Kathleen Flenniken
It's About Time Writers
   the writer's craft

Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA.,
Thursday May 11, 2006

In candy, my children favor sour. In fruit, my husband favors fully ripe and sweet.  In love poetry, I confess, my favorite flavors are regret and yearning.

For anyone who has lived through the life and death cycle of romantic love, for anyone who has been lucky enough to weather the vicissitudes of long love, the familiar "summer's day" comparisons taste not fully baked, bland without those salty flavors you crave, and too good for you. As an antidote to those impossibly beautiful couples in Calvin Klein ads, to that couple you saw at 7:00 am at the park, walking together wrapped in the blanket they stole from their nuptial bed, here are a few love poems that offer something darker.  Like good cheese, they stink a little. 

I am also taking you on a nostalgic trip through my life in poetry.  I didn't discover poetry, not really, until I was into my 30s, already with a husband, two toddlers and a strong desire to make my escape from diapers and "what's for dinner?"   Though at the same time I loved that life.  What was it that really brought me to poetry?  Love poems.  How did I hone my craft, and begin to make sense of my life?  Love poems.

One of the most important poems of that early period was "All That We Have" by Stephen Dunn.  It appeared in Local Time (William Morrow, 1986), the first book of poetry I ever bought that wasn't an anthology.  I remember that shock and thrill. I'd never realized that poems could be lifted so truthfully from ordinary life.

All That We Have
by Stephen Dunn

to John Jay Osborn, Jr.

It's on ordinary days, isn't it,
  when they happen,
those silent slippages,

a man mowing the lawn, a woman
  reading a magazine,
each thinking it can't go on like this,

then the raking, the turning
  of a page.
The art of letting pass

what must not be spoken, the art
  of tirade, explosion,
are the marital arts, and we

their poor practitioners, are never
  more than apprentices.
At night in bed the day visits us,

happily or otherwise.  In the morning
  the words good morning
have a history of tones; pray to say them

evenly.  It's so easy, those moments
  when affection is what
the hand and voice naturally coordinate.

But it's that little invisible cloud
  in the livingroom,
floating like boredom, it's the odor

of disappointment mixing with
  kitchen smells,
which ask of us all that we have.

The man coming in now
  to the woman.
The woman going out to the man.

There are no miracles here, no exceptional language, unless it might be the word "slippages." But this poem is as much like visiting the inside of a marriage at ebb tide as anything I've read.  The voice is brutally truthful in its tranquil consideration of any ordinary day, and beautiful because it speaks "what must not be spoken."  One can take comfort from this poem. I certainly did.  My experience had been acknowledged.  And that helped heal me, and helped me understand the power of poetry to teach us about our lives. 

Sharon Bryan writes in her poem "Abiding Love" (Objects of Affection, Wesleyan Press, 1987) of all sorts of long love, including the jealous kind, the unfaithful kind, the kind that won't turn off even as we wish with our whole bodies that it would.  The poem is in eight parts.  Here is just Part 1.

Abiding Love
by Sharon Bryan

I know all that's wrong with coveting
your neighbor's life, but I want the one
I've invented for this couple in front of me
in line at the license bureau. I can see
the pulse in his temple, the faint down
along her jaw. But I can't understand
their constant murmurings, so practiced
they are at keeping in and keeping out.
She's 70 and beautiful, he's matter-of-
factly rapt. They never quite touch,
though they incline themselves to receive
whatever's given. I study the driver's
handbook, memorizing numbers I'll forget
tomorrow. Before she steps away
for the official photograph, she reties
the bow at her throat. Her husband's shoes
are freshly shined, his neck pink
from the barber's clippers. When his wife
comes shyly back he lifts his arms,
asking her to dance. My own rise up in reply.

How much more layered and rich an experience it is to watch this couple through the speaker's eyes than to be presented with their happiness straight on.  Bryan captures that nose-on-the-glass feeling, stoking her own, and our, envy.  She projects Ideal Love on that married couple, a pair most of us wouldn't even notice because they are old and thus unenviable.  In such soft light, who wouldn't covet their love? Is it real?  We all know. Yes and no.  Both at the same time.

Love is made of sweet and bitter, but so much more the in-between.  We wait the lows out, watch for signs of another wave of good feeling.  But love for some does not get easier.  They wait and wait.  They grow silently desperate.

Talking in Bed
by Philip Larkin

Talking in bed ought to be easiest
Lying together there goes back so far
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside the wind's incomplete unrest
builds and disperses clouds about the sky.

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind
Or not untrue and not unkind.

Larkin does not back away from the most painful truth in love, that we are sometimes no more alone than when we are part of a couple.  Something about his use of negatives: the wind's incomplete unrest, none of this cares for us, nothing shows why[. These lines] condition us for that last devastating line and reworking of the line:  words at once true and kind, or not untrue and not unkind. It is that careful revision at the end that both re-enacts the care we take in love, and the deepening despair that comes of reckoning with our loneliness.

I am not against happiness in love poems.  I am against dishonesty.  But what does that mean?  If a love poem is set in a cul-de-sac, and the lovers are middle aged and worried about the bills, does it pass my test for honest?  It's not that simple. 

One contemporary poet comes to mind who has all the qualifications for writing love poetry: inventive and beautiful language and music, a fine mind for metaphor, a deep understanding of human nature.  But it seems to me Robert Wrigley writes dishonestly about love. Though I admire his poems about the natural world, I have always resisted his love poems. It's only recently I've been able to put my finger on the reason. 

Remember Larkin's poem?  There are just two people in that bedroom.  In Wrigley's love poems, there are always three - the speaker, the lover, and the reader.  Wrigley has an unhappy habit of performing for the reader.  The speaker may be kissing his wife, but he's listening for a moan from you.  Here is an excerpt imbedded in a longer poem, called "Lives of the Animals." (from Lives of the Animals, Penguin, 2003.)

Then there's the annual spring plague
of ticks, and the nightly sessions
on the livingroom floor,
grooming like chimps.  First,
the dogs, then the cats,

then the kids, then last of all,
later, the two of us, the tender skin
at the base of the scalp,
the tenderer skin of the crotch
and once, my lover

plucked from the tip of my ear,
with a divot of skin,
a tick already fastened on
and fattening with my blood.
She kissed the wound there

and did not stop
kissing, but held the tick
between her thumb and forefinger
all through the love that followed,
then expelled what I'd left her

in the toilet. 

It's not whether I doubt the event. Why should I?  And the event, the stuff of the poem, whether the sheets are silk or threadbare, if the couple is long married or meeting this moment, falling in or out of love, ridden with ticks, blowing smoke rings. Speaking French is irrelevant anyway.  Does the poem capture the truth?  In this Wrigley poem, the provocative quality of the telling makes me balk, his insistence that this scene be only erotic. It resists revealing anything but beauty.  The poem does not read like real life.  It reads like airbrushed fantasy.  Even with the ticks.

As I've aged, my mind has turned to other concerns besides love. Our country at war, for instance.  The damaged world our children will inherit.  But I still pause before love poems with anticipation.  As I dive in I find I wish for poems about lovers grown older, and when I find such poems I am grateful, the way I was grateful when I found that Stephen Dunn poem twelve years ago.

I will finish with a poem that came to my attention just a week or two ago that appeared in an anthology of women poets over 50. The poet is Cathy Stern, and though I don't know her work or her reputation, I had only to read this poem to trust her sense of love, which is fraught and clear-eyed and forgiving, as the best love tends to be. (A Wider Giving: Women Writing after a Long Silence, edited by Sondra Zeidenstein (Conn: Eastern Press, 1989).

Thirty-ninth Anniversary
by Cathy Stern

Another small blue tile fell from the wall
this morning near the edge of the tub, one more

small thing to fix, the house ungluing after
years of holding on. Outside another squirrel

runs up the leaning pine again, another fall
is here, the wood fence losing out to weather.

We've hardly seen it happening­-layer,
and crust, and crack­-and I've scarcely questioned all

the years I've slept secure with you. But now
sometimes afraid, I wake up and lean over

in the middle of the night to listen for your breath,
holding mine like a pain, remembering how

we always thought the future was in the future,
and now it's now, its wingbeats overhead.

copyright2006 Kathleen Flenniken

Kathleen Flenniken's first collection, Famous, won the 2005 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and will be released in September. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, Poetry Daily, and The Iowa Review, and she is an editor with Floating Bridge Press, dedicated to publishing Washington State poets.



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