A Crucible of Rubies: Love Poems selected and written by the Plume Staff
In celebration of Valentine’s day, we thought our readers might enjoy some poems written or selected by our Plume Staff which explore that elusive mystery which batters, baffles, swells, soothes and sometimes breaks our pretty red hearts in two, and drives us down roads often not of our own choosing. Below you’ll find an assortment of poems and a short film, which sing the erotic, romantic, platonic, sardonic, filial, fraternal and marital manifestations of the “L word” to which we are often helplessly enthrall.
Like so many of my poems, this one came from something I read: in this case an article about how some Roman skeletons show signs of malaria’s most deadly parasite/form, and theories that this hastened the fall of the Empire. I’ve always been sort of morbidly fascinated by malaria, especially after I had it―a milder form, of course.
Years before I read that article, I read an excerpt somewhere from a beautiful poem, translated from Arabic, whose title and author I sadly can’t remember. In the poem the speaker addresses his chronic malarial fever as a lover who comes to him and night and leaves him in a sweat. (If anyone knows this poem, please tell me!)
Anyway, those ideas came together, as they do.
Ancient Roman Bones Reveal Malaria: A Love Song
How like a hive, his body−so busy with rigor,
with languor & sweats: his spleen my arena,
his spine my near vicus, encampment. Ague
as opiate: I have bequeathed him bright visions
of wings, my crepuscule sulks, a fever & tremor,
a ribcage too meager to scaffold a temple
or cistern of piss. Citizens, I’ll never leave him−
not while forests are cleared by your hunger
for villas, for mainmasts, flagpoles & bonfires.
We’ll wax as we dwindle, gut-swollen and rank.
What will be left for the Gauls? A cattail garden.
Shards & a damp palm’s mark on the parchment.
from AND SO WAX WAS MADE & ALSO HONEY
by Amy Beeder (Tupelo Press, 2020)
That an elephant can detect a rumble from miles away through the pads of its feet, that some seabirds desalinate and drink the ocean’s water. I am drawn to traits like these that enable the creature to survive a circumstance that would likely be devastating to a human. I guess it’s a kind of flora and fauna as super-hero thing.
Well, that is how the poem, “Octopus” began. “It cannot touch without tasting” was the first note I jotted down. And then I began to sense that this could be a love poem. So I searched for other strange facts that could build my case for cephalopod as super-lover and found that an octopus’s skin can see.
And then I remembered that feeling of wanting to take in a lover’s body all over, from everywhere, every impossible angle, all at once. And I was drawn to this strong remembrance, all the more for seeing it through the fluidity of the octopus’s body, the strangeness of all those reaching arms and how the creature could escape the confines of its body’s shape by flattening and narrowing, transcending the body in a way as it slides into the narrow crevice of a rock to disappear from view.
It cannot touch without tasting.
And imagine, not two but eight arms.
Though the cephalopod’s weak eyes
see only vague shapes,
in its skin live the same powers
as in the retina of the human eye.
How much sexier to look at you
from anywhere on my body,
your prominent chin as seen
from the arch of my foot. Our genitalia
looking directly at each other.
And when I learn of this creature’s
used only to clamp its prey,
I can almost feel the heated breath
from the sound cave of your mouth,
your petal-tongued mouth.
From upstreet number 17, 2021
Some love songs appreciate or profess. Others wheedle or whine or wish. A few even demand. I’ve never been so interested in writing those, although reading in the history of love sonnets from troubadour song to Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura to the later vogue for English sonnets take an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to love. A love song might be about anything (even at the expense of love). A love song might use any kind of vocabulary (financial, medical, etc.) And a love song might have any emotional tone, although many have a bit of a lost-and-broken feel. I tend toward a dreamier king of love song, one more about looking, reflecting, maybe even finding. So, I suppose it’s no surprise my love song ended up in the second-hand trash and treasure shop of the heart. I used to be a champion thrifter, which might have done W.B. Yeats some good. My husband still is. A favorite spot of his is the Guild Shop in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, where we live. So, somehow, the warm and sometimes sleepless nights of winter holidays in Texas sent me into reverie. And then this happened.
I comb Montrose looking
for a bon mot or a mot juste
or anything to return some
joie de vivre after sixteen
weeks of endless, piercing
sun. Find myself cruising
storefront antique hoards in
search of exotic cocoa tins.
You can see perfection
in the mind’s eye while
dump truck automata
cleanse the streets with
their petrochemical arms
and a whoosh of motion
as you grasp the last few
grains of morning sleep.
All gone now. Safe and
alone, in your winter prism:
endless cocoa, red mittens.
Love songs love this time
of year. Guild Shop gold
spun from fallen flax.
Heavens, move the earth
and me to some better
prospect of my love,
a shop window catching
the third order reflection
of a face in a window
in a rain puddle (assuming
it still rains) and there
you are: sipping earthy
from cupped hands.
I wrote this poem initially with consistent gender pronouns for him and her in a traditional heterosexual manner, but then realized while revising it that since love transcends gender I should alternate my references to the beloved “other” without regard to gender. I wasn’t sure how it would sound or read until I read it back to myself and discovered that I had written a love poem that was not only true to love’s liberating radical nature, but epiphanic.
You must believe without
any evidence or reason that
your beloved is standing
behind you waiting for
you to turn around by ro-
tating only a little at first
and then some more until
you see her face and smell
his hair that emanates a scent
that’s a lot like yours, only
better, then feel the tickle
of her breath on your lips
and cheeks and hear his
voice that speaks your name
with an accent you’ve never
heard before but are drawn
to for its inflections and music,
although you’re still afraid
to turn completely around
and behold her there as
your beloved who appears
so stunning you find it hard
to believe he’s actually there
and wonder if maybe she’s
a ghost or vision, although
he seems so real and alive
with lilac breath and
riveting stare you can
feel the charge of her skin
through his dress that causes
you, in turn, to believe against
every reason and fear in the
mystery that compels you to
keep turning around until
you behold her form and
visage so completely it con-
tinues to beguile you each
time you blink and become
so dizzy you can’t stop
staring at her as the cynosure
who stands at the center
of your turning, which causes
you next to grow oblivious
to everything else because
you’ve met him now in
the flesh and can think
of nothing else besides her
in this danger zone of turning
around which causes you in
yet another turn a close call
with oncoming traffic and
loss of appetite and for-
getfulness, which you only
survive at the mercy of
a god who is employed by
another god whose name
you’re forbidden to speak,
although the animals repeat it
daily in the wild, until in
media res of your obsession
with him you find yourself
in private with her in a
room somewhere beside
a river with the exigent
need to make an exchange
from you to him in the trans-
itory realm of eternal being
from which you walk
away together into the world
from which you came when
your life had yet to be
transformed by turning a-
round to behold your other
so you could walk away
together then into a field
like gods remembering
that moment you first espied
each other in your raiment
of everyday clothes and
embraced as one, although
you were two and so vastly
different you could never
have known from seeing
her face that he was the
one, if you’re ever to love.
The germ of my short film, The Long Way Home was inspired by an incident days before my father’s death when my ministrations to soothe him during a painful episode were met with, “Why are you doing that? Just stop.”
The film concerns itself with the twisted ways familial and marital love expresses itself; showing up for a sibling’s baseball game, visiting an aged grand-parent in a nursing home, and most mysterious, the enduring loyal to family members despite years of emotional rebukes.
In keeping with my policy of never publishing my own work in Plume, I’ve chosen another’s as my love poem. From the archives: in the latter seventies I took a trip to San Francisco, where punk was just breaking, and I was struck that so many public spaces – mailboxes, store windows, and especially telephone poles – were pasted or stapled with flyers (you know the style) for band performances: the Nuns, Dead Kennedys, Negative Trend, et al. With this in mind, arriving back home to Louisville, Kentucky, I thought…why not poetry? I recall the first, typed, then a hundred or so copied at the college where I was teaching; a friend and I made the rounds after whatever we were up to one night. Much to my surprise, they were gone in a few days. (Some, I’m sure, removed by disgruntled shopkeepers or neighborhood bluenoses.) So, another, and another. At the start, my then (and still) adored surrealists, followed by Parra, Vallejo, Simic, Voznesensky…until finally it occurred to me that I could add my own poems – signed with changing rubber stamps another artist pal was making at the time. It was a great – secret — delight both to believe I was doing something new (I hadn’t heard of Joe Brainard!) and to find them, on occasion, affixed to a refrigerator door at a party, or thumbtacked to a wall.
Anyway, here is that initial entry: André Breton’s FREE UNION. A bit quaint now perhaps, at age 91, its images frayed here and there, yet still, for me, its spell persists, magically allusive, adorative in the best, once-wildest sense.
(André Breton, 1931, somewhat loosely translated by David Antin )
My wife whose hair is a brush fire
Whose thoughts are summer lightning
Whose waist is an hourglass
Whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger
Whose mouth is a bright cockade with the fragrance of a star of the first magnitude
Whose teeth leave prints like the tracks of white mice over snow
Whose tongue is made out of amber and polished glass
Whose tongue is a stabbed wafer
The tongue of a doll with eyes that open and shut
Whose tongue is incredible stone
My wife whose eyelashes are strokes in the handwriting of a child
Whose eyebrows are nests of swallows
My wife whose temples are the slate of greenhouse roofs
With steam on the windows
My wife whose shoulders are champagne
Are fountains that curl from the heads of dolphins over the ice
My wife whose wrists are matches
Whose fingers are raffles holding the ace of hearts
Whose fingers are fresh cut hay
My wife with the armpits of martens and beech fruit
And Midsummer Night
That are hedges of privet and nesting places for snails
Whose arms are of sea foam and a landlocked sea
And a fusion of wheat and a mill
Whose legs are spindles
In the delicate movement of watches and despair
My wife whose calves are sweet with the sap of elders
Whose feet are carved initials
Keyrings and the feet of steeplejacks who drink
My wife whose neck is fine milled barley
Whose throat contains the Valley of Gold
And encounters in the bed of the maelstrom
My wife whose breasts are of the night
And undersea molehills
And crucibles of rubies
My wife whose breasts are haunted by the ghosts of dew-moistened roses
Whose belly is a fan unfolded in the sunlight
Is a giant talon
My wife with the back of a bird in vertical flight
With a back of quicksilver
And bright lights
My wife whose nape is of smooth worn stone and wet chalk
And a glass slipped through the fingers of someone who has just drunk
My wife with the thighs of a skiff
That are lustrous and feathered like arrows.
Stemmed with the light tailbones of a white peacock
And imperceptible balance
My wife whose rump is sandstone and flax
Whose rump is the back of a swan and the spring
My wife with the sex of an iris
A mine and a platypus
With the sex of an alga and old-fashioned candles
My wife with the sex of a mirror
My wife with eyes full of tears
With eyes that are purple armor and a magnetized needle
With eyes of savannahs
With water to drink in prisons
My wife with eyes that are forests forever under the ax
My wife with eyes that are the equal of water and air and earth
Ma femme à la chevelure de feu de bois
Aux pensées d’éclairs de chaleur
A la taille de sablier
Ma femme à la taille de loutre entre les dents du tigre
Ma femme à la bouche de cocarde et de bouquet d’étoiles de dernière grandeur
Aux dents d’empreintes de souris blanche sur la terre blanche
A la langue d’ambre et de verre frottés
Ma femme à la langue d’hostie poignardée
A la langue de poupée qui ouvre et ferme les yeux
A la langue de pierre incroyable
Ma femme aux cils de bâtons d’écriture d’enfant
Aux sourcils de bord de nid d’hirondelle
Ma femme aux tempes d’ardoise de toit de serre
Et de buée aux vitres
Ma femme aux épaules de champagne
Et de fontaine à têtes de dauphins sous la glace
Ma femme aux poignets d’allumettes
Ma femme aux doigts de hasard et d’as de cœur
Aux doigts de foin coupé
Ma femme aux aisselles de martre et de fênes
De nuit de la Saint-Jean
De troène et de nid de scalares
Aux bras d’écume de mer et d’écluse
Et de mélange du blé et du moulin
Ma femme aux jambes de fusée
Aux mouvements d’horlogerie et de désespoir
Ma femme aux mollets de moelle de sureau
Ma femme aux pieds d’initiales
Aux pieds de trousseaux de clés aux pieds de calfats qui boivent
Ma femme au cou d’orge imperlé
Ma femme à la gorge de Val d’or
De rendez-vous dans le lit même du torrent
Aux seins de nuit
Ma femme aux seins de taupinière marine
Ma femme aux seins de creuset du rubis
Aux seins de spectre de la rose sous la rosée
Ma femme au ventre de dépliement d’éventail des jours
Au ventre de griffe géante
Ma femme au dos d’oiseau qui fuit vertical
Au dos de vif-argent
Au dos de lumière
A la nuque de pierre roulée et de craie mouillée
Et de chute d’un verre dans lequel on vient de boire
Ma femme aux hanches de nacelle
Aux hanches de lustre et de pennes de flèche
Et de tiges de plumes de paon blanc
De balance insensible
Ma femme aux fesses de grès et d’amiante
Ma femme aux fesses de dos de cygne
Ma femme aux fesses de printemps
Au sexe de glaïeul
Ma femme au sexe de placer et d’ornithorynque
Ma femme au sexe d’algue et de bonbons anciens
Ma femme au sexe de miroir
Ma femme aux yeux pleins de larmes
Aux yeux de panoplie violette et d’aiguille aimantée
Ma femme aux yeux de savane
Ma femme aux yeux d’eau pour boire en prison
Ma femme aux yeux de bois toujours sous la hache
Aux yeux de niveau d’eau de niveau d’air de terre et de feu.
I gift a winter poem on MLK Jr. weekend to my partner, and he gifts me a sketch to celebrate our anniversary on the 19th of January. This year is our ivory anniversary so an elephant appears in his pencil drawing. My poem “Ivory” is also tipping my hat to “Going to Morning Market” by Zhang Xinying. In the painting, the moon and the faces of three women walking are parallel crescents, and the shapes throughout the painting are tusk-like. In Chinese tradition the moon is female.
Last week, after sunset, I walked into the woods on a snowy evening. I recited the Robert Frost poem to my companions, two ten-year-old girls. We were three female forms, crunching through an ice land. The white forest floor glistened, from the artificial lights around us, as bright as day. It was like walking on the crescent moon. The girls and I laughed at little rhymes we made up. It got me thinking of the dissolving of roles, gender and cultural norms, who carries whom, how depending on where we are in strength, the crescent is just a holding space, not gendered at all. When we are low it is nice to be swung on the crescent tusk of a companion. The poem allows for inversion. We are sometimes the black orb, cradled by a tusk moon, other times we are the crescent, supportive. We ebb, we flow.
You are the darkness
in the cup of crescent moon
a black orb concealed
in a tusk boat
sailing in the indigo
of the night sky
A friend told me about a bewildering incident during a road trip to a conference that took him down a route he had not driven for five years since he’d traveled it with a lover from whom he broke shortly after. Although he grieved the loss, he had “gotten past it ” and was happily married. He pulled off at the same scenic overlook where he and the ex-lover had stopped to admire the view. When he turned to go back to his car he was ambushed by the memory of her, backlit by the afternoon light, hiking up her skirt to pee behind a nearby tree. With no recollection of how, he found himself on his knees on the spot she had stood five years ago, awash with inexplicable longing. I was and continue to be moved by his story and intrigued by how the heart, in its desperate “far edges” attempts to transubstantiate a profane relic—Simic’s blood-bloated flea taken from his lover’s armpit, the tooth or finger bone of a saint—into the sacred body the beloved. I too wondered about who this beloved might be to inspire such a spontaneous, genuine gesture of devotion.
Where she had peed in the dirt,
five years later
he put his hand in the same dirt,
tasted it and wept.
Who is he who would do such?
Who is she that he would do such?
from The Near Surround by Nancy Mitchell
(Four Way Books, 2002)
I find writing about love harder than loving. The latter tolerates cliché –the sincere but worn love you – in ways poems do not. I admire Michael Waters’ “Cannibal” for the risk it takes, for grace and craft with which it walks the line between the horrific and the ecstatic. To love and be loved with an intensity akin to devouring. Before revealing itself as a love poem, “Cannibal” invites us to acknowledge our “inexplicable hunger[s],” the ones we fathom easily as well as the ones that test the limits of comprehension. Writing becomes a process of consuming–without ever exhausting–the body of the beloved. How fortunate the woman for whom the poem was written!
by Michael Waters
Among the survivors of the Donner
Party—idiom’s black sense of humor—
Who developed a secret taste for flesh
Flaked between the fluted bones of the wrist?
Who for organs: charcoaled tongue or poached heart?
Years later, in San Raphael, who wept
At night for a morsel of human cheek,
For one finger to gnaw himself to sleep?
In the next century, Jeffrey Dahmer
Ladles a young man’s head into a pot,
The water simmering, lightly salted,
New potatoes, leeks, and scrawny carrot
Floating past eyes uplifted toward Heaven.
Chestnut hair flutters slightly like eelgrass—
Who can fathom such inexplicable
Hunger? How my mouth covets your body,
Teeth grazing buttocks, shoulders, each nipple.
How I want to cradle you inside me
As you clasp me within, to celebrate
Our secular, primeval communion.
What can I do but inscribe this desire
Bite mark by bite mark across sweat-glossed skin?
What can I do but write these poems for you?
from The Dean of Discipline (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission by the author.
I love the undulatory, erotic movement of Tino Villanueva’s “So Spoke Penelope”— how the play of sound and syntax across the poetic line enacts Penelope’s longing for Odysseus’ return. In the middle of winter and in the wake of my own grief, I feel myself softening a bit and returning more fully to my own body when I read this poem. For that, I am grateful.
Shining Like the Sea
by Tino Villanueva
Because love seeks out love,
deserves to be loved in several ways,
Odysseus, to whom I gave my heart freely,
knows he must return,
knows there’s much between us
I cannot hide these thoughts, not now
before the solitary, vast, red-round sun
sinks. Here I go once more, demanding
what I can of love that way,
by which I mean
love of the grandest kind—
“Shining Like the Sea” appears in Tino Villanueva’s collection, So Spoke Penelope (Grolier Poetry Press, 2013).
I wrote “Ode to His Blue Flannel Shirt” in late autumn of the first pandemic year, 2020. At the time our family lived in northwest Indiana, about thirty minutes from Lake Michigan, and the winters there were oppressively cold and dark. Subtract your social life because of a pandemic, and it had the potential to be incredibly lonely and isolating. We bought a huge fire pit for our backyard and began hosting outdoor gatherings around the fire in the evenings. We’d all just bundle up and have a drink around the fire with friends while our kids romped in the snow and came close periodically to warm up. My husband Mark often wore an oversized blue flannel shirt out to the fire and to chop wood for these gatherings. By the end of winter, despite how many fires we’d hosted, we still had several face cords of wood left because of how often he had gone out to chop wood, which became a therapeutic activity for him. The image of him in the blue flannel, and the smell of the shirt—woodsmoke, pine, scotch—are seared in my memory as keen reminders of a time marked by confusion and chaos in many ways, yet still threaded with our love for each other, a constant.
Ode to His Blue Flannel Shirt
It’s you he shrugs on
to split wood in the cold,
you he wears to the table
in the predawn chill
while the coffee revs
in the pot. You are
a seismic sea
beneath which his shoulder
with tectonic drama
as he heaves the axe
like an incantation
through the snow blurred air.
You are shadowloose,
highland peat and old cologne,
last of the Laphraoig
in the cupboard. You are
You’re muscle memory,
smooth as the mother tongue.
You’re one button shy,
only a tuft of thread
to mark the missing disk.
I want to crawl inside
your futile buttonhole,
spin my home in its
let it be a camera obscura
into the darkroom
of his rising chest.
This poem was written after Chelsea and I and our kids returned from a trip to find that our basement had flooded–we had a lot of stuff down there, much of it ruined. We were living in Indiana at the time, and the previous summer we had learned that we would be part of the layoffs from the university at which we were teaching, along with something like 20% of faculty and staff. For the first time in our marriage, we asked each other a simple question: “where would you like to live?” Our entire marriage we had pursued jobs in academia, and had accepted that we would live wherever we could find work. Instead, we decided to move back to where Chelsea’s family was, in North Carolina. But the flood also had us carrying items from the past away–maternity clothes, baby clothes and toys, etc. And I realized that the flood had brought the past back to us, even as we were in the midst of an enormous change for us, in terms of geography and careers. We were frightened, and excited, and grieving all at once, and felt like we were nowhere, but in the midst of so much loss the flood also revealed the richness of our past, and our present as well, that we had still had each other.
“The shrine may become so important that the idea
it stands for is consigned to oblivion.”
—Abraham Joshua Heschel
The plumber’s flashlight shines on the meniscus
of water atop the drain’s face, blank obsidian
to full moon in an instant, moon for a drunken
cricket to drown in. I’ve yet to count our losses
within the flooded basement, as his light
catkins water drops & stray puddles still
budded on the floor. All around us, piles
of half-soaked boxes: maternity outfits
& baby clothes, first steps taken, first words said.
From the people we were to who we remain.
We turn from the past & back to the drain:
a sunflower from the city of the dead.
A life, a marriage can open like that—bloom all
at once in the dark. Out of nowhere, or because
of nowhere. A strange animal washes its paws
in the river you are, if you’re also the animal,
the moon & the past shining on your fur.
Tell me the difference between need & distance,
between rain & want, who has made sense
of time. What geometry for the years,
the tesserae of days, what divination
or chaos theory. We carry the past upstairs,
& briefly see a plumb line to the future
in a firefly’s torch-lit flight—the decisions,
words we use each day become our lives. This town,
in the shadows of steel mills & prison walls,
is a waking dream atop an ever-voweling
labyrinth of pipes beneath the ground.
Our here & now. Has it been love or prayer
or chance alone that directed us so far—
whatever it was, steer us a while longer—
this night full of wings (that birth storms elsewhere,
floods in other lives), steering by constellations,
above & through the flowers we planted at this house
we’ve rented for years—petunias & irises
& roses, which are the voices of our children.
-Literary Matters 13.1