Poems About Boys
When I was a teenager, I wrote poems about boys; didn’t we all? How could I help it? Boys were magnetic, and I was a pile of iron filings. You could have blown me away. Some of them did blow me away, and that was why I wrote poems about them.
I also read poetry, too, and for better or worse, since I had no other models, I began to let it teach me about love. It’s telling that for my entire adolescence, my favorite poem was “I Remember” by Anne Sexton. The speaker’s contentment over the simple memory that she shared a room with her lover (“the door to your room was the door to mine”) was, and is, compelling in a time when we expect so much from our love relationships, in a time when just being together (without a laptop, a flat screen, or both) sometimes doesn’t turn out to be enough. I grew up with this lesson, that, like carefree children ever in the pursuit of simple joys, people in love might wear their “bare feet bare since the twentieth of June,” and what the lesson taught me is that the calm of love can be as memorable as the passion of infatuation. I hope that’s true.
But poetry also taught me that love can be like a trapped wild animal, a sharp, skittish, and lashing-out thing. Anne Sexton’s other poems are full of this bitter message. “Propaganda time is over,” she writes in “The Inventory of Goodbye,” “I sit here on the spike of truth./No one to hate except the slim fish of memory/that slides in and out of my brain.” Decades later, Carl Phillips, whose poems wrestle constantly with the idea of sacrifice in love and what it means to suffer as a result of screwing up one’s love relationship, writes (in his poem “Armed, Luminous,”) “I’m not reckless./I’d comply if I could,” and in his poem “Sea Glass,” the hapless speaker conjectures that
Some mistakes, given time, don’t seem mistakes-
I’m counting on that; others, though perhaps
a little bit worth being sorry for,
we forget them mostly, or we say we have and,
almost, we surprise
ourselves even–we mean
what we say. It’s cold here. It’s dark. Follow me.
But the perils of love seemed when I was young (and today) to be most specifically and candidly captured by my favorite poet, Louise Gluck. She gets it right in section number seven in her long poem “Marathon” (the section itself is entitled “First Goodbye,” and I can’t find it anywhere, so I’m going to have to recreate excerpts of it here; my apologies):
You can join the others now,
body that wouldn’t let my body rest,
go back to the world, to avenues, the ordered
depth of the parks, like great terminals
that never darken: a stranger’s waiting for you
in a hundred rooms. Go back to them,
to increment and limitation[…]
[…] Sooner or later,
you’ll begin to dream of me. I don’t envy you
those dreams. I can imagine how my face looks,
burning like that, afflicted with desire–lowered
face of your invention–how the mouth betrays
the isolated greed of the lover
as it magnifies and then destroys:
I don’t envy you that visitation.
And the women lying there — who wouldn’t pity them
the way they turn to you, the way
they struggle to be visible. They make
a place for you in bed, a white excavation.[…]
[…] Sooner or later you will call my name —
cry of loss, mistaken
cry of recognition — meaning
someone who exists in memory: no voice
carries to that kingdom.
(from “Marathon,” a poem by Louise Gluck published in her book The Triumph of Achilles, 1987, by Ecco Press. First appeared in Salmagundi, nos 50-51, (1980-1981), p. 23).
If there is a more elegant, more austere and honest “fuck you” to an ex-love out there, I don’t know about it. Louise Gluck is famous (in my mind) for her ability to accuse in a specific and detailed way, and somehow I knew, even as a teenager, that someday I’d be both at the giving and receiving end of this particular clearinghouse of suffering. Go ahead and go, it seems to say, but you won’t be getting off easy, and I take the only comfort I can from your future regret. Ouch.
I grew up reading stuff like this, so, unlike most women, when I emerged into an appropriate time for romantic entanglements, I had the opposite of a fairy tale in mind. I knew that the worst could, and probably would, happen to me. There’s nothing like a prevailing assumption of doom to spice up the interplay in any budding relationship.
Hey Sam? Bitter much?
Sure, but I understand the value of turmoil; at the very least, without it, we wouldn’t have poems, and at the most, we wouldn’t know happiness because we wouldn’t have anything to compare it to. We couldn’t be jazzed about the fact that “the door to your room was/ the door to mine,” because it would always have been that way, and not worthy of note. Celebrations of good love are what they are because we know life isn’t full of them.
I could go on here, but I won’t. I’ll let Carl Phillips end this for me, with a somewhat hopeful, emotionally adventurous line (from his poem “Close Your Eyes”) that acknowledges the risks we take in love :
Trust me. Trust me, the way one animal trusts another.