to become
far less dependent on the ill-kept State
than on the transient soul & flesh-built verdict
of a willingly chosen mate
whose storm-cast eyes all futures will restrict.

I close my eyes and in one senseless jump
embrace my new found love, the zero ground
of unprotected feet, sumptuous
singular, lonely, flight. The very last sound
I hear is a hum, or ringing, calling me back
from this strange pre-conscious state, I awake
to be gripped by a cardiac
terror, breathless and sweating I try to wake
you, you heavy with your own dark trouble
and regardless, yet not uncaring, of me
here beside you, the cunning double
of a lover who wishes to be free.

But as the trap-door in the scaffold floor
needs the feet of the condemned to swindle
so too do you need me, before
argument and after excess, all unhinged
at the threat that you might withdraw
and leave me, who forsook my liberty
that I might smell your hair, hanging withal.
Answered by silence I refused to be,
though I’m the condemned you’ll answer me—
in verse at least, as my pen, if not my heart,
knows you, and knows that you will say to me:
you’re the door, dear, the condemned is my part.

By far one of the bitterest scraps of vitriol I’ve ever read is this poem by Jeffrey McDaniel.  It certainly feels real though; in fact, it stings…it’s close enough to my reality that perhaps I take it a little too personally.  Still, what kind of jerk writes to woman who has decided to shun him just to tell her how GREAT he’s doing, and that he’s using her (his?  their) pain as fodder for a book deal, meanwhile evidently unable to resist throwing in a few more insults and indictments while he has the chance?  Wait.  Do you think that maybe he and Moxley were dating?  Perhaps I’m allowing my objectivity to be compromised by past experience, but it seems to me that there is a possibility that McDaniel might have deserved w/e heartache he got.

Letter to the Woman Who Stopped Writing Me Back

I wanted you to be the first to know – Harper & Row
has agreed to publish my collected letters to you.

The tentative title is Exorcist in the Gym of Futility.

Unfortunately I never mailed the best one,
which certainly was one of a kind.

A mutual friend told me that when I quit drinking,

I surrendered my identity in your eyes.

Now I’m just like everybody else, and it’s so funny,

the way monogamy is funny, the way
someone falling down in the street is funny.

I entered a revolving door and emerged
as a human being. When you think of me
is my face electronically blurred?

I remember your collarbone, forming the tiniest
satellite dish in the universe, your smile
as the place where parallel lines inevitably crossed.

Now dinosaurs freeze to death on your shoulder.

I remember your eyes: fifty attack dogs on a single leash,
how I once held the soft audience of your hand.

I’ve been ignored by prettier women than you,
but none who carried the heavy pitchers of silence
so far, without spilling a drop.

You know, Jeffrey, monogamy and someone falling on the street ≠ the same thing!  Idiot.  Oh, and sure, go ahead, blame OTHER PEOPLE for your drinking problem.  B/c you have no control over yourself, right?  You’re just the victim here.  I get it, you think I have a chip on my shoulder, a heart of ice (btw–cliche MUCH?) so frozen that even cold-blooded creatures that are now extinct can’t survive there…just b/c I wouldn’t forgive you…And EXCUSE ME, but prettier than me?  That is…wait, what?  YES, I mean HER.  She.  You know, the characters.  Who are fictional.  And bear no resemblance to anyone living or dead.  Are you trying to imply something?  B/c I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Moving on…

This last poem by Meghan O’Rourke was published in the September 20, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.  It takes a broader view, focusing not just on one execrable relationship, but on the futility and emptiness of all human interaction.  O’Rourke also seems to mourn the voluptuous love of life that disappears w/ age as we become jaded by the brutal indifference of the impersonal universe, as we begin to realize that what we mistook for desire was merely foolishness.

Apartment Living
So those despotic loves have become known to you,
rubbing cold hands up your thighs, leaving oily trails,
whispering, Just how you like it, right?
Upstairs the sorority girls are playing charades
again, smoking cigarettes, wearing shifts, burning
pain into their synapses.
Life is a needle. And now it pricks you:
the silver light in which you realize
your attempts at decadence
tire the earth and tire you. The etymology
of “flag” as in “to signal to stop”
is unknown. It is time to sit and watch. Don’t
call that one again, he’s pitiless in his self-certainty.
You used to be so.
You laid your black dress on the bed.
You stepped in your heels over sidewalk cracks.
You licked mint and sugar from the cocktail mixer,
singing nonsense songs,
and the strangers, they sang along.

And there’s more where these came from, Gentlefriends.

I feel depressed enough au quotidien w/o adding to my pain w/ poems like these.  So in order to make myself (and you) feel better, I’d like to end this w/ a throwback to happier times, where love affirmed life instead of annihilating it.

If your eyes were not the color of the moon,
of a day full of clay, and work, and fire,
if even held-in you did not move in agile grace like the air,
if you were not an amber week,

not the yellow moment
when autumn climbs up through the vines;
if you were not that bread the fragrant moon
kneads, sprinkling its flour across the sky,

oh, my dearest, I could not love you so!
But when I old you I hold everything that is–
sand, time, the tree of the rain,

everything is alive so that I can be alive:
without moving I can see it all:
in your life I see everything that lives.

-Pablo Neruda (and mind you, that guy had PLENTY to be upset about!)


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