"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Love Is Not All


The Enchanted Garden *". . . a rose can only smell so achingly sweet
to those who know that someday they will die to that smell,
to it and to every other joy and sorrow." ~ Kathryn Harrison

My last post, "Love You Can't Imagine" ~ in celebration of Valentine's Day (click or scroll down) ~ drew to a close before I was able to incorporate all of the great selections that I was hoping to connect. So I have assembled today's post out of that remaindered material, including a couple of somber sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and a few sobering thoughts from Anne Lamott. As my father used to say when we had inadvertently left something behind -- a garment for dry cleaning, an overdue library book, a stack of newspapers on trash day -- "Well it's alright to save some over for seed." Over for seed. We weren't even farmers, but how I grew to love my dad's rustic way of saying, "I meant to do that!"

Another little intentional error ~ as in, "I meant to do that" ~ was saving this post, scheduled for the 28th, until today, Wednesday, February 29th! Since the opportunities for celebrating Leap Day are relatively rare and complicated, it would be a shame to let the chance pass by unobserved. Many of the customs and traditions of this every - four - yearly occasion are romantic in nature, providing a most fitting coda to Valentine's Day.

You might recall that, previously, I included Kathryn Harrison's observation, from her article "Connubial Abyss", that love must necessarily acknowledge the reality of death and loss: "Marriage is made, from the start, between two people who are willing to contemplate death together -- to have and to hold, until death do them part. Such contemplation is possible only for those who understand and embrace the boundaries of a life, both temporal and existential."

In her book Grace Eventually, Anne Lamott writes of her struggle to embrace these same boundaries, to come to grips with the sad inevitability "that every person you've loved will die -- many badly, and too young . . . the unbearable truth that all the people you love most will die, maybe in painful circumstances." Thinking of her son, she is filled with anguish but also acceptance: "I knew deep down that life can be a wretched business, and no one, not even Sam, gets out alive" (59, 162, 193).

A Tale from the Decameron ** painting here & above by English Pre-Raphaelite,
John William Waterhouse (1849 - 1917)

Like Harrison and Lamott, Edna St. Vincent Millay blends romance and cynicism. She knows what love is and what it isn't. "It is not meat nor drink," but it is enough to hold death at arm's length. It is the memory of sharing with another, a memory worth more to the poet than food or peace:

Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
and rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,
pinned down by need and moaning for release
or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

~ from Fatal Interview

Detail from Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, 1445 - 1510

As in Botticelli's allegory of spring, Love is often painted blind. In the following sonnet, however, it is the lover deprived of love who travels blindly. Rather than a plump little blind - folded cupid, Love is described by Millay as "the eyes of day," "charity," "a lamp," a candle with a wick. The narrator testifies that she would never be the one to put out the eyes of Love or abandon him along the roadside. She is too well aware that human endeavor is dependent upon the light of love, that even "the torn ray / Of the least kind" is better than no love at all.

The poet is the champion of love, "however brief," however distressed, ill - timed, or "ill - trimmed." Without the light of love, it is the Poet, not Love, who is rendered blind, scuffling "in utter dark" tapping the way before her . . .

When did I ever deny, though this was fleeting,
That this was love? When did I ever, I say,
With iron thumb put out the eyes of day
In this cold world where charity lies bleating
Under a thorn, and none to give him greeting,
And all that lights endeavor on its way
Is the teased lamp of loving, the torn ray
Of the least kind, the most clandestine meeting?

As God's my judge, I do cry holy, holy,
Upon the name of love however brief,
For want of whose ill-trimmed, aspiring wick
More days than one I have gone forward slowly
In utter dark, scuffling the drifted leaf,
Tapping the road before me with a stick.

~ from Huntsman, What Quarry?

Cupid & Psycheby Antonio Canova, 1757 - 1822

"Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind."

~A Midsummer Night's Dream~
Act I, scene i

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, March 14th {or thereabouts]

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Love You Can't Imagine"

Surreal Valentine by William Rowe

“To love is so startling it leaves little time for anything else."
~ Emily Dickinson ~


The following long beautiful passage has already appeared on both my book blog and my daily blog, yet it's only right that I include it again, here and now ~ on Valentine's Day! ~ since the title of this post is borrowed from Henley's short story: "Love You Can't Imagine." Even if you have read it before, it is well worth reading one more time:

"Sandra's love for Kelly is not the sort you hear about in songs on the jukebox. It's not desperate or crazy. They met three years ago and it was one year before they made love. Kelly said he wanted to get to know her first and Sandra thought that was a novel idea. When she remembers that year going by, she imagines ranging in the high country on a long hike, when it's tough-going at first and you don't know what to expect. Maybe you slip and fall when the trail crosses a creek bed, maybe the first lake is small, disappointing, but you push yourself, you glory in the little things along the way, the shooting stars and glacier lilies, the marmot whistling, and before long, just as you are simply traveling, putting one boot in front of the other, for the bliss of it, you come upon grand peaks and a string of alpine lakes so rare and peaceful that you imagine no one else has ever been there before you. It's where you belong. That's what being with Kelly is like. Easy, once you reach cruising altitude. Paradise, kind of. And ordinary. Common pleasures renew them. Razzing one another; watching a video in their bathrobes; dividing a foxglove in the fall; lying awake in one another's arms at midnight, waiting for Desiree [Sandra's teenage daughter] to come in from some breakneck double date. Love you can't imagine when you're young, when you think that love is you winning him over, a treadmill of pursuit and chicanery."

from the story "Love You Can't Imagine"
in Worship of the Common Heart: New and Selected Stories
by Patricia Henley

Twenty years have passed since my first reading of "Love You Can't Imagine," and in that time I have collected a number of poems and passages that capture for me the concept of a "love you can't imagine."

First of all, these quaint lines from Doctor Zhivago describe a simple quest for companionship and sustenance, no frills, no chicanery:

Now my ideal is the housewife
My greatest wish, a quiet life
And a big bowl of cabbage soup

by Boris Pasternak

Incredibly straightforward, yet undeniably romantic, that "big bowl of cabbage soup," no matter how homely, is the perfect metaphor for "love you can't imagine." The same metaphor appears in this next tenderly crafted poem about making soup as an act of love. Like Sandra and Kelly, this couple is renewed by the ordinary, common pleasures -- "day after day." Their love is deep, soft, and wise, despite the somewhat incongruous reference to "decay." Like William Blake's contraries of Innocence and Experience or Heaven and Hell, Baker gives us decay and wisdom; weeping and song:

The Couple
Day after day their deep love softly decays.
This makes them wise. It makes them want to sing.
Sometimes, over cups in the kitchen or stirring
a warm soup in the dark, they feel such tenderness
as to turn quietly weeping for each other's arms.
Weeping. Song. They are so much alike after all.

in After the Reunion: Poems
by David Baker

Reading Couple by Renoir

Novelist Kathryn Harrison explores in more detail the sacred connection between decay and a love that is strong enough to "contemplate death":

" . . . the point Shakespeare makes in one after another love sonnet is that a rose can only smell so achingly sweet to those who know that someday they will die to that smell, to it and to every other joy and sorrow. . . . Marriage is made, from the start, between two people who are willing to contemplate death together--to have and to hold, until death do them part. Such contemplation is possible only for those who understand and embrace the boundaries of a life, both temporal and existential."
from the article "Connubial Abyss"
by Kathryn Harrrison

Andre Dubus explores the idea of this connection even further in this long and sadly tender passage about sacraments and sustenance:

" . . . one of my favorite scenes in the movie [Bergman's The Seventh Seal] is the knight sitting on the earth with the young couple and their child, and the woman offers him a bowl of berries; he reaches out with both hands and receives the bowl from her, and eats; and the scene is invested with his awareness that his time is confused and lonely and fearful and short, but for these moments, with these people, with this gift of food, he has been given an eternal touch: eternal because, although death will destroy him, it cannot obliterate the act between him and the woman. She has given him the food. He has taken it. In the face of time, the act is completed. Death cannot touch it now, can only finally stop the hearts that were united in it.

Apple Blossoms by John Everett Millais

"Yet still I believe in love's possibility, in its presence on the earth; as I believe I can approach the altar on any morning of any day which may be the last and receive the touch that does not, for me, say: There is no death; but does say: In this instant I recognize, with you, that you must die. And I believe I can do this in an ordinary kitchen with an ordinary woman and five eggs. The woman sets the table. She watches me beat the eggs. . . . I take our plates; spoon eggs on them, we sit and eat. She and I and the kitchen have become extraordinary: we are not simply eating; we are pausing in the march to perform an act together; we are in love and the meal offered and received is a sacrament which says: I know you will die; I am sharing food with you; it is all I can do, and it is everything.

"As lovers we must have these sacraments, these actions which restore our focus, and therefore ourselves. For our lives are hurried and much too distracted . . . We can bring our human, distracted love into focus with an act that doesn't need words, and act which dramatizes for us what we are together. The act itself can be anything: five beaten and scrambled eggs, two glasses of wine, running beside each other in rhythm with the pace and breath of the beloved. They are all parts of that loveliest of all sacraments between man and woman, that passionate harmony of flesh whose breath and dance and murmur says: we are, we are, we are . . . "

from the essay "On Charon's Wharf," in Broken Vessels
by Andre Dubus

Girl Reading by Picasso

And finally, from Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, the endearing image of reading in bed. What better way to end the day, after preparing and sharing a big bowl of cabbage soup:

"Tomorrow, Reader and Other Reader, if you are together, if you lie down in the same bed like a settled couple, each will turn on the lamp at the side of the bed and sink into his or her book; two parallel readings will accompany the approach of sleep; first you, then you will turn out the light; returning from separated universes, you will find each other fleetingly in the darkness, where all separations are erased, before divergent dreams draw you again, one to one side, and one to the other. But do not wax ironic on this prospect of conjugal harmony: what happier image of a couple could you set against it?"
[See my book blog for more Calvino]


Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading