Ugh: Our Contemporary Love Poetry

By Darren C. Demaree

she said, beside me, she put

her hand on
my back, for which act

I think to say this

from “The Whip” by Robert Creeley

It can be simple.  If you love the woman in bed with you, you turn your body towards her, and you speak the truth the best you know how.  You comfort the great worry she has about you, about her jealousy, and you resolve to return your relationship to as close to an ecstatic state at you can.  That’s not what Creeley does though.  It’s more complicated than all that, and in a great love poem (romantic, erotic, or other) it is never the straight line that delivers fireworks.  A straight line is a quick exit.  Who cares about a poem you can’t live in for a little while?  It took me a long time to figure out quite how a love poem could be equal parts transparent and transcendent.  When the woman in bed with the male speaker says, “Ugh” it delivers for me a single syllable that trails the rest of the poem, and informs just how direct and multi-faceted a great love poem can be.

I have used “The Whip” as a polestar, a cosmic poetry destination since I read it because it is able to carry the pursuit, the rejection, the settling, and possibility that happiness exists in very few words.  “Ugh” is the scar they will all carry from the moment it’s exhaled by the woman in the bed.  It’s as if they are all saying it in unison.  The woman in the bed is embracing the lack of motion (emotion as well) that is taking place in that bed.  The man is finally understanding that for a man of much action, he has become useless to both of these women.  The woman upstairs, who has returned in a romantic fit, is growling it through her floor as a possible enticement.  “Ugh” for the purposes of this scene is equal parts love and un-love.  It’s the animal’s lament.  It’s the perfect state for a romantic poem to thrive in.

After meeting Emily, my own life’s love, I have spent the last seven years writing “Emily As” poems (“Emily As A Bird”, “Emily As Unswerving Realism”, “Emily As Innumerable Cigarettes”, etc.), and the reason I’ve written a thousand or more poems about Emily, is because after having read that “Ugh,” my attempts  to harness actual emotion became too loaded to ever attempt the straight line again.   I love Emily, but like any relationship, we found ways to make it complicated.  There were seventy-five hurdles to our pursuits (multiple attempts) of each other.  There have been a mountain range of hiccups in our relationship (shared living, learning to be parents, the dart board of intimacy), and even though we are very happy together, there remains many challenges.  So, she is the woman I love, but that love changes every day.  From day to day, it never fits in the same box, and a poem that attempted to fit it into one would be a failing.  Every time I attempt to write a poem about her, in pursuit of her, or as an attempt at explanation of her complexities, she becomes something else entirely.  Emily has been a rabbit, a blood orange, a wine cork, every body of water, a star shaped out of salt, an ultimately endless list of things.  Through that exploration of the complexities of our lives, I have found many “Ugh” moments.  Some of them comforting or sad or sexual or a glance into the stasis of the domestic.  Even easy is never simple, and that is the point.  In my own poem, “Emily As Unswerving Realism”, I attempted to displace both of us from own our reality, only to be snapped back by an act of intimacy, as if the event could be enough to be a saving grace from any feelings of isolation.  In the emotional field we share, in our love, it can take only a small rising to resemble actual crop.

Idaho, you are cold
in the field, harsh
torn trees, driving men
in two jackets to a bar
with one tap.  Emily,
I know the wheat
is a metaphor, but when
my hand touches your nipple
it feels the breast around it
as well.  Let this cold truth
keep me warm, even in
the unimaginable desolation.

The pursuit of an ecstatic poem, and a love poem (even if it shares a great sadness in it) is intended to harness the ecstatic, and one of the ways it can do such a thing is to flip the expectation of the reader.  In Mark Yakich’s poem “You Are Not A Statue” he begins:

And I am not a pedestal.
We are not a handful of harmless
scratches on pale pink canvas.
Today is not the day to stop
looking for the woman
to save you.  What was once
ivory is wood.  What was once
whalebone is cotton.

With that opening he has jolted the reader, as well as a female component of the poem, and with that energy he is able to take us all the way through the poem without a guess at where, ultimately, we will be led.  There is a wink to the strategy, and that sort of playfulness will always deliver a corkscrew to one’s expectations.  This poem is and isn’t exactly what you’d expect it to be.  It is a warrant of impending failure, but it is also a discussion about why the expectations themselves can be the failure.  The poem itself works as a metaphor for the attempt to harness the complexity of real-life relationships reflected in the limitations of a singular art form.  We appreciate and become enamored with art, but we love other people. We lust after them. We dissect every part of spectrum of emotion with them.  Yakich introduces us to that, and then is able to carry us to a culminating declaration that “We are not/together, we are never alone.”

In Olena Kaltiak Davis’ poem “to love” she takes us on a physical and metaphorical journey towards what love promises and maybe should be, but she delivers a daunting, panting image of what love can do to us.

at the end of every drive
way i expect
you would joy
and moan
to see what
my face does
for you
how it opens each
day how it lies

Why address a person when you can address the emotion itself?  Changing the focus away from a traditional love poem where another person is the object of scrutiny, Davis both acknowledges and accuses the emotion of creating an impossible waiting game in our lives.  Earlier in the poem she offers to wear her “deepest cut shirt” and “lowest slung pants”, to seduce love, to bring it closer to her.  She turns the poem into a demonstration of the ecstatic, where she is presenting herself as a viable candidate to feel actual ecstasy.

Carl Phillips seems to collect these elegant, awkward scenes as well.  The kind of romance that drags a heel across the linoleum in a quick spat of musical protest to what is developing between the two people.  We act like children when we are most vulnerable, and that can take many shapes.  What Phillips is able to accomplish in a poem like “Conduct” is add a subtle music to a dance that is mostly sweat and questions.

Here –
your shirt, he said,
after.  Lifting it.  Bringing it
to me as if it were
not a shirt
but a thing immaculate,
or in flames, or –
with a single sword
positioned through it –
a sacred heart.

These brief moments after a sexual encounter are able to shoulder the whole of emotional fog because it moves very little, it accepts the action instead of reacting to it.  He is pierced by behavior, by the lingering charge of what just took place and what is still possible once the two men are again clothed.  It’s as if the speaker took every color in the room and smeared them up and down his face, like he could be camouflaged in those moments, be safe in them, despite the vulnerability portrayed by both men.

These poems, like Robert Creeley’s “The Whip”, are thin-skinned movers in a thick fog.  They are as human and poignant as romantic poetry should be, and I love the challenge of such an environment.  They energize me to explore my own love even more, and through that find out exactly who Emily is this moment and then next.  She will tire of this I’m sure, but that Emily will be of great interest to me as well.  Nobody will ever know, not even Emily, how these transpiring realities can make flush even our most tired of flesh.  “Ugh”, she will say, I will turn my body towards her, and I will do my best to keep us ecstatic with each other.

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