Love and Poetry
August 2, 2012 | by Maura Kelly
My first date with Luke started at four in the afternoon—and at midnight, we were still going. Sitting on stools at Frank’s Cocktail Lounge (a bar that feels like a holdover from the seventies, right down to the occasional fedora-wearing patron), we were bent over the carefully folded piece of paper Luke had just taken out of his wallet. As he smoothed it out on the bar, I saw the seven poems, in tiny font, that he carried with him at all times—and I braced myself.
This guy wasn’t just so charming and handsome that I’d already trembled once or twice, near him. He was also “haunted by verse.” That was a description an English professor had once applied to me, after I’d run into her while crossing campus one night; drunkenly, I’d begged her to remind me which poet had written, “Let us roll all our strength and all our sweetness up into one ball.” (Andrew Marvell, for the record.)
Robert Frost famously said poetry provides “a momentary stay against confusion.” Seeing Luke’s poems didn’t make me one bit calm, however. We’d been doing a high-wire conversation act for quite a while by then, but it wasn’t till I saw his aesthete’s bible that I noticed just how far off the ground I was.
Luke, a med student, was ten years younger than I was, but that kind of age difference hadn’t stopped me in the past. My friends thought my preference for younger men was a sign of commitment phobia. I grumbled that it was really a sign that younger men were hotter. And yet I knew they had a point; I knew I was still scared of getting too close to anyone. After all, even I couldn’t take the twenty-five-year-old fireman I’d dated entirely seriously, to say nothing of the twenty-four-year-old jazz musician who played his saxophone on cruise ships, or the twenty-three-year-old guy who did something akin to fetching water for producers at NBC.
I had no choice but to take Luke seriously, though, because he was serious about literature. During our first phone chat, he described an essay in which Auden postulated that there were two kinds of poets: the argument-makers and the beauty-makers. Then Luke asked me if I’d read anything good lately, and I gushed about how the Russian husband-and-wife team Pevear and Volokhonsky made the characters in their version of Brothers Karamazov rise up off the page, whereas Constance Garnett’s interpretation left Dostoevsky’s creations flat. Luke, in turn, talked about how Nietzsche could sound wildly different, depending on who’d translated him; Walter Kauffman was best, he thought.
After that conversation, if Luke had asked me to meet him on railroad tracks with some twine, I probably would’ve considered it. (How often did I meet a man who both was a poetry lover and had his act together? Approximately never.) Instead, he invited me to see The Tempest at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Of course, I said yes.
Our plan was to rendezvous two hours before show time in front of BAM’s grand old opera house, and then find a place to get coffee. I’d been hoping Luke would look worse in person than in his pictures—it would take some of the pressure off. As I approached the beaux arts building, people were clustered on the wide marble steps in groups of two and three, like blackbirds in a winter tree. A solitary man waved.
My heart fell: He didn’t look worse. He looked much better.
Down the block, over steaming white cups, time passed almost imperceptibly. It had been years since I’d been on a date without retreating inward after ten or fifteen minutes. At the performance, too, Luke was a perfect companion: a presence but not a distraction, looking over occasionally to smile or whisper something during the break between scenes. And after the curtain fell, his face was vulnerable with enthusiasm when he asked me to get a drink.
At Frank’s, around the corner, everyone else was watching the Oscars, but Luke and I barely noticed—until the montage from Bright Star came on. “The Johns Keats biopic!” I exclaimed. “Did you see it?” He hadn’t so much as heard of it, which surprised him; Keats was one of his favorites. He used his phone to send himself a reminder to watch it.
Shortly after that, we were discussing existential crises when I mentioned a recent professional setback that had deeply demoralized me. I mentioned that Keats and the idea of negative capability had helped. That’s when Luke handed over his seven-poem vade mecum and showed me “Ode on Melancholy”—Keats’s exhortation to transform emotional pain into something more poignant and less excruciating by focusing it on the world’s beautiful things, like a rose or a lover’s eyes.
I’d taken that advice before. Whenever I’ve managed to burn down all the structures in my mind—leveling everything, so there’s no stable refuge left, no order or meaning—I go over to the Brooklyn Promenade in the evening, and the sun dying out over the water helps raise my internal architecture back up. Given the option, however, I’d take a lover’s eyes.
After we left the bar, Luke grabbed my hand, and gave me an excited, searching look. “I already know how much I like you,” he said. “So I could get on the subway now … or I could go home with you.”
That was an odd way to put it, I thought. But it wasn’t merely his choice of words that had flummoxed me. I liked this person—and in my experience, when a person likes you back, he doesn’t push you to sleep with him on your first date.
But he looked so earnest, waiting for my response with those big eyes. Maybe Luke was being wildly impetuous because he felt the same intense connection that I did? After hesitating for another moment—or six—I went home alone.
At the end of our second (even more enjoyable) date, there was a similar power struggle outside Carnegie Hall. “What are you worried about?” he said, smiling in a way that made it impossible not to smile back. “I’ll want to keep spending time with you no matter what happens.”
No matter what happens didn’t exactly reassure me, I told him.
He asked me what would.
“Memorize ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and recite it next time I see you,” I said.
The next day, he e-mailed me a Wallace Stevens poem that ends erotically, saying that since we humans are imperfect, delight has to come from “flawed words and stubborn sounds.”
I responded with the best poem I’d come across in a while: “Failing and Flying,” by Jack Gilbert. “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew,” Gilbert writes. “It's the same when love comes to an end, or the marriage fails ... Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.”
A poetry exchange ensued—he sent more Stevens, Auden, Frost; I sent Yeats, Roethke, Rilke. Not Romantic poets—but how romantic what we were doing seemed! Within three weeks of meeting Luke, I was envisioning the old farmhouse he and I would live in; he’d practice medicine in the nearby college town while I took care of the garden, the animals, the babies.
Those kinds of fantasies shocked me. I’d long been more or less positive I didn’t want kids, and the mere thought of living with another person usually made me deeply uneasy. Though I wanted to love and be loved, to support and be supported, to grow and help grow, getting truly close to anyone had always seemed dangerously risky. True intimacy has always seemed fraught with peril, and depending on another person like a guarantee of despair. I’ve lost so many people—my mother, who never said good-bye before dying of cancer when I was eight; at least a dozen housekeepers, who came and went from my childhood home constantly, sometimes after no more than a season had passed; a best friend, who also never said good-bye before he committed suicide when I was twenty-six. And my father was someone I seemed to lose on a nightly basis; we were always getting into screaming fights that ended with him ignoring me for days. Getting too close to anyone has never seemed especially wise.
But then Luke came along—and what was this new, or restored, feeling in me? Trust? Hope? Or was it just daring? Maybe I was more willing to take chances because of that big career blow, the one I’d told Luke about on our first date. I’d begun looking for easy ways out of my writing life, frankly, and becoming a wife and mother suddenly seemed like an interesting option.
But maybe my change of heart was less about circumstance and more about Luke. Maybe he was just as exceptional as he seemed—a former All-American athlete with a body like a Rodin who was, despite his seemingly conventional aspirations, surprisingly unconventional. He also wasn’t hamstrung by his intelligence or artistic inclinations, like so many other men that I’d dated; he wasn’t self-loathing. He was kind, maybe even loving. He wanted to help people. He understood how important literature is for survival. A once-in-a-lifetime person.
True, Luke had said, in his first e-mail to me, that he was “looking for someone interesting to take out from time to time,” which didn’t sound like much. But we were in constant contact, and we’d been out more than from time to time. And, of course, there was the poetry.
A month into our dalliance, Luke and I had just put dinner in the oven when things heated up on my love seat. Pushing him back, I said, “I may be an artsy bohemian type, but casual sex isn’t my thing. I want to know what you’re thinking.”
He laughed uncomfortably. “So we’re having a serious conversation, huh? I might need a beer for this.”
He got one, and we sat down again. He reminded me that he planned to leave New York as soon as he finished school, in two years, and that he wouldn’t be able to even think about starting a family until he finished his residency. (We’d never discussed kids; he must’ve just assumed my clock was ticking.) I laughed uncomfortably then and said that I hadn’t been thinking that far ahead.
“All the same, I really enjoy our time together,” Luke continued.
My throat tightened.
A little more than a week later—after a night out with his friends that I took as a sign of progress—Luke was the one who initiated the serious conversation. Since there was a “clear expiration date” on our affair, he said, wasn’t it wise not to go on? That way, we wouldn’t have to endure a far more painful breakup when the time came.
Because we were on the same poems, I’d assumed we were on the same page. I thought Luke had been signaling the loftiness and grandeur of his feelings for me with verse. But I should’ve done a closer read. That first Stevens poem he sent me is about how one’s desires for unity can never be perfectly realized, about how even sexual union is an “imperfect paradise.” And yet bodies come together more easily than minds. Of course, some part of me must have known our thing was doomed. Why else would I have sent a poem about what happens when an affair comes to an end? It’s just that I never thought it would end so quickly.
These days, I get down to the water to watch the sun sink below the horizon as often as I can; I watch more intently as it disappears, while the world sails calmly on. I think about what Keats said: “When the melancholy fit shall fall … glut the sorrow on a morning rose.” And I remind myself that it’s only because I’m able to feel such strong emotion that I can also feel such delight.
Maura Kelly is the author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals. Her essays and op-eds have appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Guardian, the New York Observer, The Daily Beast, Marie Claire, New York Press, Nerve, the Washington Post, Penthouse, Poets & Writers, three literary anthologies, and other publications.