Everything about Valentine's Day with its sentimental obligations makes me want to run the other way. Except the conversation hearts. I am a big fan of those little boxes of pale chalky candies stamped either with expired slang or with sweet talk of under ten letters.
The words do not pretend to be poems, as much else does on Valentine's Day. If you are handed a heart, it's quick to read and ok to dismiss—you can even hand it back. They are inconsequential, impersonal, random, a joke, a hundred for thirty-nine cents. You don't have to stand there under the tender eye of the giver and labor through the a-b-a-b of a real Valentine card, trying to decide if you're obliged to read it aloud or if you can just move your lips.
Conversation hearts are an honest product; they actually provoke conversation, and not just the annual debate as to whether there is really a different taste to the pink ones. The messages are so short that it's hard to help reading them back and forth, and the conversation that collects in the interstices is guaranteed to be utterly idle.
Too little is made of the agreeability of patently, triumphantly, idle conversation. Much presses us toward substance—wars, prizes going to the wrong people. We feel obliged to refer to these topical evils, but it is only aggravating, usually; no real depth and no real lightness. This never happens with conversation hearts. Conversation is trapped in the shallow dents between You Kid and Bug Off, Be Mine and Forget It. And your heart? It is left to tendril its delicate tendrils, an air plant that thrives, thrives, on the little accidental chemistries of play.
Born in California in 1945 and acknowledged as one of the most original voices in the contemporary landscape, Kay Ryan is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). Her book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010)...