Like many people, I discovered love while young and then spent many years sucking at the thing I most wanted to honor and care for. What I mean to say is that at around the same time I discovered romantic love for another person, I also fell in love with poetry. Many of the poems I put in my journal as a young writer were love poems I would take pains to transcribe, wanting to honor each line break that signaled longing, each metaphor for what grew between two people. I did not, however, attempt to write a love poem because I was bad at them, embarrassingly so, writing lines full of exaggerated heartbreak, mopey clichés, and unrealistic desires. It hurt to be terrible at something that was dear to me. It was like serving boxed macaroni and cheese on a first date. So, I became comfortable with the elegy and could zipline sadness through poem after poem. I was shy about celebrating the complex, joyous, painful, difficult, essential emotion of love and was terrified poetry would swipe left on me if I attempted the love poem and failed. However, in workshops when asked to share a poem that was dear to me, I would often turn to this poem by Yehuda Amichai (trans. Chana Bloch):
Ballad on the Streets of Buenos Aires
And a man waits in the street and meets a woman
Precise and beautiful as the clock on the wall of her room
And sad and white as the wall that holds it
And she doesn’t show him her teeth
And she doesn’t show him her belly
But she shows him her time, precise and beautiful
And she lives on the ground floor next to the pipes
And the water that rises begins there in her wall
And he has decided on tenderness
And she knows the reasons for weeping
And she knows the reasons for holding back
And he begins to be like her, like her
And his hair will grow long and soft, like her hair
And the hard words of his language dissolve in her mouth
And his eyes will be filled with tears, like her eyes
And the traffic lights are reflected in her face
And she stands there amid the permitted and forbidden
And he has decided on tenderness
And they walk in the streets that will soon appear in his dreams
And the rain weeps into them silently, as into a pillow,
And impatient time has made them both into prophets
And he will lose her at the red light
And he will lose her at the green and the yellow
And the light is always there to serve every loss
And he won’t be there when soap and lotion run out
And he won’t be there when the clock is set again
And he won’t be there when her dress unravels to threads in the wind
And she will lock his wild letters away in a quiet drawer
And lie down to sleep beside the water in the wall
And she will know the reasons for weeping and for holding back
And he has decided on tenderness.
I loved this beginning in the middle of something, this conjunction, this suggestion that desire is cyclical and already begun. I love how that reinforces the lyric part of love, how there’s the underpinnings of the suggested narrative, but the conditional tense, the anaphora of “and” keeps love from becoming a rising action-climax-denouement situation and keeps it poised at the light, the moment’s capacity to be infinite. At that time in my life I wanted to live a love story. I always want my loves to last. Of course I do. When you know the details of someone’s face, mapped their body with your hands, found yourself so drugged by brain chemicals that you would laugh at jokes they’ve told before, you want to keep doing those things. More and. A love that is inclusive and tireless and and and. Hearts are greedy little shits.
And love is also such a great teacher of innovation and influence. Love is pedagogical. Partners teach us. We transform through this emotion. I also believe that this form of pedagogy should be promiscuous. Rather than mirroring a single person, influence should take in many loves. Alexandre Dumas said, “The chain of marriage is so heavy that it takes two to bear it. Sometimes three.” And my love for the love poem was also triangulated. Sometimes it is a new love that teaches you about an old love, but also sometimes the new love is just teaching you more about yourself. It’s not comparison or lack from the first love, but that emotional capaciousness, that love hunger with its whale shark appetite. What triangulated my love of Amichai was Mahmoud Darwish, and this poem (trans. Sinan Antoon):
Lessons from the Kama Sutra
Wait for her with an azure cup
Wait for her in the evening at the spring, among perfumed roses.
Wait for her with the patience of a horse trained for mountains.
Wait for her with the distinctive, aesthetic taste of a prince.
Wait for her with seven pillows of cloud.
Wait for her with strands of womanly incense wafting.
Wait for her with the manly scent of sandalwood on horseback.
Wait for her and do not rush.
If she arrives late, wait for her.
If she arrives early, wait for her.
Do not frighten the birds in her braided hair.
Wait for her to sit in a garden at the peak of its flowering.
Wait for her so that she may breathe this air, so strange to hear heart.
Wait for her to lift her garment from her leg, cloud by cloud.
And wait for her.
Take her to the balcony to watch the moon drowning in milk.
Wait and gently touch her hand as she sets a cup on marble.
As if you are carrying the dew for her, wait.
Speak to her as a flute would to a frightened violin string,
As if you knew what tomorrow would bring.
Wait, and polish the night for her ring by ring.
Wait for her until Night speaks to you thus:
There is no one alive but the two of you.
So take her gently to the death you so desire,
I adore that this is a poem about patience, about longing rather than fulfillment. I love that, like Amichai, anaphora compels the lyric, opening and closing on the same word and all that is contained within is the same restraint. It’s a love poem about good boundaries, or so I like to believe. It also resists something I see a lot in heterosexual love poems which is the beloved as object rather than subject. Here the beloved has agency and most of the strong verbs of the poem belong to her. She gets to show up with birds in her hair whenever she damn well pleases, and she gets to take the pleasures from the garden that she wants; she’s the one who flashes calf in the middle of the poem.
What I love about both of these poems is their repetitions because love is so much the habit of a person, the rituals built out of pleasure and dailiness, the phrases that become a shared language. When I teach these poems together, we talk about the tension of repetition and change, which is the practice of a love. What poetry taught me about love is that mastery is just the beginning of a long practice. “I’m practicing on you” is (understandably) not a metaphor people want for their love, but I hope to never believe I have mastered love. I no longer fear I am bad at it, but love is a humbling verb, one I keep returning to, hoping to improve.
I love the love poem because love is one of the most horrible and terrifying things we do with our lives. It’s an experience that demands so much honesty and vulnerability and hope…and inevitable disappointment and failure, and that teaches us so much about our own weaknesses. As I often tell students, love stories all end, and the “good” endings are the ones where you watch that other person suffer and die. Either you break up, or you have to watch the beloved’s body fail them and watch them leave you for whatever unknowable thing lies beyond our present.
I first loved and sucked at poetry during a time when cautions against sentimentality felt high. Oscar Wilde said sentimentality is wanting the luxury of emotion without paying the price. However, it is through another Oscar Wilde quote that I found my way to finally writing a love poem: Without exaggeration, there can be no love.”
When I finally wrote a love poem that did not embarrass me, it had Amichai and Darwish as its fathers. Although the poem does not (to me) sound like either Amichai or Darwish, it contains their lessons on love’s repetitions through anaphora. It contains Amichai’s hunger but, in the end, Darwish’s urge for boundaries. It contains Amichai’s details of the body, Darwish’s touches of death. It’s still what I’m most comfortable writing–an elegy–because it was written at the end of love, at that tipping point when the pain of suffering ends, and the pain of healing arrives. Then I could use my two most consistent influences to celebrate the beginning, its hyperbolic pleasures, its silly delights, its excruciating hopes.
Love Poem without a Drop of Hyperbole in It
I love you like ladybugs love windowsills, love you
like sperm whales love squid. There’s no depth
I wouldn’t follow you through. I love you like
the pawns in chess love aristocratic horses.
I’ll throw myself in front of a bishop or a queen
for you. Even a sentient castle. My love is crazy
like that. I like that sweet little hothouse mouth
you have. I like to kiss you with tongue, with gusto,
with socks still on. I love you like a vulture loves
the careless deer at the roadside. I want to get
all up in you. I love you like Isis loved Osiris,
but her devotion came up a few inches short.
I’d train my breath and learn to read sonar until
I retrieved every lost blood vessel of you. I swear
this love is ungodly, not an ounce of suffering in it.
Like salmon and its upstream itch, I’ll dodge grizzlies
for you. Like hawks and skyscraper rooftops,
I’ll keep coming back. Maddened. A little hopeless.
Embarrassingly in love. And that’s why I’m on
the couch kissing pictures on my phone instead of
calling you in from the kitchen where you are
undoubtedly making dinner too spicy, but when
you hold the spoon to my lips and ask if it’s ready
I’ll say it is, always, but never, there is never enough.
If love indeed lies in the repetition, then anaphora can be a great key to a love poem. Start with the title “Why I Will Never Kiss You Again” or “Why My Heart Has Renamed Itself __________”. Use because as your opening anaphora, though abandon it once your poem is underway. Use four words from a random source, two unlikely plants for a love poem, and two unlikely body parts for a love poem.
“Ballad on the Streets of Buenos Aires” by Yehuda Amichai (translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch) is from The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (University of California Press, 2013).
“Lesson from the Kuma Sutra,” by Mahmoud Darwish (translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon) is from Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems (University of California Press, 2006).
“Love Poem without a Drop of Hyperbole” by Traci Brimhall originally appeared in The New Yorker. Reprinted with permission from the author.
Traci Brimhall is the author of three collections of poetry: Saudade (Copper Canyon Press), Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press). Her next collection, a hybrid of essays and poems, Come the Slumberless from the Land of Nod is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in 2020. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, The Believer, The New Republic, Orion, and Best American Poetry 2013 & 2014. She’s received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Kansas State University.