Valentines for the Romantically Challenged
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, February 11th, 2014. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, Calling All Love Poems. Here’s an idea for Valentines Day, or any other day in which you’re feeling romantically challenged: find a love poem you like on our website, record yourself reading it, and then upload it to The Poetry Foundation’s “Record-A-Poem” Project on SoundCloud. From there, you can share it with your sweetie and good things will come of it, guaranteed. We’ve already gotten some really great submissions. Tracy Paris gave a lovely reading of Margaret Atwood’s poem, “Variation of the Word Sleep”. She happens to live near me in Brooklyn, so I asked her to pop by. Tracy, I want to ask you to read the poem again for us, but first I want you to tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do?
Tracy Paris: I work for a design firm in Manhattan and I’m formerly a slam poet.
Curtis Fox: Wow, I didn't realize you were a slam poet, that’s amazing. I can’t imagine Margaret Atwood at a slam!
Tracy Paris: Nether can I.
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) When did you first come across this Margaret Atwood poem that you read for SoundCloud?
Tracy Paris: Well, I really fell in love with Margaret’s writing when I was a teenager. I got obsessed with her fiction.
Curtis Fox: She’s better known as a novelist.
Tracy Paris: She is. I tried to find everything I could that she had written, and I found that she was a poet also. As a teenager, I discovered this poem and it really became a favourite of mine.
Curtis Fox: So you’ve known this poem for many years.
Tracy Paris: Yes.
Curtis Fox: Tell me without giving away too much before we hear it, why do you like it so much?
Tracy Paris: I think that if you … especially the first couple of lines, it really reveals a bit of longing, and I think that that’s such a perfect teenage experience of love, that you really are perhaps still having a crush on someone. I think this poem really encapsulates that.
Curtis Fox: Before we go any further, why don’t you give it a read.
Tracy Paris: Okay.
Curtis Fox: Here’s Margaret Atwood’s “Variation on the Word Sleep”.
Tracy Paris: I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head
and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear
I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in
I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.
I love the way this poem begins, which you talked about. “I would like to watch you sleeping, which may not happen”.
Tracy Paris: “Which may not happen”.
Curtis Fox: In other words, this is not a done deal. The poet is expressing a desire not a reality. She’s explicit about it a couple lines later. Then she says, “I would like to sleep with you”, there’s no bones about it. The reason in the poem that she wants to sleep with her want to be beloved is to rescue him or her from some unidentified grief. It’s a fantasy of rescuing somebody.
Tracy Paris: And being very unnoticed and necessary.
Curtis Fox: So when you were a teenage reading this, did it apply to any situations in your life? Or was it just the language you liked.
Tracy Paris: I think perhaps there was a bit of that rescue fantasy. But I loved the idea of entering someone’s sleep, I think was a really interesting thing, the intimacy of it. It still was very fantastical.
Curtis Fox: So what do you make of it? “I would like to follow / you up the long stairway / again & become / the boat that would row you back / carefully.” That seems like taking somebody out of death almost from Hates.
Tracy Paris: Yeah, I think it was very Orphic myth kind of thing.
Curtis Fox: Oh, that’s exactly what she’s doing.
Tracy Paris: There were other poems in that collection that she came from the point of view of Eurydice or from the point of view of Orpheus.
Curtis Fox: So that imagery now makes sense. And then it ends absolutely magnificently: I would like to be the air / that inhabits you for a moment / only. I would like to be that unnoticed / & that necessary”. That’s pretty spectacular.
Tracy Paris: Isn’t it?
Curtis Fox: And that’s what makes it a totally great love poem. I don’t want to be too personal, and I don’t know your personal life at all, but have you ever deployed this poem?
Tracy Paris: I have not deployed this poem to a crush. I probably said it out loud to myself a lot, so I did deploy it to myself.
Curtis Fox: Good enough! Listeners, feel free to deploy that poem should they find it useful. Have you ever sent somebody a Valentines day poem?
Tracy Paris: Yes.
Curtis Fox: Can you tell us what you sent?
Tracy Paris: Actually, I think the one I’m going to read next I sent.
Curtis Fox: Oh, really? That’s perfect. Can you give us a biographical detail or is that probing too much?
Tracy Paris: Well, it was definitely a younger love. I don’t know how to describe it (LAUGHING).
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) When you’re younger.
Tracy Paris: When you’re younger, yeah.
Curtis Fox: So the poem is a Pablo Neruda poem. It’s one of his 100 Love Sonnets, and it’s Number 27 which is up on our website. Where did you come across this poem?
Tracy Paris: I discovered Pablo Neruda’s love poems when I was probably 19, which maybe many other people did at the time. I don’t know if everyone discovered them when they were 19, but I feel like, wow, they were so perfect.
Curtis Fox: Well they’re so perfect because they’re so un-ironic. They’re so purely about passion and feeling without sarcasm or irony or anything like that.
Tracy Paris: It’s true, they’re not at all ambivalent.
Curtis Fox: I think that can appeal, and it’s still appealing frankly, but I can see why it would appeal especially to a 19 year old. So the poem is written in the early 1950s when Neruda was middle age. Would you give it a read? It’s one of his 100 Love Sonnets, it’s Number 27, and this translation is by Steven Tapscott.
Tracy Paris: I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
One quick note, on our cite we have a slightly different translation by Mark Eisner. I may refer to that translation as we talk about it. It begins very much like Shakespeare’s famous sonnet, “My mistresses eyes are nothing like the sun”. Did that ring a bell with you when you read it?
Tracy Paris: It did. It’s like, “I don’t love you this way”.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, I don’t love you this way, here’s how I love you which is something quite different.
Tracy Paris: I love how what he says he doesn’t love about his lover is the surface of things. It’s not the fire, the sparks of the fire, it’s the surface, I don’t love that.
Curtis Fox: In the translation I have, it’s “I love you as one loves certain obscure things, / secretly, between the shadow and the soul.”
Tracy Paris: Yeah, the secret obscure … that’s interesting. My translation says “Dark things”.
Curtis Fox: Well, “oscuro” in Spanish would mean “dark”, so it’s probably more accurate. That’s odd, to love for the secret things, for the unknown things about somebody.
Tracy Paris: Yeah, I think though if you were saying to someone, “I love your depths, I don’t love the surface of it, I love something that’s deeper”.
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) I guess that’s a compliment!
Tracy Paris: I think so! Maybe you’re right, maybe not.
Curtis Fox: I guess it could work. Then, in my translation again, “I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries / the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself, / and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose / from the earth lives dimly in my body.” What do you make of that stanza? What’s going on there?
Tracy Paris: I love the image of the hidden flower. Again, I think it’s this thing that’s saying, it’s not on the surface, it’s potential.
Curtis Fox: It’s interesting how he brings it back to his body, because of this there’s an aroma in my body.
Tracy Paris: I know, that’s so strange. In my translation, it’s a fragrance. But still, how strange to know about a fragrance inside your body.
Curtis Fox: It’s like this has changed him chemically.
Tracy Paris: It’s a nesting doll again, no matter what there’s something one more deeper.
Curtis Fox: And then the poem continues in my translation, “I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where, / I love you directly without problems or pride”.
Tracy Paris: Problems, interesting.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, so in other words, I’m not conflicted, this is not a complicated love.
Tracy Paris: This is not ambivalent, this is straightforward.
Curtis Fox: And that’s what you want to hear if you’re the beloved.
Tracy Paris: Right, you don’t want these ironic poems that are like, maybe I love you.
Curtis Fox: You want it straight, without any hesitations.
Tracy Paris: Or pride.
Curtis Fox: Or pride, which is really interesting. You could say ego. “I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love” — simple enough — “except in this form in which I am not nor are you”. What does your translation say?
Tracy Paris: Yeah, mine’s different. It says, “where I does not exist, nor you”. So the boundary is gone.
Curtis Fox: That’s a dissolving of self in love. So this essentially is a poem with the idea that you lose your identity in love. He’s not saying in the act of love, he’s not saying sexually you lose your identity, he’s saying in the spiritual experience of loving another person, you lose part of yourself. It’s very moving. It’s been said millions of times by poets, but somehow this is fresh. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary American poet writing a poem like this.
Tracy Paris: I really debated bringing this poem to be honest. There’s so many great poems about love or losing love or married love or all these other things. I felt like no, I should be honest and show a poem that I truly deployed, as you put it.
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) Tracy Paris, thank you so much for reading your poem, for Record-A-Poem, and for coming on the podcast.
Tracy Paris: Thank you.
Curtis Fox: To post your own reading of a love poem, or any poem for that matter, go to our website for further instruction. If you want to let us know what you think of this podcast, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.