Love Calling in the Wilderness
New Works from Poets Li-Young Lee and Tracy K. Smith
“And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.”
This line, from the sonnet Lin-Manuel Miranda shared as part of his award acceptance speech at the 2016 Tonys, reminded a world grieving over the brutal massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, of the one human truth worth fighting to hold onto. It is also what is understood to be at the heart of Christianity: “ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (John 13:34).
How many mass shootings ago was that Tony acceptance speech? How much acrimony has saturated our discourse, only to be broken by calls for love from scripture, from spiritual leaders, from the shepherd of so many our childhoods—Mister Rogers—who told us that love was an active verb, a “struggle” to accept others for who they are. “Love and trust, in the space between what’s said and what’s heard in our life, can make all the difference in this world.”
Poetry at its best works to lessen that space between what’s said and what’s heard, allowing for possibilities rather than closing down necessary conversations. Poets do this by inviting readers into their own meticulous, often fraught, efforts to really understand what is said and what it might mean.
I was too small and young during the tumultuous 1960s to grasp the stakes underlying the tension I sensed among the adults around me. But now, living through one of the most contentious moments in American history that I can remember, I find it harder—yet even more necessary—to keep love as a touchstone. It’s harder because there’s so much noise, so much at stake; it seems that Mister Rogers’ characterization of love as a struggle has been fractured to the point where love is all too often at odds with struggle. Yet something deep inside me knows that, without love as a touchstone, we are lost.
Two recent books by American poets remind me that I’m not alone in this wilderness. Li-Young Lee’s The Undressing and Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water both scour past and present landscapes of injustice, greed, desire, and antimony to find the voice of love. They do so in ways that show that love is vital and possible, even in the most challenging of times and places.
Li-Young Lee has always been a spiritual poet, employing the lyric as a mode of contemplation. But in The Undressing, the search for love is urgent; the quest of the book is clearly stated and never really completed, as “Sandalwood,” the book’s final poem, suggests:
This ash keeps dropping from the incense stick.
I keep turning you over in my mind.
I keep turning you over in my heart.
The stick shortens, burning.
The ash grows
I keep turning you over.
I keep turning you.
I keep turning.
And you keep turning inside me.
The “you” of the poem—as in most of the poems in Lee’s extended meditation—is never named. In “Sandalwood,” the “you” is allowed to remain ambiguous enough for readers to understand that the divine and the human are intertwined in any quest for love that, in Miranda’s words, “cannot be killed or swept aside.”
For instance, in “The Undressing,” the long opening title poem, “she” is certainly embodied as a feminine lover: “The smell of her body / mixes with her perfume and makes me woozy.” But, even as this poem enacts a slow, erotic “undressing,” there is a dialogue going on that clearly suggests embodied, physical love is always, potentially, a pathway to agape and to communion with the divine:
All night, the lovers ask, Do you love me?
Over and over, the manifold beloved answers,
I love you. Back and forth,
merging, parting, folding, spending,
the lovers’ voices
and the voices of the beloved
are the ocean’s legions scaling earth’s black bell,
their bright crested foam
the rudimentary beginnings
of bridges and wings, the dream of flying,
and the yearning to cross over.
At every step of the poem’s progress of physical undressing and lovemaking, the “she” of the poem admonishes the lover to pay attention: “Listen, she says, / Never let the fires go out.” When, further on, she admonishes the lover, saying “The seeds of fire are ours to mother,” I begin to sense that the fire has something to do with capital-L love.
The world is indeed burning, the feminine voice tells the needy lover, and she breaks into a catalogue of the ills of our time, 20,000 years in the making. This is the long view, of course; it may even, she suggests, be the way of the world. “Well it’s too late for flags,” she points out, suggesting that mere politics is not enough to resolve the problems of human suffering and injustice.
It’s too late
for presidents. It’s too late
for movie stars and the profit economy.
It’s too late for plutonomy and prevaricate.
The war is on.
If love doesn’t prevail,
who wants to live in this world?
Are you listening?
This feminine voice of the divine reappears later in the book, in the poem “Changing Places in the Fire.” Here, Lee imagines her as his “battle evangelion.” Perhaps she is a creative muse as well. The poem’s speaker is sensing a catastrophic moment has come, which takes him back—violently— to traumatic events of Lee’s own childhood, when his family was subjected to anti-Chinese violence in Djakarta, Indonesia, his father imprisoned: “I tucked Christ’s promise and Adam’s disgrace / together with my pajamas under my pillow / each morning, unable to distinguish which / was God’s first thought, and which God’s second.” In the end, the poem’s speaker, exhausted by his struggle to find the Word that will make all of the suffering end, must settle on mere human words, human love: “… your body, a mortal occasion / of timeless law, / is all the word I know.”
Recently, US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith read her poetry and engaged in a conversation with poet Dawn Lundy Martin before a Pittsburgh audience of about 200 of us, our first snowfall keeping the number lower than it would have been. Love is a theme that wafts through Wade in the Water. For instance, the book’s title poem, named after a slave spiritual instructing those fleeing to protect themselves from being tracked by bloodhounds, opens with the speaker entering a spiritual gathering (the poem is dedicated to the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters):
One of the women greeted me.
I love you, she said. She didn’t
Know me, but I believed her,
And a terrible new ache
Rolled over in my chest,
Like in a room where the drapes
Have been swept back.
“Love is scary,” Smith said, when Martin asked her about her current work. “I am trying to learn what it is that makes compassion so hard.” At the same time, she went on to observe, she is coming to see capital-L love—in contrast to the intimate relationships she wrote about when she was younger—as “a public act, a world-creating possibility, a life force we are trying to get back to.” The “terrible new ache” has to do with exposure of and to that life force of love, in public.
The vulnerability of exposure to love is dramatized in “Unrest in Baton Rouge,” inspired by Jonathan Bachman’s iconic photograph of Ieshia Evans standing unarmed, poised, peaceful yet immoveable before a line of police in riot gear. The short lyric mentions love four times. The first mention comes in the second couplet: “Is it strange to say love is a language / Few practice, but all, or near all, speak?” This question seems to come out of the blue, as my student Jason pointed out, just after the stark image, “Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.” With all the history of bloodshed in the American South, and the revival of that history in the 2016 murder of Alton Sterling by law enforcement, the question of love does initially feel out of place, just as this elegant young woman seems out of place, or at least incongruous, up against the ineluctable forces she faces. Still, the poem seems to argue, it is the only question worth asking.
The next mention of love in “Unrest in Baton Rouge” imagines it as a powerful weapon, or perhaps a scalpel that measures our humanity. Of the “men in black armor,” Smith asks,
Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?
Love is, the poem goes on to say, “the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.” There’s the ache, the pain of exposure. Love is also, like the woman in the photograph, “naked almost in the everlasting street.” But within this tense moment captured on film, something stirs. Evans’ skirt is “lifted by a different kind of breeze.” The poem ends on this attenuated image of the hem of a dress rising ever so slightly—neither explicit about what that difference is nor effusive about what the future will hold. As the word “stir” also appears in the poem, it’s worth noting that, in the refrain of the song “Wade in the Water,” is the reminder that “God’s gonna trouble the water,” alluding to God’s parting of the Red Sea to help the Israelites escape bondage in Egypt.
When Martin asked Smith what her thoughts were on current calls to “counter hate with love”—something that sounds nice but seems inadequate given the real violence hate has brought about in America—Smith said that she has been trying to believe in “small acts of love”: “I will look at you and I will make space for you.” Listening is part of that practice, too. The legacy of slavery is very much a theme of this collection, with unforgettable poems like “Resolution” and “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All about It.”
“Resolution,” an erasure poem made entirely of words from the Declaration of Independence, listens to the hidden truth about our nation’s treatment of African Americans. “I Will Tell You the Truth” consists entirely of words from letters and statements by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War and their relatives. In this long poem, there are pleas for payment long overdue, pleas for the reunification of families. Though she’d begun reading these materials to inform a poem she planned to write in her own voice, Smith decided to let these texts speak for themselves so that, as she told the audience, “we might miraculously be able to hear these voices from our awful history.”
And so, it seems only right to end by giving space—to lessen the space between what’s said and what’s heard—to some of the voices Smith has brought to these poignant pages:
I have nothing more to say
hoping that you will lend a listening ear
to an umble soldier
I will close—
Yours for Christs sake