The poem I’m presenting today is by Denise Duhamel, one of America’s most distinctive voices in contemporary poetry. I love the way she’ll grab hold of a thought that looks straightforward, then turns into an ornery comet – the way she’ll hang on while it whips her all over the place, into Barbie-littered playrooms, thumping down escalators, into classrooms, through ditches, careening along the waxed floors of hospitals, whizzing past billboards, and swooping back into the bathroom where she’s quietly washing her father’s hair. These veerings appear at first digressive, but Duhamel always finds, and finely renders, their harmony. She hands over the uncensored workings of her mind with a fidelity to truth that is every bit as hard on her as it is, finally, redemptive. Here she contemplates the transcendence of love over its invariable – well, in some cases – most cases – surely not mine – ephemerality.
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OLD LOVE POEMS
I can burn the pictures, but not the poems
since I published them in books, which are on shelves
in libraries and in people’s homes. Once my cousin told me
not to write anything down because the words would be there forever
to remind me of the fool I once was. My cousin
was the little dog on the Tarot card, barking at the Fool’s heels
as I headed right towards the cliff.
When James Taylor and Carly Simon
broke up, I was shocked. Taylor’s drug use or not,
couldn’t they work it out? I was in college
and, though I didn’t really believe in marriage,
I believed in them. How could they part
having written those love songs? And how could they go on
singing those love songs after the divorce?
But now, I know.
After time, when they reached for those notes,
there wasn’t really a beloved there anymore,
just a strand of hair each left behind
on the other’s scarf or pillow, a cologne trigger that transcended
into something more real than they were,
the lovers themselves ephemeral muses.
It’s still hard
for me to accept the notion of love outliving the lovers—
a notion so romantic, it’s unromantic. Hard to accept
that those big lumps of affection
would find alternate places to stick,
that Simon and Taylor would be swept away and marry
others. That need is not so much a deficit
as an asset,
like a wallet that keeps manufacturing its own dollar bills
even after it’s been robbed of everything.
Or to say it another way: the plant that will bloom
despite being uprooted. The new seedling that will pop up.
It’s hard to believe when you are down to your last penny,
when the soil is dry and rocky and full of weeds,
when your love
is freeze-dried into a metallic pouch and you are full of snarky rage.
You look back at a love poem you wrote and ask:
did I really feel this way? Even if you no longer remember tenderness,
even if the verse was simply artifice, your idea of love, a subspecies
you made up to tag and define that one poor sap, you read the poem
again, grateful, holding the words in your hands like a bunch of flowers.
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Two moves in this poem I could not have predicted: instead of grumbling about what went wrong with the love she began by mentioning, she turns to marvel that love can be so portable – that it is the desire for attachment that compels us, not the love object, and that this desire is what ultimately survives, making the love in effect still true – “so romantic that it’s unromantic.” We have to agree, it’s disappointing, until the comet yanks her a bit farther so she lands on the inexhaustible aspect of that compulsion to love, a compulsion so thrillingly fertile and pleasurable, she gives us two or three metaphors for it. This need is so deep and powerful that it multiplies itself even as we describe it.
This poem appeared in New Ohio Review 11, our most recent issue (Spring 2012), but until today I hadn’t recognized the allusion in its last line, which adds to its poignancy. Certainly Carly Simon wrote many songs addressed to her husband, James Taylor, but the song alluded to, “Loving You’s the Right Thing to Do,” is unabashedly autobiographical. The song acknowledges that the woman’s beloved is a songwriter who has had trouble with women before – they drove you or you drove them crazy – so it’s clear she is perfectly aware of his faults and the likelihood of problems ahead. But Simon’s rich, yearning-drenched alto is so insistent that he’s “the one,” she seems to be successfully convincing herself.
Hold me in your hands like a bunch of flowers.
Set me moving to your sweetest song.
And I know what I think I’ve known all along:
Loving you’s the right thing to do.
So, tell me again, why do fools fall in love? There ought to be a book that would explain it: Being a Fool for Dummies. I don’t mean you, of course. Everyone falls in love. The fools are just the ones that write it down.
Denise Duhamel is the author of numerous collections of poetry; among the most recent are Kaching! (2009) and Queen for a Day: New and Selected Poems (2001). Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry volumes several times.
See you next Sunday. (JAR)
P.S. My efforts to lineate this poem correctly were defeated by the blog’s narrow format. If you want to see Duhamel's "Old Love Songs" proper-like, you can always order the issue or view it on the website of New Ohio Review: http://www.ohio.edu/nor