Are You Practicing Lasting Love? A Reading of Li Young Lee’s Poem: To Hold
Are You Practicing Lasting Love?
A Reading of Li Young Lee’s Poem: To Hold
[HEAR Li Young Lee Read the poem out loud!]
So we’re dust. In the meantime, my wife and I
make the bed. Holding opposite edges of the sheet,
we raise it, billowing, then pull it tight,
measuring by eye as it falls into alignment
between us. We tug, fold, tuck. And if I’m lucky,
she’ll remember a recent dream and tell me.
One day we’ll lie down and not get up.
One day, all we guard will be surrendered.
Until then, we’ll go on learning to recognize
what we love, and what it takes
to tend what isn’t for our having.
So often, fear has led me
to abandon what I know I must relinquish
in time. But for the moment,
I’ll listen to her dream,
and she to mine, our mutual hearing calling
more and more detail into the light
of a joint and fragile keeping.
The poem’s central image is of utter banality: a husband and wife making the bed together. However, like an ancient Japanese landscape painting, what has been omitted is just as important–if not more important–than what is included. For example, there are no coruscating sparks of passion, nor any direct admissions of love, nor is there even any all-too-familiar drama. But, really, isn’t that how life is for the most part—despite the nudging voice in our ear that doesn’t understand the most important scenes of our lives will not necessarily be the most eventful or accompanied by external fireworks.
Usually they’re not. Usually, what we remember can seem to us like the most insignificant, arbitrary detail of something more exciting: the way our lover blinked, smiling when you surprised her for her birthday, or the soft feeling of our fathers fleece when he lifted us from danger… Or often, what we remember about a significant person in our life is the habits we shared together—making the bed together, greeting each other after work—or a trip, eating together, sleeping together…
That is, intimate moments are quite and dull and closest to our hearts. And some intimate moments, like making the bed together, we do not even realize are intimate until much later. Lee hones in on this image. We can see the couple “Holding opposite edges of the sheet.” We can see it “billowing.” We see their care as they measure it “by eye,” and we can see them “tug, fold, tuck,” because these are things that we’ve done time and time again–because these are things, like brushing our teeth together, that we do everyday with our lover. They are our routine. They are our real lives… not just memories of some enchanted evening.
Unlike so many other poets, Lee neither rejects the banality, trying to cover it with a dramatic facade, nor embraces banality. He acknowledges it, then just as easily dismisses it almost as if the difference was irrelevant: like the cool cherry blossoms of the monasteries collecting dew and shaking dew from their morning leaves. It is this tension that makes the poem the greatest contemporary love poem I have read. For, make no mistake, it is a love poem, however, it is one of the most brutally honest love poem perhaps ever written.
While the relationship between death and love is not new, Lee’s take on this theme certainly is. In the very first words, the speaker admits his own mortality, “So we’re dust.” This image is an old one, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” “man is the quintessence of dust,” “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” however, in recognizing this the speaker’s use of the word “so” is as if to dismiss the point as platitudinous: so what? So many love poems react to death with exigency, the fact of death adds a new sense of urgency to life, perhaps compelling us to make decisions we wouldn’t otherwise (e.g. “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”).
But, here, there is no such rush… in fact, with death in mind, these people move painfully slowly—the couples’ equanimity towards this admission of their mortality is startling, devastating. It reminds of Ray Bradbury’s story, “The Last Night of the World,” where, upon learning it is the last night of the world, a couple simply shrugs and goes back to sleep together. Together.
In both cases, my heart used to race a little as the gravity of their choices dawned on me. I didn’t know whether to think they were heroic or that I was a coward to be shaken by such a steady, unreactive love. Perhaps it is neither–perhaps, what we’re really being shown here is true love–an absurd idealization given that the poem is so mundane otherwise. But that is the point: true love can be the banallest of the banal–like effortless talent, true love is banal love—fitting together like a hand in a soft glove instead of like two 12 point bucks trying to kiss. Sometimes it is so easy, you doubt its love at all… but what does that say?
There is a distinction made in social psychology between passionate love and companionate love. Passionate love is said to last 7 +/- 2 years. It is the love Donne, Shelley, Neruda, even Millay muse about: explosive, emotional, romantic–sexual. Companionate love, on the other hand, is none of these. It is intimate, comfortable, and secure–more like a deep friendship than anything. It is the sort of love that lasts decades, lifetimes even. Few poems have been written about it, and, in my life I have always been torn between these two: do I prefer passion or intimacy–for, as the studies go, one usually does not transform into the other. Perhaps I resonate so deeply with this poem because it is not a passionate love poem: it is a companionate love poem, and, furthermore, knowing the difference, I find companionate love a much more thrilling subject, which is ironic, considering it is literally the least thrilling of the two.
Then again, this makes sense if we consider what Nietzsche says about the truth, “We are all afraid of truth.” I think something in us, especially us romantics, always wishes to believe that our love is real love–true love–but it is not. Most of the time, it’s merely fleeting passion. And, furthermore, most of us, if we were honest with ourselves, would say that that is exactly what we want: fleeting, desultory, passionate love, not companionate love. Lee’s poem terrifies and delights for exactly this reason: it is showing what true, companionate love really looks like and, while we may marvel at it like a sterile family portrait, we must choose what part we want in this. For here, death is not the mother of beauty, and in my eyes I must admit that makes her less beautiful… but all the more lovely.
There is an irreconcilable tension in most people’s erotic ambitions. On one hand, they want someone terribly exciting to them. And, on the other, we want someone who we respect. Of course, it’s amazing when we get both… however, most people artificially inflate the value of excitement to themselves at the exclusion of “respect”… and these people usually find themselves in unfulfilling and fleeting relationships.
Alex Bica once said to me: the point of a relationship is to learn something and so to grow… and we break up when we’re finished learning and growing with each other. I look for “support” in my relationships. The most important thing for me is someone who can support me and who I can support. To me this is, first and foremost, the most exciting thing. I learned my lesson years ago: I can stay with someone forever if we can respect and support each other… Fireworks get boring fast.
There is something utterly tragic about mortal love, which in refusing to recognize Lee makes all the more salient to us. For these simple people, the pleasure of sharing a dream is enough, though they understand the implications of death–that all they “guard will be surrendered,” that they must “tend what isn’t for [their] having.” So, I am devastated when the speaker says, “So often, fear has led me / to abandon what I know I must relinquish / in time. But for the moment, I’ll listen to her dream, / and she to mine, our mutual hearing calling / more and more detail into the light / of a joint and fragile keeping.” Because, in many ways, I know what it is like to be one “quick to abandon what I know I must relinquish in time”–even roses overwhelmed me. But it is not a rose that will inevitably wilt and die in the vase on the countertop of their home that the speaker is referring to–he is referring to his wife. And, just as the poem begins by acknowledging death and by dismissing it, the speaker dismisses death again—the death of all things: the body, our innocence, and the image the firework draws in the sky—returning to the ordinary bedroom scene where two lovers live uneventfully entwined, satisfied by sharing dreams.