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Speaking of Love, from Greece to Lotusland

By Sina Queyras

I simply want to be dead.

Weeping she left me

with many tears and said this:

Oh how badly things have turned out for us.

Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you. (frag 94)

Love poetry speaks from a place of quivering. There is an intimacy, an urgency that makes each hair on the back of my neck seem a bristle. And no one seems to do this more than Sappho, or particular translations, such as the one above by Anne Carson.

*

Dear reader, when we speak of love, when we speak of our country, when we put poetry in the spotlight we had best have on our best bloomers because everything is examined.

A pretty girl in her underwear
A pretty girl in her underwear
If there’s anything better in this world
who cares
La mort, c’est la mort
mais l’amour, c’est l’amour
La mort, c’est seulement la mort

The Magnetic Fields

*

The effect and affect of words. Poets count on the impact each word has, no? Poets choose well, load their poems and lines with image, metaphor, condensing sentiment, constructing poems like little machined hearts ready to unwind, implode, clatter across the void. The point is surely to disturb, to move, or sooth, to evoke response. But what kind of response? What does it look like? How does it feel?

And, jumpy like a fish,

he saw his isolation

in the shape of a rowboat

and a dead-

still sea.

And suddenly

he felt so crushed by loneliness

that his hands lost their touch…

Nazim Hikmet Human Landscapes From My Country

Loss. Of course there is no love without loss is there? The lyrics of The Magnet Fields are almost entirely about loss. Hikmet is loss from which springs hope.  Love is loneliness from which springs…

*

And heart break. From Lynn Crosbie’s long poem Liar, concerning the end of a long relationship:

You loved poetry, which is why you came—you decorated your body with
words and images, wrested from the untimely dead.

I see myself talking to the daughter I never had: Do not fall in love with
poets.
 They are always in love, Robert Lowell said.

*

It’s hard to speak of love. Particularly to use the actual word love. One poet who uses it in multiple ways is Sharon Harris. Her book Avatar is a pataphysical exploration of I Love You, springing from bp Nichol’s concrete I Love You poems and blending her visual and poetic arts. I recently spoke to Harris:

SQ:  Sharon you curate a space for love on the web, you collect images of love, you have written a conceptual book of poetry about love. How do you keep the faith?

SH:  Love is a powerful catalyst for social change. It’s political. My understanding of truth and freedom expands exponentially the more I explore and open to it. I can’t imagine running out of material. It’s infinite.

SQ: What is your fave love poem?

SH: I always go back to bpNichol’s “Blues.”

SQ:  Is there a bad love poem?

SH: Some say every poem is a love poem; others say poems about love are the most difficult poems to write. I agree with pop singer Esser: “Love is no excuse for bad art.”

Thank you.

Sharon

*

Is there a bad love poem? Probably, I don’t know, but I do know what kind of love poem knocks my socks off. Back to Sappho, the end of fragment 94:

And with sweet oil

costly

you anoint yourself

and on a soft bed

delicate

you would let loose your longing

and neither any[     ]nor any

holy place nor

was there from which we were absent

no grovel[    ]no dance

]no sound

[

The space around the words is so charged for this reader. Desire can seem so unutterable, can be a lump in the throat, a pain, literal, in the heart, stop one’s breath. It is complicated, filled with fear and best, for this reader in any case, when delivered with one’s toes on the edge of a precipice.

*

Greece, the country where the games were born, was the first country to enter BC Place Stadium in Vancouver last night for the opening of the Winter Olympics. The ceremonies included Canada’s first people, and while it was a Disneyfied version of their rich cultures, and far from the Ancient Games, I was happy for this inclusion, which seems to be more than a surface gesture. It was great to see artist and designer Corrine Hunt tapped to co-design the medals. This not only felt local to me, it was: I’ve watched Hunt develop her art over several decades, being part of a formidable community of artists and friends in Vancouver, and deeply, deeply rooted to people and place.

But how do we express this connection to place? The arts community in Vancouver has been a little divided on this issue. Particularly given the fact the opulent Olympic display comes on the heels of unprecedented slashing of arts programs in the province where the games are being held. Worse there is an excess of security and silencing of public opinion. So, while on the one hand it’s great to see who is included, on the other the city’s young poet laureate refused to take part in the Olympic festivities in reaction to the oppressive “muzzle clause” that has tainted the relationship between artists and the Olympics.  It was a bold move.  Perhaps as bold a move as it is to write a love poem and to try and feel hopeful. Particularly these days when—skepticism and irony is the dominant strand. When there is so much that is unsettling.

Despite Cran’s decision to decline his invitation to perform there was poetry at the opening ceremony. Shane Koyczan, a spoken word poet and apparently once the darling of Vancouver’s politically charged Commercial Drive scene, delivered—and very well delivered I might add—a poem about Canada. You can see the full text here though I heard it, along with millions of others, and I don’t believe that he gave the entire poem…

You can see him do a version of the poem here, and here’s the actual Olympic event version: Shane Koyczan (or as one commenter said, the poetry as spectacle version…)

I think both poets did a good job of representing their beliefs: it’s tough to take a stand one way or another.

*

The poems included in the ancient Olympics were meant to praise the athletes from what I know. Praise isn’t perhaps the same as love, though surely there can be nuances there as well? One feels a definite shiver when only praise is allowed.

For me, I would love to have heard what Sappho might have written.

Comments (19)

  • On February 13, 2010 at 6:06 pm George Murray wrote:

    Sweet, honest entry, Sina. “Lovely”. I particularly liked seeing bp’s Blues in there, which was an early favourite of mine. And I agree that love and taking-a-stand are twins, if separated at birth—or at least close cousins—and they are each both essential and futile.

  • On February 13, 2010 at 9:02 pm Tameri T. wrote:

    I really enjoyed this post and hope you don’t mind that I am sharing it on my blog, at http://www.aintiawriter.blogspot.com.

  • On February 13, 2010 at 11:34 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    My mind is full of the jumping of the bulls at Crete; i can think of no better image for the flowering of the thorny rose that grows from us all, unto our graves.

    Happy Valentine’s, lovers and others.

    P

  • On February 14, 2010 at 9:00 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    A few offcuts:

    “I have an empty head on love in general,” Jacques Derrida says, trying to grapple with the explosion of clichés that come to mind with the word love. Then, “that is how philosophy started,” he tries, and then, “no, no, I can’t talk of love…” and finally “is it love the love of someone or the love of some thing?” A way of framing the question that can allow him to give it the Jacques Derrida treatment.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dj1BuNmhjAY

  • On February 14, 2010 at 9:01 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    More to come on Susan Holbrook, but here’s a snippet:

    from Joy is So Exhausting (Coach House Press, 2009)
    Crocuses glistened. Sparrows throbbed.
    ………..Would he approve
    ………..Of her nipples of mauve?
    And that was what had first attracted him, her canvas flaps.
    A father of four, he is nevertheless kittenish.
    Her skirt had a stuffed look, which could only mean she was wearing ruffled panties.
    Oh nutritious mound of sprouts.

  • On February 14, 2010 at 9:05 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Thanks George, Peter, Amita, admittedly t’is a strange post with many loose strings…but such is love, and apparently I am a shameful romantic…here’s another offcut, a poet I’ll try to talk more about. George Elliott Clarke from Whylah Falls:

    The Wisdom of Shelley

    You bust in our door,
    talkin’ April and snow and rain,
    litterin’ the table
    with poems—
    as if we could trust them!

    I can’t.
    I heard pa tell ma
    how much and much he
    loved loved loved her
    and i saw his fist
    fall so gracefully
    against her cheek,
    she swooned.

    roses
    got thorns.
    and words
    do lie.

    I’ve seen love
    die.

  • On February 14, 2010 at 1:55 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Sina: Maenads. Shelley was the perfect image to send me out the door to go and do laundry at me ex’s empty, dusty house (once ours, now on the block and on its own, and barely even owned at that). The wind here is golden, strange aircraft throb across the incredibly light hard blue sky (all aircraft are strange), and the railings and chain link fences and grass and mud and the growing rotting young forest behind my trailer all shout! love out as the spring comes and I trail up a slow dirt road, limping, to go and clean myself and my raiment in the empty house of love.

    PG (from the Diogenes Box)

  • On February 14, 2010 at 8:31 pm Chloe wrote:

    The only poetry worthy of the games so far was the newspaper box thrown through the window at the Bay.

    Encore!

  • On February 15, 2010 at 3:08 am alexl wrote:

    Neat to see the Olympics art debate framed as part of something larger, the problem of responding to something infinitely larger than oneself; praise. Interesting. Thanks for this.

  • On February 15, 2010 at 7:35 am Nada Gordon wrote:

    another offcut here, Zizek on love, rather different from Sharon Harris’ take on love as a “powerful catalyst for social change”:

    If you look at the universe, it’s just one big void. But then how do things emerge? Here I feel a kind of spontaneous affinity with quantum physics where, you know, the idea … is that the universe is a void, but a kind of a positively charged void. And then, particular things appear when the balance of the void is disturbed. And I like this idea spontaneously very much: the fact that it’s not just nothing—things are out there. It means that something went terribly wrong, that what we call creation is a kind of a cosmic imbalance, cosmic catastrophe, that things exist by mistake. And I am even ready to go to the end and to claim that the only way to counteract it is to assume the mistake and go to the end. And we have a name for this: it’s called love. Isn’t love precisely this kind of a cosmic imbalance? I was always disgusted with this notion of “I love the world,” “universal love.” I don’t like the world…. I am basically somewhere in-between “I hate the world” and “I am indifferent towards it”…. Love for me is an extremely violent act. Love is not “I love you all.” Love means: I pick out something; it’s again the structure of imbalance. Even if this something is just a small detail, a fragile individual person. I say, “I love you more than anything else”: In this quite formal sense, love is evil. (quoted here: http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/Ginsburg-taking-slavoj-zizek-seriously)

    well…love always begs parsing, it seems…

  • On February 15, 2010 at 8:25 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Ah Zizek, I love that part in Pervert’s Guide when he is in the boat talking about Hitchcock… And this idea of love being a disturb in the void is interesting as well. And that’s an aspect of what is rippling out of the Cultural Olympiad–the matter of what was chosen and not chosen to represent a city/an art form (poetry). Wanting to not disturb in fact disturbs more.

    I think the nuances of the cultural reaction to the Olympics are, in some ways, quite specific to Vancouver, a city Lisa Robertson discusses quite radically and slantly in Office for Soft Architecture as having become money.

    And now I hear it’s one of the most expensive city’s in the world. But throwing a newspaper box through a store window? Sorry, not so great. Not so much poetry.

  • On February 15, 2010 at 8:28 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    It does sound appropriate. Whylah Falls is a great book if you don’t know it. Shout back to the forest, and the empty house of love.

  • On February 15, 2010 at 10:05 am vince wrote:

    I feel you’re hitting your stride with this post, Sina. Thanks.

  • On February 15, 2010 at 10:05 am Peter Greene wrote:

    “Love for me is an extremely violent act. Love is not “I love you all.” Love means: I pick out something;…” – Zizek there.

    Boy, I’m glad that’s his cross to bear not mine. To me the burning focus point of the magnifier is not the sun.

    P

  • On February 15, 2010 at 4:20 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    I’m not sure what you mean by that, Peter, the burning focus of the magnifier? Do you mean you see love as emanating out rather then narrowing down/in? To love is to make something special, no? To select one thing over another? It’s a bit of a dilemma. But to speak of love seems a dilemma. I think of Derrida shaking his head, waiting for the conversation to shift into paradigm that he can actually discuss. It’s so large…it’s so watered down by the love industry. When I think of love poems the ones that come to mind are usually complex, filled with enormous pain. I think of John Thompson’s Stilt Jack, for example:

    Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats.

    Why wouldn’t the man shut up?

    John Thompson

    I guess love poems and erotic poetry are not the same for me…or it’s not only erotic.

  • On February 15, 2010 at 6:09 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Sina: What I mean is, I see us all as lenses. I don’t think we’re really anything like we think we’re like (woiuo – unsure of my grammar feet there for a second! (ah now, i’m fallen and swimming again)), but we are in a condition of love. Oh, I think Ozzy said it rather well: it’s the symptom of the universe/love that never dies. The bit about Mother Mooch and the silver crucible and the birth of the androgynous Prolific Devourer…weeeel, ask Jerry and Miss Brunner about the last reels, all i ask is to see the silver time dawn before the light burns out our eyes or the ice arrives

    there was a good line for the image of the post moment past in that link you sent me: “In a dark wood,
    and you in a strange bed.”

    I did like that George Eliot Clark bit. The whole Yeat Bleat thing strikes me as being analagous to wishing I was named Eliot.

    Happy post-Valentine’s, everyone! Back to your dysfunctions in an orderly fashion please!

    P

  • On February 15, 2010 at 9:29 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Yeat Bleat is pretty funny.

  • On February 16, 2010 at 3:15 am Jordan wrote:

    Great post Sina!

    I can’t help but want to comment on Mr. Koyczan so here it goes…

    I certainly realize that it’s ‘tough to take a stand’ but what exactly is Koyczan taking a stand for / with / against? He agreed to sign a VANOC contract that blatantly promotes censorship for the sake of corporations and multi-national organizations. His poem is little more than a complete erasure of Canadian history and reads more like a beer commercial than anything else. Its drunken nationalism of the worst kind as it reinforces many of the stereotypes that continually squash any attempts recognizing our troubled past, let alone attempting to remedy any of its consequences.

    I also agree that irony, pessimism and cynicism abound in our world, but for me, Koyczan’s poem and his now ‘celebrity’ status only reinforces why those emotions are thriving in the first place. So being a ‘political’ poet only lasts until the money comes knocking? Voice dilutes with the signing of a contract? This is the poets role?

    I’ll save my love for Mr. Cran who, while gaining many allies, will certainly lose a great deal for his decision. It seems that Cran went with his gut, his heart, and all we poets should take solace and pride in that.

    Oh, and this:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/british-columbia/2010-handbook-for-entering-canada/article1469122/

  • On February 16, 2010 at 10:39 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Drunken Nationalism indeed. And I agree that Cran went with his gut, and put his verse on the line (linked in my post above, by the way).

    But I think Shane did too. It’s a laurel, given the situation, that many wouldn’t want to wear. He did. That will send him off in a different direction. His choice. I don’t think it was an easy one either.

    I admire Cran, as I’ve said here and elsewhere, particularly because while it’s easy to protest, it’s a little more difficult to turn down such a platform, especially when he is also the city’s poet laureate.

    And I’m excited to hear about all the poetry that has been appearing in the city over the past few days, and on in protest. Stephen Collis’ Pirate Radio, the Canadhar project via Elizabeth Bachinsky and Alex Leslie…all very exciting, and invigorating.
    http://realvancouverwriters.com/

    http://elizabethbachinsky.blogspot.com/2010/01/blackout-at-candahar.html

    http://www.videoinstudios.com/radio.php

    http://shortrangepoeticdevice.blogspot.com/
    add to Sachi’s ongoing Olympic poem here:
    http://snugisland.blogspot.com/


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, February 13th, 2010 by Sina Queyras.