Featured Poem: Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton

In a world so determined to dictate its standards onto one’s person, it’s always refreshing to find literary works—essays, poems, short stories, and novels—that encourage the celebration of one’s individuality. And if said works could be both empowering and entertaining, then all the better.

For over a decade, my ‘feel-good poem’ has been Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman. It’s a poem that I like to write down in all my journals. That way, if I was having a lousy day and needed a quick pick-me-up, all I had to do was reach into my bag and give the piece a swift read. Instant mood and confidence boost! But now that my current journal is down to its final pages, I’m thinking that for my next one, Maya Angelou’s famous poem will have to learn to share the spotlight. See, I think I’ve found the perfect accompanying piece to Phenomenal Woman, and that’s Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton.

Homage to My Hips

By Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips.

they need space to

move around in.

they don’t fit into little

petty places. these hips

are free hips.

they don’t like to be held back.

these hips have never been enslaved,

they go where they want to go

they do what they want to do.

these hips are mighty hips.

i have known them

to put a spell on a man and

spin him like a top.

Just like Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a poem that’s built to be said out loud in a tone oozing with sass, good humor, confidence, and cocksure conviction. It’s a piece that positively thrums with joy. Just watch how Lucille Clifton delivers it, and tell me that you didn’t crack at least one smile throughout her reading.

Much like Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a celebration of womanhood. It is a poem that urges women to take ownership of their bodies—to love themselves, just as they are. Big hips and all.

Now, at first glance, the poem itself appears to be very straightforward. So straightforward, in fact, that Clifton cannot be bothered with capitalizations and multitudes of metaphors, flowery language and line breaks that are pregnant with meaning. The poet knows what she wants to say and says it directly to her audience. She leaves no room for argument or even the possibility of discussion. She says everything as fact—and rightfully so. Who better to know the effects of one’s body than its wearer?

Clifton starts the poem with the simple but effective declaration: these hips are big hips. Now, even in 1980, when the poem was published in Clifton’s award-winning book of poems, Two-Headed Woman, big hips weren’t exactly de rigueur. In fact, the body ideal during this period had just begun shifting from the soft and slight curves of the 1970s dancing queens to the leggy and athletic Amazonian proportions of the 1980s supermodels.

During that period, there was hardly any room for women with big, bold hips in fashion magazines. But that didn’t really matter to Clifton. See, her hips need space to move around in. Her hips don’t fit into little petty places. She wasn’t about to let anyone tell her that her how her body was supposed to look like, because her hips are free hips. Those are hips that were never enslaved by something as petty as convention or the standards of fashion. She didn’t care about measuring herself by anyone else’s specifications—and why would she, when she had her own yardstick to measure herself against. She knew perfectly well that her big hips were mighty and magical hips, powerful hips that have put a spell on a man and spin him like a top.

Now, it’s interesting to note how Clifton had zeroed in and written an homage about a very specific body part. It begs the question, (for this reader, at least), of Why the hips? If Clifton’s point was to urge women to celebrate their bodies as a way of celebrating their entire selves—for, really, try as we may to separate the physical from the spiritual/mental, our bodies are the tangible representations of our inner selves—why stop with that one bit? Why not talk about breasts, waists, hands, and so on and so forth?

For example, in Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou enumerated and exalted in the reach of her arms, the span of her hips, the bend of her hair, and even the curl of her hips. In doing so, Angelou had painted a complete portrait of a woman. You could imagine this phenomenal woman and slip into her shoes easily. And to be fair, the same could be said about Lucille Clifton’s big hips. Any woman could identify with, wear, and sashay in those hips. And I guess that’s what makes Homage to My Hips so amazing—and maybe that’s also the answer to my previous question.

Why the hips? It’s because much of a woman’s identity in history is actually tied to her hips. Maybe I’m over-reading or overreaching here, but the way I see it is that the hips are home to what a lot of writers like to refer to as the woman’s core. Personally, I think vagina works just fine, but potatoes, po-tah-tos. The hips are the center of a woman’s sexuality. And for a long time, what those hips could produce—a child!—was also seen as the largest measure of her worth and her identity. Why else would our ancestors be so obsessed with child-bearing hips?

And I’d like to believe that the poem, more than celebrating a woman’s form, whatever that form or shape may take, is also a way of urging women to take charge of their sexuality and their identity. Buck the body trends, and more importantly, create your own definition of who you are as a woman. Don’t let society impose its standards on your person. Instead, create, and more importantly, live your own story.

That, and of course, big hips (no matter their actual size) are fabulous and beautiful hips.

Featured Poem: Her Kind by Anne Sexton

Her Kind

Back in college, quite some time ago, there was this little game I used to play called “100 steps.” I would pace around the university library, meandering through the maze of towering shelves, one hand lightly touching the fabric, paper, and leather spines of the books I would walk past. I would mentally count each step, only stopping on the hundredth mark. Then, I’d pull out and peruse whatever tome I ended up touching last. Not the most fun game around, sure. But it was a great way to find new and interesting reads.

Through this little game, I learned quite a bit about a variety of random but fascinating topics. We’re talking South American courtship practices, the history of polygamy, modern-day bigamy, and my personal favorite—the rise of eating disorders in women during the Victorian era. This little practice also made it easier for me to discover amazing poets like Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou, and the genius behind today’s featured poem, the controversial and unforgettable Anne Sexton.

A Few Words on the Poet

Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was a Pulitzer-winning American poet known for her incredibly potent and oftentimes dark verse. Like my favorite poet of all time, Sylvia Plath, most of Sexton’s works comprised of confessional poetry that touched on difficult and deeply personal themes like mental disorders, suicide, depression, social stigmas, the struggles faced by women during that period, and the complex and sometimes scarring relationships between the writer and her loved ones.

And just like Plath, Sexton had no trouble mining, exhuming, examining, and using her experiences to say what was generally unsayable. No topic appeared taboo to Sexton—although she did request that The Awful Rowing Toward God be published only after her death. And she really did have a very deep well of experiences to draw from. Throughout her short life—sadly shortened by her own hands, no less—Sexton struggled against multiple episodes of severe manic and depressive attacks.

It was during her second spiral into mania in 1955 that she met her therapist, Dr. Martin Orne. During their therapy sessions, Dr. Orne began encouraging Sexton to take up writing. The poet attended John Holmes’s poetry workshop, where it was discovered that she had an incredible knack for poetry. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Her Kind: A Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

Anne Sexton’s famous poem, Her Kind, explores the struggles of its persona to conform to the societal expectations and norms levied against women during the early to mid-20th century. During this period, women were expected to live a certain way—to grow up to be future wives, mothers, and homemakers, with little wiggle room to be anything else. In other words, a woman’s path was paved but incredibly narrow, bright but harshly lit, with a lobotomy waiting at the end of it. But the voice of Her Kind is unwilling, or maybe even unable, to minimize herself to fit the strict confines of society’s definition of woman. She cannot and will not be boxed in.

Now, to illustrate the character’s defiance, Sexton divides the poem into three sections, with each stanza showing a specific side of the persona. In the first stanza, the persona presents herself as a lonesome suburban witch. The next stanza, she’s a lonely housewife or mother. And finally, in the last stanza, the persona paints herself as a defiant adulteress about to face her execution. Written in the first person, Her Kind reads more like a declaration of self, an affirmation of identity, rather than a simple retelling of the character’s life. It is the persona’s rebellion against the dictates of a society seeking to restrict her identity by telling her who, what, and how to be.

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Featured Poem: Woman to Man by Ai

Powerful, violent, gritty, gut-wrenching, and polarizing—these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of Ai Ogawa’s poetry. The narrative poet is known for her short and intense dramatic monologues, her chilling offerings of a slice of someone else’s life. The fact that her poems are also told in first person narrative allows both Ai and the reader to step into her characters’ shoes. And bear in mind that these shoes are far from comfortable.

When Ai chooses her characters, she does so from the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in the country—the outsiders, the downtrodden, the forgotten, the racially profiled, and the voiceless. She probes and exposes the underbelly of American culture and society, choosing to write about ‘taboo’ topics like abortion, child abuse, murder, and spousal abuse. Ai then, gifts her narrator with a voice so violent and so strong the reader cannot unhear it. The echo of her stories stick with you and into you like invisible needles, long after you’ve forgotten the actual words.

Now, for today’s poetry review, we’re doing an analysis of the poem, Woman to Man. The poem was first published in 1973 in Cruelty, Ai’s first collection of poetry. When Cruelty first came out, it did so in the midst of the second wave of feminism, and in the same year, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.

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The Most Romantic Poems of All Time (Part 2)

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Here’s the continuation to my post on the most romantic poems of all time. Again, in no particular order, another ten love poems guaranteed to make you a little weak in the knees.

To My Dear and Loving Husband by Anne Bradstreet

I prize thy love more than the whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

This short poem from Anne Bradstreet reads like a beautiful and passionate love letter. The poet talks about the intense happiness one can derive from being with the person one loves. The persona also claims that her esteem for her husband is eternal—for it is the type of love that can never be surpassed. It is his love alone that can satisfy her. She also expresses tremendous gratitude to her husband for this life-changing and immortal love.

Meeting at Night by Robert Browning

A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each.

In my previous post, I had included Sonnet 43 (How do I love thee) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This time around, we have an entry from her husband, Robert Browning. Meeting at Night speaks of a rendezvous between lovers. More accurately, it talks about the persona’s journey to his lover’s place and the excitement they feel upon seeing each other.

At the start of the poem, the persona describes what he sees and experiences without disclosing his intended destination. It is only in the last two sentences that we realize it is a joyful and somewhat secret reunion between him and his loved one (tap of the pane, quick sharp scratch).

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;

Here’s a small confession from this reader—I can’t quite decide if this ‘love poem’ is sweet or not, but what I know is that its persona is persistent. To His Coy Mistress, a poem published posthumously in 1681, is one of the most well-known poems from Andrew Marvell. In it, the persona is in pursuit of his ‘coy mistress.’ He starts the poem declaring the breadth and depth of his love for her and then attempts to convince her to give in to his seduction by presenting the rather harsh imagery of death. He asks her to love him before it’s too late for both of them. Sweet or not, this poem earns high points for its morbid persistence.

Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

More sad than sweet, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe explores the theme of a love that continues even after death. The poem, which is about the death of a beautiful woman, is believed to have been inspired by Poe’s own loss. His wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, was just 24 years old when she succumbed to a bout of consumption.

In the poem, the persona remembers and relives the loss of his beloved. They had been in love as children, and had maintained a love so strong that even the angels were envious of their happiness. The angels then sent down a wind that chilled and killed the beautiful Annabel Lee. Despite her death, the persona insists that their love remains strong; for nothing could ever sever his soul from the soul of Annabel Lee.

A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luv thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

A Red, Red Rose was written by Robert Burns in 1794. Despite actually being a song and not a poem, its lyrics and consistent publication in literary sites has landed it a place in my top 20 love poems list. With its charming imagery of red roses in June and rocks melting in the sun, the poem depicts the sweetness of true and lasting love.

I Loved You First: but Afterwards Your Love by Christina Rossetti

For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine’;
With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:

In I loved you first: but afterwards your love, Christina Rossetti writes about the oneness that comes with being in a relationship with the right person. The persona addresses her lover directly, confessing that while she may have loved him first, it was his love that outsoared hers. But ultimately, there is no need for “weights and measures,” for as Rossetti puts it:

Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine’;
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.

 A Glimpse by Walt Whitman

…And I unremark’d seated in a corner;
Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and
Seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand;

True to its name, A Glimpse by Walt Whitman reads like a beautiful scene from your favorite romance novel. Just one moment of sheer happiness and contentment as the rest of the world continues its hustle and bustle, its flurry of movement. One scene of love immortalized in time.

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sonnet 18, alternatively titled as Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, is perhaps the most well-loved of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. In the poem, the persona addresses his lover and compares his beloved to a lovely summer’s day. But ultimately, he points out that his dearest is fairer and more everlasting than the short season, beautiful as summertime may be. His words also prove prophetic when he claims that his beloved will be immortalized through this text, as both Shakespeare and Sonnet 18 have become a permanent fixtures in the ever-evolving literary landscape.

That I Did Always Love by Emily Dickinson

That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived—Enough—

Fact: Emily Dickinson is one of the finest (and most eccentric) poets to have walked the earth. Also a fact: with her unique use of syntax and capitalizations, her poems are shrouded in an esoteric curtain that begs to be lifted. Well, perhaps more than a curtain, each work is an onion that begs to be peeled layer by layer. Now, the beauty of That I Did Always Love is its rawness and straightforwardness.

Through this poem, she proves to her beloved that she has always loved him. She tells him, almost directly between her em dashes, that what gives life meaning is love, and that should he doubt her love for him then she would feel nothing but immense suffering.

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored

 And finally, rounding up this list is Love after Love by Sir Derek Walcott. Dare I say it? This is probably my favorite love poem of all—for it is a love poem for one’s self. In this poem, the persona talks to the reader directly and reminds the reader that when everyone else is gone, there is one other person that deserves your love—yourself.

It is easy enough to forget oneself when in love. We give and we give and we empty ourselves in the hopes of reciprocity. But in the midst of a whirlwind or a soft and lingering love affair, it is important to once in a while, “Sit. [and] Feast on your life.”

(See Part I of The Most Romantic Poems of All Time)

The Most Romantic Poems of All Time (Part I)

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For this particular reader, there are few things more romantic than a heartfelt and well-written love poem. Oh, a diamond ring is an absolute darling. But terrific poetry? Now, that is forever.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I’ve compiled a list of the most romantic poems of all time. Admittedly, personal preference did come into play (a lot) during this selection process. So, if your favorite love poems failed to make the initial cut, just chime in. This is just the first of a two-part series—I’ll be happy to include your suggestions in the next list.

So, without further ado (and in no particular order), here are the most romantic poems of all time. Read and enjoy.

On Marriage by Kahlil Gibran

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

This excerpt from Kahlil Gibran’s immensely popular book, The Prophet, is one of the most popular wedding readings today. It’s a piece that encourages husband and wife to stand together in love but also to retain a semblance of individuality. Or, as Gibran puts it:

Give your hearts, but not in each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the Cyprus grow not in each other’s shadows.

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in] by E. E. Cummings

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Fact: many of E.E. Cummings’s most well-known poems are very avant-garde in terms of style. Also a fact: These works carry universal appeal, hence their enduring popularity. In [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in], Cummings gives the traditional love poem a fresh twist with his experimental use of punctuation and syntax.

(see my review of E. E. Cummings’s poem, l(a here.)

Love’s Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley

And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

Now, here’s a poem about unrequited love. Love’s Philosophy was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1820. In this poem, the speaker tries to convince his beloved to return his feelings by pointing out how everything in nature is interconnected and intermingles. As Shelley puts it:

All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle; —
Why not I with thine?

Pretty compelling argument right there, if you ask me.

Sonnet 43 (How Do I Love Thee) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

Sonnet 43, also known as How Do I Love Thee, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is the second to the last poem in the poet’s love sonnets collection, Sonnets from the Portuguese. In this poem, the persona proclaims the extent of her love for her partner—which according to the poem is pretty much limitless. It’s a declaration of an unbounded, inexhaustible, and infinite love. The poem is also said to have been written for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s husband, Robert Browning.

Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you straightforwardly without complexities or pride;

This is one of my favorite poems from the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. It’s a poem that conveys the truth about love—that it is not always perfect but it is all-encompassing.

See my analysis of Sonnet XVII here.

Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds by William Shakespeare

…Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

No list of love poems is complete without this gem from the Bard of Avon. In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare gives us a beautiful definition of what Love truly means. According to Shakespeare, real love is unchanging—it is an ‘ever-fixed mark’ in the face of ‘tempests.’

Another Valentine by Wendy Cope

Our love is old and sure, not new and frantic.
You know I’m yours and I know you are mine.
And saying that has made me feel romantic,
My dearest love, my darling valentine.

Another Valentine by Wendy Cope is just the poem for those of us in long-term relationships. The poem starts out with the persona seemingly complaining about Valentine’s Day. “Today we are obliged to be romantic.” But as you can see, her tune changes soon enough. It’s a short, humorous, and sweet piece that’s a delight to read.

She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

She Walks in Beauty might just be the sweetest poem ever written. The way Lord Byron describes the poem’s subject—her beauty, her charm, and her grace—is nothing short of swoon-worthy. Now, according to several sources, the poem was inspired by the mesmerizing good looks of Mrs. Anne Beatrix Wilmot—the wife of Byron’s first cousin.

Valentine by Carol Ann Duffy

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
Possessive and faithful
As we are,
For as long as we are.

In Valentine, Carol Ann Duffy does away with the usual representations of love like the red rose and the satin heart. She goes for a more faithful symbol instead—the onion.  Like the onion, true love has its many layers. Its sting can blind you with tears, its fierce kiss is possessive and faithful, and its scent is one that clings.

High points for accuracy.

To My Valentine by Ogden Nash

I love you more than a wasp can sting,
And more than the subway jerks,
I love you as much as a beggar needs a crutch,
And more than a hangnail irks.

Humor is key to this lovely and lively little poem from Ogden Nash. With its unflattering imagery and easy rhymes, To My Valentine exudes the same innocent and childlike vibe as that old nursery rhyme that goes—“dogs and snails and puppy dog tails.” But the beauty of this poem is that underneath the uncomplimentary visuals it presents is a persona just reassuring his valentine of his immense love.

(See Part 2 of this list here)

Featured Poem: Morning Song by Sylvia Plath

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(Due to copyright issues, I won’t be posting the poem. But click here to view “Morning Song” in its entirety.)

Sylvia Plath is one of the finest poets the world has ever seen. There is this incredible, almost unnerving frankness and viciousness to her works. She had a way of squeezing every drop out of life at every instance and skillfully capturing passing notions and emotions. She’d weave them into beautiful and oftentimes jarring tapestries of poetry and stark reality. For many readers, myself included, her finely penned confessions/poems possess a magnetic pull. We are drawn into her world just as effectively as we are asked to examine ours.

In Morning Song, Plath captures the burgeoning love of a mother for her newborn. The poem, written shortly after her own child’s birth, speaks of how mother and child start off almost as if they were strangers before inevitably developing a connection that binds them for life.

Note how in the poem, she addresses her child as if she were speaking to another adult. There is no cooing, no profuse proclamations of a life-changing love—nothing to intimate the cosmic connection between them, at least at first.

In the first line, she even likens the child to a “fat gold watch.” Although the watch was set into motion by love, the ticking watch can also be seen as a reminder of a person’s mortality.  To be specific, if not the death of the person, the demise of the self. The third stanza reads:

“I am no more your mother

Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement at the wind’s hand.”

Interesting use of the word effacement, which in medical terms refer to the thinning of the cervix in preparation for the child’s delivery. But attach the word ‘self’ to effacement, and what you have is the deliberate act of taking the background, almost as if allowing the self to fade away, much like how condensation dissipates into thin air. Again, a ticking clock and effacement at the wind’s hand.

Take into consideration that from a purely evolutionary perspective—strictly gene’s eye level—the purpose of gene carriers is to ensure the continuation of their respective genetic lines, i.e. man must “go forth and multiply.”

And while, historically speaking, “securing heirs” was a weight carried by both men and women, there’s no arguing that women were left to shoulder the brunt of that weight. Go back less than a century to Plath’s own time and a large section of society still thought that a woman’s primary purpose was to bear children and rear them. Women were already working then, but the concept of ‘family first’ for women wasn’t so much a suggestion as it was an accepted rule.

Now, Sylvia Plath was a woman with grand literary ambitions and while motherhood was something she welcomed completely, when faced with the newness of the situation, it must have given her a bit of a pause. Motherhood was a jump into the uncertain, which carried with it great joy and tremendous challenges.

On the second stanza, she describes the parents’ reaction to the baby’s arrival—

“Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.

In a drafty museum your nakedness

Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.”

There it is, the pause. A sense of detachment. Strangers meeting for the first time. And yet, towards the end, the poem changes its tune quite drastically to show a mother’s devotion to her child. Plath speaks of waking to listen to her child’s breathing. She talks of how:

“One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral

In my Victorian nightgown.”

Those words transform the persona from a watchful observer to a dedicated and loving mother.

Now, in my humble opinion, what makes Morning Song timeless is how it challenges the traditional idea that all women react the same way to motherhood. While ideally, it would be love at first sight between mother and newborn—that their bond is present and sealed after the final push—it’s not an always case. Sometimes it takes a while for that bond to be established. And that’s okay. Sometimes going through that journey of getting to know and arriving to love their children is just a journey some of the best mothers have had to undertake.

Featured Poem: Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda

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Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,

Or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.

I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,

In secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms,

But carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;

Thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,

Risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.

I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;

Therefore, I love you because I know no other way

Than this: where I does not exist, nor you,

So close that your hand on my chest is my hand,

So close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

 

Junior year, high school. My creative writing teacher furnishes the entire class with a copy of Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII. As soon as each student has the paper in hand, our teacher launches into a sonorous reading of the poem. I read along with him, silently mouthing the words, thrilled and confused by the staggering and yet, straightforward imagery.

Somewhere in the stash of angst-ridden journals I keep in a drawer at home, the photocopied poem is pasted on an empty page. Crumpled and yellowing, I no longer need the copy. It is one of those few poems I know by heart. But I keep it handy to remind myself of the day I felt the promise of poetry strike, hot and impressive and terrifying. If Sylvia Plath’s Mirror had been the catalyst, the fever behind my writing aspirations, Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII was what ignited my passion for poetry.

This is a poem with a heartening twist. A poem naked in its honesty and teeming with relatability. I remember reading its first lines that first time and thinking, “How terrible to be at the receiving end of this poem!”

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose or topaz| or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.| I love you as certain dark things are to be loved| in secret between the shadow and the soul.

A salt-rose, a topaz, and even the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off—those were stunning images of something to value, of something easy to love because of their beauty. But instead, the persona described his/her lover as a dark thing to be loved in secret. The next lines had seemed equally unflattering, I thought.

I love you as the plant that never blooms| but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers.| Thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance risen from the earth| lives darkly in my body.

A plant that never blooms. Never mind that it was the type of plant that held the promise of hidden flowers… And the way love was described almost felt as if it were something contagious, unexplainable, and almost unwanted.

But the rest of the lines made me realize, this was not the traditional love poem that exalted the lover’s virtues, it was one that explained the unfathomable depth—and maybe, the irrationality—of true and lasting love.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where| I love you straightforwardly without complexities or pride.| Therefore I love you because I know no other way

Than this: where I does not exist nor you| so close that your hand on my chest is my hand| so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

This wasn’t a poem that spoke of love at its first blush, with its rose-colored glasses and the consequent blindness to the lover’s flaws. This was a poem that spoke of what happens after the honeymoon hour. It’s a poem about commitment and a love so deeply forged that the lovers cease to be ‘each other,’ for they are as much the other as they could ever be. Oneness in the face of reality. As my theology professor would say, this is a difference between “falling in love” and actually “loving.” Love—with its becauses, and more importantly, with its despite ofs.

Also, that line break. That glorious, glorious line break from “Therefore I love you because I know no other way” to “than this.” I am always in awe with how clever this poem turned out. How unexpected and beautiful its message happens to be. Definitely one of the best and most honest love poems in history.

 

About the Poet

Pablo Neruda is one of the most well-known and best-loved poets of the 20th century. In 1971, the Chilean poet-diplomat was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He remains one of the most inspirational poets today—and rightfully so. While translated poetry often experiences a slight and unfortunate, though unintentional diminishment, an accidental dwarfing caused by the barriers of language, Neruda’s works retain their vivid imagery and vast, hard-hitting meanings. No doubt, we have his highly skilled translators to thank for this, but it is also very possible—if not, downright true—that the potency of the poet’s words cannot be contained by something as insignificant as a difference in language.