Here is the 34th poem in my 52-poem sequence (one a week) for 2013, followed by some illumination and reflection:
To love is to sleep on the floor
is to cut open my veins for you,
notching up the hours
on the bark of my own skin
to suffer in this prison of bone and sinew.
I have tried to leave and stop loving
I have to tried to walk away weeping
into the forgiving darkness of some other destiny
as if misery could grow into myth
and loneliness blossom
into some obscure beauty
this is the prison of my weakness
my affection for you, persistent tree
whose roots I cannot kill.
humanity, kneel with me
you have my shape
here, crouching in this snowstorm
of time and pain
what guides us across centuries
is not the laughter, the sunlight of love
but everything else
what survives our arguments
the violent clashing of hearts
is passing the test
there is a path through Hell, uncharted
except by the heart
by which no man can pass
except blindfold, and in love.
(-27th January 2001).
I don’t think this is the best poem I have ever written by any means, but I can’t seem to discard it from this sequence, because some of the ideas and expressions within it have gone in burning in my head over the years. What is love? A very badly-defined word, in English particularly, which can mean anything from the sexual act itself right through to spiritual unity with all of humanity, via what we feel for our children, and everything in between. Does the word as most commonly used in a romantic context just refer to a kind of invisible pair-bonding glue that takes hold of two people who have been luck/unlucky enough to have found themselves in close proximity for a few critical hours or days, and won’t let go of them until they’ve acted thoroughly irrationally over each other and contrived to find a setting in which to start copulating regularly? And as we know, it doesn’t let go after that either. Far from it, it hangs around for about 20 years of child-rearing, if you’re lucky, or even longer if you’re really really lucky, or unlucky, depending on your own personal perspective and experience of this great merry-go-round ride. I think animals can feel that kind of love just as much as us, by which I mean in no way to belittle them or it. Romance, I would guess, is a kind of unwitting intellectualisation, a bi-product of when these primal emotions rip through a sentient being with advanced intelligence and emotions. God, that sounds cold, dunnit? But so much of the beautiful poetry of the world is based on that: the what-ifs, your memories of who and when, and what you said or didn’t or let slip or let go between all the people you hit it off with.
Jean-Paul Sartre famously said that hell is other people, but of course being left alone on a desert island is equal hell also. I would say that love, by which we mean romance in this context, is a metaphor for a greater longing that we all feel to be united with all the other human beings on this earth. Most of us settle for one or two, because that it is exciting enough. We might not like to admit it, but I would suggest that most of would like to sleep with half the people on the planet, but without the mess and the wreckage, which is to say without the bodies, and that is spirituality. So that is the metaphor of love. Maybe death is a metaphor for when we all get to sleep together. Very soundly, and for a very long time.
Soundly? Today’s illustrations are of Hell, since my poem refers to such a silly theoretical place. I was trying to convince a Buddhist friend of mine that reincarnation is not so different to Nietzsche’s theory of eternal occurrence the other day (i.e. that we are doomed to relive over and over the experience s of our lives, thus creating heaven and hell from our own behaviour –a concept akin to Omar Khayyám’s “I myself am Heaven and am Hell”), but she wasn’t having any of it. A few hundred more coffees required I think, we’ll get there.
The top image is of course by William Blake, his illustration of the doorway to hell as described in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. The black and white illustrations beneath my poem are from Gustave Doré’s later illustrations of the same thing. I don’t have the heart to include any of the more horrific of Doré’s illustrations. Despite the cruel irony of my sometimes being classed as a Horror writer these days, I can’t stand horror, and was truly traumatised by being exposed to my brother Ally’s book of these engravings at an early age.
Below is an illustration of the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy, alongside the extraordinary circlular chapter plan which publisher David Rix created for my first novel ‘Ultrameta’. Among many other things, the world of Ultrameta is modelled on the circles of classical hell, purgatory and paradise.