I walked into my bodega some weeks ago — I didn’t say I wasn’t warned — and it was papered with red paper hearts with lacy edges. It’s the time appointed for love to seethe and burn at the edges. By the fifteenth the steam and grease rising from the griddle will’ve warped and spotted the red paper hearts with the lacy edges. The candy’ll cede its prominence to shamrocks and we’ll forget that we forgot to get flowers.
Valentine’s Day has it right; professions of love should be acute; who could stand more? Propertius is as good a poet as any to take as our first warning: his love for his Cynthia is from the start confounded and oppressive:
tum mihi constantis deiecit lumina fastus
et caput impositis pressit Amor pedibus
donec me docuit castas odisse puellas (I.1.3-5)
then he cast my steady arrogant gaze down
and Love squashed my head with his feet
till he taught me to spurn chaste girls
Pound saw and seized this in his Homage to Sextus Propertius (London: Faber & Faber, 1934):
The harsh acts of your levity! Many and many.
I am hung here, a scare-crow for lovers. (XI.1.1-2)
Love-poems, love stories — the real fictitious ones, not these mythic letters from lovers — are catalogues of misery. My bitterness aside, this is a reality: the great majority of writing on love proffers failures of love, failures to love. Why, take our current president, who fell in line with his fascist forebear to boast of amorous failure: “I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it… I did try and fuck her… I moved on her very heavily… I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there.”
Even when we get there — when Salome’s seven veils rise and fall in front of us — there is misery. Wilde makes his Herod choke with gory lust (Salome. London: Elkin Mathews & John Lane; Boston: Copeland & Day, 1894):
Ah, thou art to dance with naked feet! ’Tis well! ’Tis well! Thy little feet will be like white doves. They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees…. No, no, she is going to dance on blood! There is blood spilt on the ground. She must not dance on blood. It were an evil omen… What is it to me? Ah! look at the moon! She had become red. She has become red as blood… (53)
The murderous king overlooks the monstrous menstruation before he is brought low to pay for his want.
Blood seems to bubble up in the face of love. Take the tragic love of Jack and Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” (Annie Proulx. Close Range. London: Fourth Estate, 1999).
No need to recount the spit and grunting in the tent, rather the reunion in
“the fourth summer since Brokeback Mountain came on”: “they seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying, son of a bitch, son of a bitch, then, as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard, Jack’s big teeth bringing blood, his hat falling to the floor, stubble rasping, wet saliva welling, and the door opening and Alma looking out for a few seconds at Ennis’s straining shoulders and shutting the door again…” (294-5).
Jack dies changing a tire (no need to look for metaphor) and “by the time someone came along he had drowned in his own blood” (311).
From blood we come, naturally, to the end, to death. Patti Smith’s Just Kids (New York: Ecco, 2010) opens with Robert Mapplethorpe’s death: “I was asleep when he died” (xi). Smith promised Mapplethorpe on his death-bead she’d write the collection of memoirs. The whole thing is tinted grey. We learn about Mapplethorpe’s infected nipple. In the final chapter, “Holding Hands with God,” Smith tells us that when she heard on the telephone that Mapplethorpe had been hospitalized with AIDS-related pneumonia, “I drew my hand instinctively to my belly and began to cry” (265). She was pregnant. Later she recalls a story told her by Mapplethorpe’s patron Sam Wagstaff, who also died with AIDS:
“‘Peggy Guggenheim once told me that when you made love with Brancusi, you absolutely were not allowed to touch his beard.’” (269)
These moments of levity in the face of hideous decline are all printed in violet ink. The book is studded with Mapplethorpe’s photos. Smith calls them “the corporeal body of the artist”(ix). His self-portraits are little moments of love that is, at last at least, requited.