Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Look of Love

By Leonard Gill

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  I won’t claim to be an authority on how the great minds of France do or do not view the contemporary novel, but it’s cliche that the French do love love and they do love ideas, which possibly explains why Paul West, who has written a “novel of ideas” on the subject of the love of his life (pet-named Swan), should have been a recent inductee into the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

That much said (and that next to nothing), it must also be said that West’s plotless, meandering memoir-as-novel, Life with Swan (Scribner, 300 pp., $24), is downright un-American in its approach and, published to coincide with Valentine’s Day, heavier than a sunken heart: heavy with circumlocution, self-scrutiny, and speculation, and top-heavy with wordplay, a sport West and Swan (in life, the poet, essayist, and naturalist Diane Ackerman) may enjoy to their heart’s content but you as reader may view as a case of academics in extremis. Brilliantly performed? Yes, until one encounters the following, not atypical passage and the production becomes, in another nod to the French, Theatre of the Absurd:

“To cool out,” West writes, “she lay on the couch with her feet toward me and I separated her toes, again and again, my mind sometimes on how the passage of time split the plastic cleats on the underside of toilet seats.”

Such poetics of the heart in the groves of academe may befit the likes of Swan, her swain, and their chief third at Cornell, the late astronomer Carl Sagan, but let’s get back to earth this Valentine’s and make it Bleeding Hearts: Love Poems for the Nervous & Highly Strung (St. Martin’s, 126 pp., $14.95), Michelle Lovric’s follow-up anthology to her delightfully downbeat gift-book collections The Miseries of Human Life and Deadlier Than the Male.

To set the tone (as if her title and subtitle were not enough), Lovric writes that “[f]or late twentieth-century practitioners, Love is much less a smooth swoon of luscious lyricism than a neurotic emergency. Love is an unrelenting appetite that engorges or debilitates the organs and the senses. The lover suffers equally from starvation and indigestion, and is equally frightened of both.” Maybe, but Lovric may be putting it mildly. Andre Segui, an English poet, puts it not so mildly, doesn’t sound a bit frightened, but does do some belly-aching in “How the Bloom Leaves the Rose,” which reads in its entirety: “You/don’t send/me/flowers/anymore/fuckface.”

Neruda Segui is not, but Neruda can be a bleeding heart too, and makes it clear in “The Song of Despair” for the benefit of those who profess to hate poetry that it’s ignorance they’re professing and not an aversion. And the same goes for the poems on offer from a vicious D.H. Lawrence (“Tease”), a bittersweet Wislawa Szymborska (“Happy love”), and a heart-alone Noel Coward (“I am No Good at Love”). From lesser lights we get, as expected, lesser lyrics. But when it comes to lines such as “The neat walnut halves of your buttocks/And the small open fruit of the small of your back, are/Cultivating suggestions in the coarse grass of my groin” (from a poet who shall go nameless), enemies of verse do have their evidence.

Looking this Valentine’s not to poetry, though, but to sound advice on re-winning the heart of one who’s strayed? Go straight, as the Romanies (or Gypsies) do, to the source: your loved one’s underpants and a pair of your own. Using a couple of nutmegs, write your partner’s full name on the former, your name on the latter. Bind the nutmegs with a red cord to symbolize your passion. Fold them into the underwear. Put all of the above into a clean, white envelope. And sleep on it. You may not wake up refreshed but you won’t be alone. Gypsies on the brink of divorce have been doing this sort of thing for ages, and according to Gillian Kemp in The Good Spell Book: Love Charms, Magical Cures, and Other Practical Sorcery (Little, Brown, 115 pp., $14.95), this “Nether Garment Spell For Fidelity” not only “gets to the point” but “apparently works” like magic – because it is magic. And who’s to say it isn’t any crazier than the things non-Gypsies do for love?

Kemp is an English astrologist and performs as a “clairvoyant medium at parties in top hotels and restaurants,” but don’t hold that against her. Her compendium of Gypsy spells and folklore, cures but no curses is, if nothing else, a handy bit of fieldwork, served up gift-wrapped in Julia Sedykh’s top-notch graphic design. One more reason, then, this Valentine’s to wonder if the look of love Paul West so gushes over and poets so praise and condemn isn’t looking more like the stuff of superstition, the same stuff that dreams sometimes made can be unmade on.


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