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The Hell with Love: Poems to Mend a Broken Heartby Mary D. Esselman and Elizabeth Ash VÃ©lez
WHEN HATRED ISN'T STRONG ENOUGH
At least you know you're still alive?that's the one great thing about post-breakup anger. You want him to drop dead-well, maybe suffer some agonizing disfigurement first?and you can't say his name without spitting it and you want to slap every happy couple you see on the street. Not very pretty, but it beats being numb and limp. Rage gives you edge, keeps your blood pumping, gives you a reason to get up in the morning. In fact, we live in a culture that encourages us to express our anger; doctors and therapists agree that repressed anger hurts our psyches and bodies. We're supposed to let it out. But raw, primal rage has its limits. So we smash every plate in the kitchen and rip up every last picture of him?all we're left with is a mess. Cathartic but not constructive.
That's where the "rage" poets come in. These artists have created tidy little arrangements of words, very controlled-looking, very civilized. Or so they seem. But each poem is a finely crafted bomb, packed with fury, vengefulness, and tremendous wit. To read one and "get it" is to experience an explosion of self-recognition?that aha! that makes you laugh and nod and marvel at how the words express exactly what you feel. You're not alone. In fact, you're in pretty eloquent company, which can make you feel a little better about being bitter.
Margaret Atwood's "you fit into me" shoots a pretty little bullet of rage, though at first glance it appears to be a tiny harmless love poem. "You fit into me," the speaker says, the way a hook on a door fits into the round eye of the latch, as if we hold each other together, we complete each other. Very domestic and sweet and sexual. But that romantic image flips in the second stanza? sure you fit into me, darling, like a fish hook stuck in my open eye. The combination of pain (there's a **#! hook stuck in my eye!) and calm self-awareness (my eyes were wide open but he hooked me anyway) make the poem a funny meditation on a really bad relationship.
"Somewhere A Seed," by Michael Fried, offers a similar surprise zinger of an ending. We vote this best poem to give someone in the first throes of breakup pain. The formal measured movement of the poem, its elegant structure (note that it's all one sentence), and the careful control in the speaker's voice lull you into thinking you're reading a conventional "there's growth and hope in Nature, so cheer up" kind of poem? unbearable when you've just been tossed aside by your one true love. Happily, "Seed" turns out to be a "someday, honey, you're going to suffer and die" kind of poem, a delicious, murderous revenge fantasy. The universe is a just place, the poem tells us, and will see to it that your ex gets his; someday, when he least expects it, that "shit-filled heart" of his will feel the kind of pain you're experiencing now.
It's somehow comforting to know that even the most classic, revered poets share this down-and-dirty impulse to see ex-lovers suffer. That's why we love John Donne's "The Message"?it makes a basic revenge impulse seem extraordinarily graceful and witty. What's more, it shows how a breakup victim can regain a bit of confidence and power through the controlled expression of anger. In stanzas one and two of this poem, Donne's speaker assumes victim status-he wants his eyes back, "Which (Oh) too long have dwelt on thee." By the end of the stanza, however, he realizes that they are worthless, "Made by thee/fit for no good sight," so he changes his mind and decides he's better off without them. Next, he asks for his heart back-but later realizes it too has been corrupted by the lying ex-lover, "taught by thine/To make jestings/Of protestings." So he tells her to keep his eyes and his heart. In other words: I may not be able to recover from your betrayal?my vision will remain forever clouded, and my heart is broken for good.
But in stanza three, the speaker tires of being a victim and instead becomes inspired by anger. Wait a minute, he says, I've changed my mind again. "Send me back my heart and eyes," he demands?I'll need them so I can see you suffer when this happens to you, so that I "may laugh and joy, when thou/Art in anguish." It's a bitter kind of joy, but yes, hold on to your heart, says the poem, it will mend. Anger, oddly enough, may well be the first step toward recovery.
Louise Glück assures us that our anger is justifiable?there is reason, not just emotion, behind our rage. The speaker in "Unwritten Law" knows exactly why she is angry. For years she only dated "rather boyish men?unformed, sullen, or shyly kicking the dead leaves" because it was easy and she could keep her guard up and not risk too much of who she really was. But finally she fell for a man (not a boy) who made her feel a "true expansiveness, a buoyance and love of the earth," someone who took her "beyond the archetype" of all her past relationships. With him, she revealed everything, gave everything, and believed it was worth it; it was destiny. She "blessed [her] good fortune" in finding this man. And what was her reward for allowing herself to trust and believe and give thanks? He gradually (with smug cruelty) destroyed her faith in him, which destroyed her faith in good fortune (destiny, God), leaving her with meaninglessness. A bleak poem, but at least it's not just a cry of angry pain. She blames him but tries to accept her own responsibility for why she feels the way she does. There's a thought process here that explains the hurt and very well may help her move forward with her life.
Moving forward is what we ultimately want to do. One way to start is to acknowledge the anger and fantasize revenge, and then forgive yourself for feeling that way. You're allowed these feelings? you've lost so much, and you're so tired, disappointed, and wounded that you want someone else to hurt. It doesn't mean you're some Fatal Attraction wacko. Reveling in rage can give you the will to live again (there's a kind of giddy glee in imagining that arrow through his "shit-filled heart")?but clinging to anger only warps your own heart. You have to move beyond anger if you want to recover completely, that is, if you want to become a trusting, caring person again.
YOU FIT INTO ME
SOMEWHERE A SEED
Yet send me back my heart and eyes, That I may know, and see thy lyes, and may laugh and joy, when thou Art in anguish And dost languish For some one That will none, Or prove as false as thou art now.
But in you I felt something beyond the archetype? a true expansiveness, a buoyance and love of the earth utterly alien to my nature. To my credit, I blessed my good fortune in you. Blessed it absolutely, in the manner of those years. And you in your wisdom and cruelty gradually taught me the meaninglessness of that term.
QUICK AND BITTER
And as we stray further from love we multiply the words, words and sentences long and orderly. Had we remained together we could have become a silence.
In my mind tonight I hear the question and pursuing answer fused in one sound that mounts and mounts and then is split into the old selves, the tired antagonisms. Do you see? We were made fools of. And the scent of mock orange drifts through the window.
How can I rest? How can I be content when there is still that odor in the world?
wishes for sons
let them think they have accepted arrogance in the universe, then bring them to gynecologists not unlike themselves.
Copyright © 2002 by Mary D. Esselman and Elizabeth Ash Vélez
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