I’ve been writing poems seriously for less than five years, and innocently for nearly thirty. I try not to place expectations on my poems. If this is always true, does that follow that I don’t place limits on them, either? I’m thinking about the hopes and the borders of poems, in the wake of Derek Walcott’s death on March 17th.
This is my wake for Derek.
Hopes, then, and borders.
“Love After Love”, which you can read here at Brain Pickings, is arguably the poem of Walcott’s that’s been most voraciously devoured for public, pop culture consumption. I’m sure scholars lap it up, but it’s not scholars I think of, when I think of “Love After Love”, published in Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986): it’s bright-eyed undergraduates applying filters to the poem on Instagram, hashtagging it with #selflove #loveyourself #poemsthatmakegrownmencry.
The last one isn’t accidental; it comes from a book of the same title, Poems that Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them (Simon & Schuster, 2015). Within it, “Love After Love” is the selection of British actor Tom Hiddleston, who describes it as a clarion, one that
“feels like permission, as though Walcott is calling time on all the madness, the mayhem, the insecurity, the neuroses, the drama, and with a big, broad, kind smile, he brings us to an awareness of the present moment, calm and peaceful, and to a feeling of gratitude for everything that we have.”
In one palm, I abhor the abstruseness of so much verse. In another, I know that so much of the work I do in a poem is someone’s idea of a perfect hell: a room windowed by recondite funhouse mirrors, none of which present a clear, still image. “Love After Love”, I think, is no one’s carnival nightmare. It feels like walking into a room of mirrors and finding that they all show you your imperfect, incandescent face.
I am wary of happy poems, and this may be because I do not know how to write one, except by accident. I’m not wary of “Love After Love”, even though it sows joy in actors, in bloggers, in students who swear at more knotted, gnarled expositions in verse, scrambling to Cliff Notes for scansions and summaries. This is because the borders of the poem are visible to me. It contains and confines loss: the real heart-shatter of making yourself small for someone else’s sweetness; the quiet allusion to a life executed in dance steps drawn out by an indifferent, clumsy hand; the chests and cases of private humiliations stored as fuel against anything approaching pride.
This is the backdrop of the poem, the history behind the curtain, the points of no return from which, miraculously, the speaker makes a comeback. The speaker is you. The borders that were visible haven’t melted; the years of shame and censure have left their barbwire under your nails. In spite of this, or because of this, the speaker-who-is-you says, there is still bread and wine. There is still room to land in the arms of someone who has been waiting for you, all your life.
Isn’t this the hope we’re feeding with free pornography, with tiny kleptomanias and water-cooler gossip, with too much Netflix and thick gold beras made for our babies, at the hour of their birth? The hope that each of us, no matter how miserable, how masturbatory, how arrears-laden and perpetually hungover, is worth a glorious comeback? After all, the poem’s speaker says, “the time will come”, and not with a whimper, either.
One of the hopes in this poem is elation, in the face of a life littered with doubts – and this is the payoff of “Love After Love”; it doesn’t build perfection from a state of unbloodied grace; it builds you from the battleground up, ushers you in from the sand-and-shit arena. It asks, like Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me”? It trusts, like Seamus Heaney, “the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known”. It senses, like Olive Senior, that “you have entered that place where flight is a given.”
Here, the hope is endless, and the borders unterrorized.