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Love Poems as Built Environments

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series

In case there’s a misperception out there, love poems aren’t exactly easy. Writers can’t sit around feeling until a love poem appears on the page like the King or Queen of Hearts—How nice would that be? But no—We haven’t got access to a magic deck, and feelings—anyone’s, a writer’s included, are always a kaleidoscope blob of non-verbal until they shift, solidify, become words, and often not the right ones. But that’s the gig (or, anyway, a part of it), so here are three things that might help:

Suggestion 1:

Start with the foundation—What’s your strength?

For me, I think, it’s to mythologize, so sometimes I’ve tried that. My wife Jen, for instance, is beautiful; and she has a sister, Hilary; so I thought about them as the characters in this:

When Life Was Born,

so was her sister,
and both of them were beautiful,

so beautiful an eagle promised each
a wing, one eye,

and he gave Life half his heartbeats,
gave her sister every other heartbeat;

from then on, trying to fly from Death
meant flying from himself, as well.

Nights he gathered the wolf pack’s vision
and its long cascade of howls.

Days he collected the salmon’s lunge upstream,
the salmon’s memory.

These and more—two of everything—
the eagle brought to them as gifts,

and so both sisters loved him,
love all of us still.

What can we do, then, but hold Life tightly
and hold Death just as close?

Since Life is our sister,
Death is our sister.

All we can do, like salmon,
is know the ocean before returning home.

Not a love poem, I know. But there is acceptance and discovery. Those two things are a part of love, so there’s that.

Suggestion 2:

You need physics and math when you’re building, and poems are a kind of building, so—Traditional forms won’t cramp you. They can be tools.

Think about it, how many love poems did previous eras give us? I’d say, “Lots.” And a lot of them were sonnets:

.17 Acres. Culinary Water

Not every decimal point is accurate.
They sometimes miss dimension, overlook
the sweep a peach tree adds to the backyard
just by moving in the wind. Imagine it

gone now, downed by a storm. Imagine books
with missing pages… you know it’s more than words
that disappear. So don’t discount the tree.
There’s more to calculate than area.

Last summer, for instance, in the kitchen—peaches peeled,
the crust rolled out—who knows what she saw,
exactly, as I stood there making pie?

But she flashed a smile as bright as cinnamon,
and I could tell exactly what she meant.
Best one-point-something hours that whole July.

Suggestion 3:

Still, I think what a lot of people want is a list. Of the loved one’s qualities. Of the feelings those qualities create inside you. And they probably aren’t wrong to want that—So try a list:

To Jen

You are not the thunder in the story
though your heart does drum more deeply.

Not the lightning either
though you do know how to lash—

still fire in some memories.
No, you are the story of the story, the real:

how the folktale comes from Africa,
and you come from California,

and I come from somewhere
where the sun and words are rare—trees lost

in the fog, I guess, and words waiting
until they’re driftwood,

and who will the people be that come along and climb,
hold hands and balance?

I heard once, and I haven’t forgotten,
Whatever the weather is, it loves you.

And it’s true:
the shoreline lit up or overcast,

enough wind to hear the chimes outside
or not, there’s heat

or there isn’t heat—
I feel it with you.

Until the snow comes blanketing.
Until what’s left of me is just memories when it rains.

Now, that one’s a love poem. I know it. The title, for example, is a giveaway, and so is the end. But that doesn’t make them weaknesses, just like doors and rooflines on a building aren’t a weakness. It’s not weak to write for an audience. It isn’t weak to tell someone what they mean to you. And writing—there’s no way around it—takes giving, sometimes a little bit and sometimes more.

The same as love.



Rob CarneyRob Carney’s first collection of creative nonfiction, Accidental Gardens, is out now from Stormbird Press, and his new book of poems, Call and Response, is available from Black Lawrence Press. Previous books include Facts and Figures, The Last Tiger is Somewhere, The Book of Sharksand 88 Maps.

Read an interview with Rob Carney appearing in “The Ocean is Full of Questions.”
Read Rob Carney’s Letter to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by and Trinity University Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to an interview on Montana Public Radio about The Book of Sharks.

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