Wednesday, August 11, 2010


It's Good We Only See Each Other Once a Week

It's good we only see each other once a week.
A young man about to move in with his fiancée
died of a sudden heart attack at twenty-six.
One hears these stories all the time.
The heart is trained to handle deprivation,
not unforeseen happiness. Just as when you
throw your arms around me I start to overflow,
but then I think of course, where was she before?
I deserve it and a lot more besides –
your love gets soaked up quickly
and I pull back brooding over something
I never had.
But don't stop on that account, keep going.

I was brought up to make
the most of accidental brushes with kindness.
My pleasures were collected almost unawares
from stationary models, like the girl
who sat in front of me in tenth grade,
who let me stroke and braid her golden hair
and never acknowledged it.
I wouldn't know what to do with frontal love;
would I? One snowy winter night in Montreal
I felt so great I danced a flamenco
and insisted that everyone call me Fernando.
But then I was by myself. And last night,
if there are many more nights
like last night with you –
when I think of all my nights of total happiness
I get the panicky sense that the balance
has already tipped,
and I will never again feel free
to pass myself off as a have-not.

Maybe it's good we only see each other once a week.
But don't stop on that account, keep going.

   ~ Phillip Lopate

Seretta Martin:

Here is a poem that has an unusual slant on 
a relationship and why the man feels more comfortable 
with "brushes with kindness" rather than having the 
positive attention of his lover more frequently. 
It is another example of how our early experiences 
in life may affect how we perceive relationships
years later. It speaks to comfort levels of togetherness 

and solitude and is the type of psychological poem 
that I find myself reading over several time
to understand a truth about the human psyche.

* * *

There are a few lines that are particularly poignant:

...The heart is trained to handle deprivation

...I pull back brooding over something I never had.

...the most of accidental brushes with kindness.
My pleasures were collected almost unawares

...I wouldn't know what to do with frontal love; would I?

...when I think of all my nights of total happiness
I get the panicky sense that the balance
has already tipped . . .



I love the Lopate poem and the idea of poets romanticizing their
"have-not" status. This was certainly true of my ex-boyfriend
who milked poverty for all it was worth (short of making any
actual money doing so, of course). And of course, I have been
just as guilty, although I  am more liable to conjure up isolation
and its attendant miseries in  my poems. It seems that poverty
and loneliness bestow, or so we think,  a sort a poetic credibility.


Just this morning, for the thousandth time, I doubted my poetic vocation again. I’d been reading a certain famous poet and finding him so-so (I think quite a few poets write more interesting essays). Then I turned to a popular science article and found it fascinating! And since at one stage of my life I wrote articles like that myself (and yes, got paid for it), again I felt a pull toward the kind of writing that satisfies the intellect.

Poverty and loneliness definitely made me more interested in poetry, and I too have milked loss and every kind of deprivation to the last drop. As loneliness decreases and contentment increases, my interest in poetry goes down, down, down. Maybe a less personal and less melancholy poetry would still hold me . . . Or truly great poetry, of course, where either language or content or both are simply stunning. 

It’s usually a combination of beauty, music, and mystery. I remember, in periods of misery, reading and re-reading certain poems of Wallace Stevens the way a believer might perhaps pray a lot.

I also remember a case of a young woman who started writing poems. I talked with her older half-sister who assured me that neither she nor the woman’s parents were alarmed by it; they knew their daughter was just going through a period of transient unhappiness. She’d grow out of it. And she did! Got a job, got married, had two children. As Bill Mohr said, “The question is: Are you abnormal enough?”

Una Hynum sent a comment in the form of a wonderful poem:

Paso Doble

Last night we made love on the beach,
my red gown spread underneath us
like a matador’s cape, screened
from all but the moon, hushed

as a crowd before the sword plunge
and shout. Love is like a bullfight,
a provocation of darts, a tease of red,
a sidestepping, shift, charge and thrust,

the irresistible taste of death.
And you and I are both bleeding
bull and breathless matador, the crazed
crowd and white-eyed mount.

Now, afloat on the morning after
we view the empty arena, an unraked
tangle of roses, the disturbed path
where the bull was dragged away.

         ~ Una Hynum


In Lopate’s poem, the most striking lines are "she let me stroke and braid her golden hair.” They do not face each other. In confrontation there is so much risk. That’s why in “Paso Doble” I say, "Love is a bull fight" and "you and I are both bleeding / bull and breathless matador" and “the disturbed path / where the bull was dragged away.”

Love is such a double-edged sword, and we all see it from different perspectives. 


“Frontal love” is fabulous!  And so is the poem’s entire concern that we are so used to deprivation that like the hapless bridegroom dying of a heart attack, we may not be able to handle much happiness. Frontal love can be overwhelming, and at some point there will be pain. It’s only after long experience that I’ve come to the conclusion that the gain, the gift, is usually greater than the pain. I had to grow in strength and find reliable sources of happiness other than love before I could form of “fearless” attitude toward love.

If we have some control over the matter, should being together be rationed? Possibly. I’ve read a lot of books and articles on happiness, and the consensus seems to be that the only way to preserve romance is to keep it on a dating basis. Even then, there is no guarantee that romantic love will last – certainly not the infatuation stage.

I will never forget how, during a break in an MFA workshop, one middle-aged woman, surrounded by eight or so other women, including me, said in a confidential tone: “Let me tell you how I saved my marriage.” We hushed, prepared to receive a great secret. “Every two weeks, we go to a motel,” she said.

Marriage may be paradise for the first year or so, when there is a lot of physical and verbal affection. One of my father’s endless supply of jokes was the cynical, “A good wife dies after one year.” (I hasten to say that my parents had the happiest marriage I ever witnessed, and that my mother strenuously protested against the “good wife” joke, possibly for my benefit.) But I agree with DH Lawrence that the purpose of marriage is disillusionment. In the best scenario, we then learn to love the real person with all his flaws, not the romantic projection. In the worst scenario, the marriage becomes a state of perpetual warfare, the partners held together by mutual hatred that, unlike romantic love, can last for decades.

But even given the best scenario, what we get is a deepening affection and respect, but not passion. Louise Glück calls it “the victory of affection over passion.” That’s what mature love is, and that’s why it deserves more reverence than merely “being in love.” Even Jack Gilbert, in one of his most famous poems, “The Abnormal Is Not Courage,” says “the marriage, not the affair.”

In later years, deep affection may in fact be a greater treasure; passion is so
exhausting. But in youth, the end of the passionate phase always felt like the greatest sadness in the world, a great dream betrayed. And yet, though we may think, “I’ll never fall in love again,” we do fall in love again. The brain is wired for it; the personality enlargement that follows falling in love is extremely rewarding, even if we know that “this will end in tears.” The wiser part of us knows that those tears will matter little next to the feast and the lasting gift that a love relationship is, especially if we fall in love with someone who has a lot to give (that’s where it helps to be a little older. Jack Gilbert regards “love over fifty” as one of the supreme gifts of life; his petition to the gods is not for more fame, but for one more experience of falling in love.

Think, they say patiently, we could   
make you famous again. Let me fall   
in love one last time, I beg them.   

(~ “I Imagine the Gods” in The Great Fires)

Fortunately, romance is not the only source of happiness. And when it comes to passion, oddly enough, it’s the passion for the work you love that does not die. It does not seem subject to the merciless law that says everything passes, and passes relatively quickly. When it comes to creative work, you can go deeper and deeper in.

And guess what has more influence than any other factor in how people rate themselves on happiness: “job satisfaction.” (And that reminds me of a friend who found herself frightened when she found out she loved her job: “It’s not normal to get so much happiness out of work.”)

But let me return to the theme of “have and have not.” When it comes to po-biz, rather poetry itself and the agonies and ecstasies of the creative process, the feeling of hopelessness can be worse than that brought about by the miseries of love or lack of satisfaction with one’s work. On the national level, the poetry community is marked by the Great Divide between the Haves and the thousands and thousands of Have-Nots whose work may be excellent, but it has not received more than local recognition, and most likely never will. The division is not entirely according to merit, and that makes it more bitter. In my most bitter moments, I recall Clint Eastwood’s famous words from Unforgiven, “deserves got nothing to do it.” Or not much to do with it. Everyone I have ever talked with on the subject of recognition agrees that talent and hard work are not enough. It’s who you know – just as in romance, a lot depends on the availability of the right partners. Of course we make the best of what we have, but the dream remains and to some degree poisons everything.

On the other hand, we learn to appreciate what crumbs do come our way.  I certainly identify with Lopate’s

I was brought up to make
the most of accidental brushes with kindness.


On the other hand, this business of being one of the Haves or Have-nots – is it not largely a matter of perception? Are we not, all of us, a mix of Have and Have-not? Why sayings such as "lucky with money, unlucky in love"? Or, "You can't have it all"? 

I grew up as a child of privilege -- chiefly of intellectual privilege, though I saw that clearly only when I left Warsaw and my intellectual milieu, never to regain it. In adulthood, with brief periods of respite, I saw myself as a pauper, definitely a have-not. True, I had my intellect, but since I didn't have intellectual friends, my gifts went into nowhere. I read my poems to blank-faced audiences who obviously didn't understand my references. As one person exclaimed, "I don't know who Orpheus is, and I don't care to know." 

More recently, however, my perception has shifted again. True, I lost Warsaw the year I was getting to really love Warsaw, and later I lost Los Angeles, just as I was beginning to flourish in the LA poetry community. For years I wept over those losses. Now I'm finally more comfortable in SD, and life is ever so much more rewarding since I decided, less than a year and half ago, not to be depressed anymore (I always knew how to prevent depression, but I had no motivation to do it). My solution was to throw myself into work without asking why and what for.  I had to impose a strict mental discipline for myself: not to think about my losses, but about the riches I still had; not about my disappointments, but about the work ahead of me, regardless of what, if anything, might come of it.

When I consider that I have known great love, great music, and great literature, that I have been able to enjoy sublime beauty, and that, more recently, I have had the priceless gift of supportive friendship with more kindred minds, do I dare complain? That would be ungracious and immature. When I made the decision not to be depressed, I found myself in the country of gratitude – of seeing, with amazement, that I had to count myself among the lucky ones. Oddly enough, soon afterwards I received this in a fortune cookie: “Among the lucky, you are the chosen one.” I never received this particular fortune before, and I’m still puzzled over the intended meaning. But I like it – not because I think that I, in particular, am the chosen one, but because we have all been chosen, just by the fact of being alive.

Two poems come to mind:


To have been one
of many ribs
and to be chosen.
To grow into something
quite different
knocking finally
as a bone knocks
on the closed gates of the garden –
which unexpectedly

  ~ Linda Pastan, from PM/AM


To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That's crudely put, but . . .

If we're not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?

    ~ Gregory Orr 

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