“Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes
sin’s a pleasure”
I’ve just finished reading Edna O’Brien’s short but gripping biography of Lord George Gordon Byron: Byron, A Short and Daring Life. I was thoroughly entertained and rather in awe at the accounts of the man’s lifestyle, his exuberance, certainly his daring in both love and war. I think I was perhaps a bit taken aback though, despite knowing of his reputation as an homme fatale. Byron, to use a contemporary colloquialism, definitely “put it about a bit”. By the age of 36, when he succumbed to an illness (and no doubt the doctors’ treatment of bleeding him which likely weakened him and even introduced further infection) Byron had had dozens of lovers both men and women (some little more than boys and girls). His greatest love may well have been his half-sister, Augusta who bore his child. He was also the object of almost hysterical infatuation from women in London’s high society. He lived through the Regency era when life for the aristocracy in London was far from reserved and pious but full of gaudiness and frippery. There was an awful lot of jumping into the sack, women taking as much advantage of the societal approval (or at least disregard) which seemed to prevail.
Reading all of this led me to think of my lovers. Compared to Byron, I’ve had very few – in his terms I should be embarrassed to admit how just how few! And contemplating the lovers brought up the issue of the love poems. What to do with them when the love has died and been well buried? Byron’s, of course, live on in all their beauty and passion.
[To Caroline Lamb]
Yet fain would I resist the spell
That would my captive heart retain,
For tell me dearest, is this well?
Ah Caro! Do I need the chain?
Mine, for the most part, lurk undetected in the depths of my computer in various Word documents and unseen by anyone past their first flush of mad creation, shared between the “he” and me. (for me, there have been only male attractors). And there, undoubtedly, they will stay. Not strong or universal enough to put out into the world, they are small pieces of my personal history tinged pink with my regret and embarrassment.
Not to say I haven’t written any worthwhile love poems. When a poem emerges, its intention well expressed through structure and imagery, it gains a life of its own and I can fasten its coat and pull on its hat and send it off to find its fortune. Sometimes, these adventurers find new admirers and future homes in journals, books or on poetry websites.
Here are a few.
For my longest and truest (but not forever) Love:
quilt pulled up to my chin,
I listen to trees lamenting
the memory of sun
and you serve me tea and muffins,
the butter drips, you lick it off my chin
and climb back under the covers
to break our bodies’ fast.
We are not interrupted by children.
Afternoons we walk for hours in the rain
ignoring the storm – as we stumble,
fake the need to catch each other
then fall again into a bed of moss
where rain becomes a distant phenomenon.
Like aging and aching backs.
Winter evenings we share silence.
Each of us living another world inside books,
only occasionally smiling
or letting our woollen socked toes meet
by careful accident.
There is me. And you.
And then I wake.
( Unpublished, 1989)
Huge-headed flower fills my vision
as I sit here with you
in this garden by the sea.
He loves me, he loves me not
would take forever. The dahlia’s petals
curl like tongues, too many.
Instead, I give you the bloom,
take it and know it grew
with light and care,
coaxed from a wizened corm
that held inside the beginnings
of this busy, articulate yellow.
( Unpublished, 1997)
The Artist’s Wife
Wake to an empty space beside you
sheets undisturbed after the nights he spends
with another love, unable to leave
the sensuous lines on a smooth canvas skin.
Languish in the sharp-edged smell of turpentine,
linseed oil or damar varnish.
It hangs in the air for days
through all attempts to let it out:
windows and doors thrown open, or to smother it
with the scents of coffee brewing, muffins baking,
armsful of roses carried into every room
It’s a life of lies
as he tricks you into believing
three dimensions project from every flat surface.
He entices you along forest paths
to the edge of cliffs
and up into the vaulted ceilings of cathedrals.
You believe him. Then its gone
with one sweep of his brush.
He brings these certain inconveniences
but your eyes grow accustomed to noticing the sky
washed with the subtlest violet hue,
the monotone of a rock face splintered
into yellows, blues and greens
and when he does lie beside you he talks
through the screen of night,
paints the fabric that is your life.
(Antigonish Review and Quintet, Themes and Variations, Ekstasis Editions: 1996 )
And more recently, for perhaps my most unfortunate fall into a love trap:
You Are Here
Walking my neighbourhood streets,
unaware I’m in need of direction,
the map addresses me boldly: YOU ARE HERE!
I consider the arrow that points
to a snake of paths.
Houses along the way marked
as little dark boxes.
And now, light and bright,
another small box
with the welcoming smile of a facilitator
and a hopeful semi-circle of chairs.
I sit beside you, follow the Powerpoint: prognosis, radiation therapy,
androgen therapy, prostatectomy…. glass walls
show me an unstained sky
while knowledge grows in me the way mistletoe
invades a tree, takes hold.
No, not here.
I have not a shred of interest
in being here.
I want my place beside you, my head on your chest,
my fingers tracing ribbons on your skin.
Your breath deep and slow, eyes closed.
When I lift my face, look up, sure enough
there’s a big golden arrow pointing to us.
You Are Here.
( Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology, Mansfield Press: 2018)
Best when the snowflakes are big and slow,
when day has expanded
beneath the tension of a filling sky
until all movement, conversation, the rush of traffic
halts and the world accepts
that sky will shift solid grey
to shimmer, a buzz of frozen air,
then it’s time to open my mouth,
let snow fall in, seal my lips and swallow.
So little to let melt then slide, no more
than a tickle, unlike the small rock
that lodges when my throat closes
that rise and swell
from my belly,
when I go inside the tomb
of a once-upon-a-time lover,
gone but ever present,
who is now nothing to me
but was all.
It snowed overnight and nothing yet
has spoiled its perfection. I remember
how I used to swallow snowflakes.
I lift up my face
wait for the sky to burst.
I ask my question again, “what to do with the BAD love poems? It seems fairly clear to me as I write this that I have answered my own question in this version of my question: bad poems. So, print all, rip and deposit down the toilet? Or go for a little more drama with a small bonfire (perhaps the photos can be thrown on top too). It’s possible there might be an on-line depositary for unwanted, no longer “felt” and yes, bad poems but then they’d have to go anonymously.
Byron, I’m sure, gave no thought to discarding any of his poems and neither have any of his subsequent editors as the tomes on my desk now attend. (The Complete Poetical Works, Volumes I – V, 500 pages each). To be fair, Byron is often referred to as “one of the greatest British poets” and “one of the leading figures of the Romantic Movement in early 19th century England”. I’m not quite up there. I’ll therefore happily strike a match and put it to the papers that no longer speak from or for my heart – maybe I’ll throw in a little dance around the fire just for the hell of it.