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Title Menu: Twoo Wuv

By (February 1, 2014) No Comment

1A dweam wiffin a dweam
It is February — winter’s last gasp, which always seems to take the form of a protracted death rattle. It would be an unremittingly bleak month if not for the opportunity — jointly provided by Saint Valentine and the confectionary industry — to muse on the meaning of love, while gnawing on chocolates and chalky “conversation” hearts.

To assist in your sentimental musings, our editors have joined to suggest some literary treatments of that most fair and tender of emotions. (You’ll have to obtain the candy yourself).

Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor:

If your love is strong and true, it should be selfless, shouldn’t it? Above all, you should long for the happiness of your beloved. But what if that happiness lies apart from you? For me, the beautiful melancholy of this sonnet by e.e. cummings — especially its haunting final image — perfectly captures the paradoxical poignancy of true love cherished but freely, lovingly, let go.

it may not always be so; and i say
that if your lips, which i have loved, should touch
another’s, and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart, as mine in time not far away;
if on another’s face your sweet hair lay
in such silence as i know, or such
great writhing words as, uttering overmuch,
stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;

if this should be, i say if this should be—
you of my heart, send me a little word;
that i may go unto him, and take his hands,
saying, Accept all happiness from me.
Then shall i turn my face, and hear one bird
sing terribly afar in the lost lands

In contrast, these lines from the final volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 epic Aurora Leigh perfectly convey the unleashed joyousness of mutual love — spiritual, physical, and poetic.

But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,–
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason’s self
Enlarges rapture,–as a pebble dropt
In some full wine-cup, over-brims the wine!


Colleen Shea, Editor:

In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s I read and re-read Alison Fell’s beautifully written but nonetheless entirely pornographic novel The Pillow Boy of the Lady Onogoro. It is the fictionalized account of an eleventh-century poetess-courtezan who engages in the weirdest threeway imaginable–perfect for someone in their 20s, in other words. Still, the poem that accompanies Fell’s dedication of the book–written by the very real eleventh-century poetess-courtezan Izumi Shikibu about who knows which one of her many lovers–is still to me the most perfect and concentrated poetic expression of longing I’ve ever come across:

It would console me
to see your face,
even fleetingly, between
lightning flashes at dusk


John Cotter, Executive Editor

In the short poem, “Rose of the World,” Maud Gonne, the actress, revolutionary, and lifelong crush of William Butler Yeats, is held up as an example of the terror and sacredness and permanence of beauty. “Who dreamed,” Yeats asks, “that beauty passes like a dream?”

For these red lips, with all their mournful pride,
Mournful that no new wonder may betide,
Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam,
And Usna’s children died.

Maud, we’re told toward the sappy but lovely-sounding finish of the poem, possesses a beauty so dear to God he “made the world to be a grassy road / before her wandering feet.”

Yeats would propose to Maud Gonne four times as a young man, once as an older man, and once again to her daughter. Half of his early poems were written with her in mind. Clearly, if poetry could win a heart, it would have done so here. We must therefore conclude that it cannot, and blame it with many bitter words.

In Act 3, Scene 1 of Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s richest meditation on love, Viola has disguised herself as a boy in order to move with ease in the strange country where she was shipwrecked. There the melancholic Olivia, in mourning for a brother lost, consents to give Viola audience as a messenger for the horny duke Orsino, whose “gentle thoughts” she’s come to “whet” on Orsino’s behalf. By the end of the scene nothing has gone as planned: Olivia is in love not with Orsino but instead with the disguised Viola and—depending on how you stage this—Viola may find herself unexpectedly enchanted in turn.

OLIVIA: Stay: I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.
VIOLA: That you do think you are not what you are.
OLIVIA: If I think so, I think the same of you.
VIOLA: Then think you right: I am not what I am.
OLIVIA: I would you were as I would have you be!
VIOLA: Would it be better, madam, than I am?
I wish it might, for now I am your fool.

I would you were as I would have you be. The play is full of love—lost, mistaken, misapprehended, and re-mounted. Orlando is over-stuffed with it (the idea of the stuff, not the stuff itself), Malvolio is cruelly tricked by it, and Olivia nearly drowns in it. When the old drunk Sir Andrew Aguecheek reflects “I was adored once,” your heart all but breaks.

Sam Sacks, Editor-in-Chief:

5What’s a love story unless someone ends up in a mental asylum? That is the fate of poor Denis Sullivan in Frank O’Connor’s wrenchingly beautiful short story “The Bridal Night,” one of the few works of literature that has passages I can no longer read without bawling (Act V of “King Lear” and the gas chamber scene in “Life and Fate” are others on that list). The story is told by Denis’ aged mother from her home on Ireland’s rugged western coast. Her son’s illness, she recounts, first showed itself after the appearance in the village of schoolteacher Miss Winnie Regan. Mistaking her friendliness, Denis becomes addled by infatuation and takes to stalking the woods for her in fits of madness. Finally his mother determines she must have him committed, but to keep him restrained over night until the police can come she and her neighbors bind him to his bed with rope. It is a deep mortification to them all, and they are spared the shame when Miss Regan arrives and insists, against all protests, that she will stay with Denis and keep him calm until the morning:

I couldn’t help it and she pushed in past me into the bedroom with her face as white as that wall. The candle was lighting on the dresser. He turned to her roaring with the mad look in his eyes, and then went quiet all of a sudden, seeing her like that overright him with her hair all tumbled in the wind. I was coming behind her. I heard it. He put up his two poor hands and the red mark of the ropes on his wrists and whispered to her, “Winnie, asthore, isn’t it the long time you were away from me?”

At dawn, having eased her suitor’s passage into his long, lonely years ahead, Miss Regan goes to work and Denis goes quietly away with the authorities, saying only as he leaves, “Mother, tell Winnie I’ll be expecting her.” He will do so faithfully his whole life.

Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor:

The poisonous nature of love, the near-instantaneous joining of joy and recrimination – has been a loud part of love-poetry almost as long as love poetry has been around. Anybody who’s ever nodded at Catullus’s “odi et amo” will recognize instantly the “baited hooks” so bitterly regretted by the Tudor poet, courtier, and diplomat Thomas Wyatt – and perhaps they’ll also recognize how unconvincing the renunciation sounds:

Farewell love and all thy laws forever;
Thy baited hooks shall tangle me no more.
Senec and Plato call me from thy lore
To perfect wealth, my wit for to endeavour.
In blind error when I did persever,
Thy sharp repulse, that pricketh aye so sore,
Hath taught me to set in trifles no store
And scape forth, since liberty is lever.
Therefore farewell; go trouble younger hearts
And in me claim no more authority.
With idle youth go use thy property
And thereon spend thy many brittle darts,
For hitherto though I have lost all my time,
Me lusteth no lenger rotten boughs to climb.

6It’s inevitable that this rejection would feel so bitter, since in large part it’s love itself being rejected, when the cost becomes too great or isn’t worth paying any longer. Centuries after Wyatt, this bitterness is alive in “Las Paces” by the Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas. The poet is renouncing his creation, but the title refers to the uneasy post-argument armistice of lovers – fitting enough, since as one young reader of Cadenas points out, we love the story we invent about our lover at least as much as we love the lover himself:

Let us have a truce, poem.
I won’t force you to say what you don’t want to
and you won’t so resist what I desire.
We have tangled so much.
Why the straining to make you in my own image
when you know things I don’t suspect?
Free yourself from me now.
Flee without looking back.
Save yourself before it’s too late.
For always you exceed me,
you know how to say what drives you
and I do not,
because you are more than yourself
and I am only someone who tries to know himself through you.
I have a limit to my desire
and you have none,
you just go where you wish
without seeing the hand you move
and which you think is yours when you feel yourself surge from it
like something that springs forth.
Force your course on the writer, he
only knows how to hide you,
to bury the novelty,
to impoverish you.
What it shows is tired
leave me.

Greg Waldmann, Senior Editor:

When the initial passion of love subsides, and we settle into the quieter, steadier comforts of a long relationship, that’s when the work begins. We instinctively rebel when it seems like things are no longer in motion, and it takes effort to brush off the little slights, and accommodation to move past the little faults that seem to embody our anxiety. You have to learn to put away the magnifying glass. But in the beginning faults are quirks. Love breeds indulgence and encourages surprise, and you end up enjoying the most ridiculous things about another person. Who, for instance, could fail to be charmed by Frank O’Hara’s delightfully rambling and frenetic “Having a Coke with You,” where he tells his lover:

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it


Maureen Thorson, Poetry Editor

Clearly, love comes in many flavors — from the deep and long-lasting to the bitter and unrequited. But let’s go out on a high note with two pieces that express love in the form of delight.

Theodore Roethke’s witty “I Knew a Woman” never fails to charm me — its rhymes, its allusions, its “light and loose” subject who dazzles the poet with her “flowing knees”:

I nibbled meekly from her proferred hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make).

There’s sass here in abundance, and sensuality, but also a deep and reverent gratitude for a woman who “moved more ways than one” and taught the poet to “measure time by how a body sways.” I’ve always thought if there was a poem to get a woman into bed, this was it — she would be a poor creature indeed who wouldn’t cast an approving eye on any man (or woman) with cheek — and poise — enough to recite it to her.

Emily Dickinson might not be a byword for sensuality, but this is through no fault of her own. I blame the anthologizers, particularly of high-school text books, who throw their buzzing charges the tepid bone of “Because I could not stop for death” and then recede into silence. I understand their reticence — I myself might pause at giving a teenaged girl unfettered access to The Belle of Amherst. Dear Emily is basically “a loaded gun” of pure feeling — and the erotic ones are not neglected.

I’ll pass over the quivery jelly of The Master Letters (such a distillation of need and power requires more attention than I can give it here), and just give you this little frippery:

By The Sea

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me.

And frigates in the upper floor
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.

But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe,
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,

And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as a dew
Upon a dandelion’s sleeve –
And then I started too.

And he – he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle, – then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl.

Until we met the solid town,
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

Don’t tell me this poem isn’t sexy. It’s sexy. In fact, I think I need to lie down. Perhaps in a state of dishabille? If you’d just pass the conversation hearts . . .