Speaking of Love, from Greece to Lotusland
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
La mort, c'est la mort
mais l'amour, c'est l'amour
La mort, c'est seulement la mort
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-
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."
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
you anoint yourself
and on a soft bed
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
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…
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.
Sina Queyras grew up on the road in western Canada and she has since lived in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, and Calgary where she was Markin Flanagan Writer in Residence. She is the author most recently of the poetry collection MxT (2014) and Unleashed (2010), a selection of posts from...