Tuesday, April 28, 2009

To Be In Love - Gwendolyn Brooks


To be in love
Is to touch things with a lighter hand.

In yourself you stretch, you are well.

You look at things
Through his eyes.
A cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
You know you are tasting together
The winter, or light spring weather.

His hand to take your hand is overmuch.
Too much to bear.

You cannot look in his eyes
Because your pulse must not say
What must not be said.

When he
Shuts a door—

Is not there—
Your arms are water.

And you are free
With a ghastly freedom.

You are the beautiful half
Of a golden hurt.

You remember and covet his mouth,
To touch, to whisper on.

Oh when to declare
Is certain Death!

Oh when to apprize,
Is to mesmerize,

To see fall down, the Column of Gold,
Into the commonest ash.

---Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks' To Be In Love

Working against our expectations is one of the more devious and creative paths a poem, or for that matter any piece of art, can follow. We believe, and because of those beliefs, formed out of our experiences, when a situation arises with familiar circumstances and characteristics we know what will happen next. But when our expectations are shattered, when our truths melt like chocolate on a hot day, we are lost. Uncomfortable and distressing, in these moments we are put in a position to learn a great deal about ourselves. This is the practical side of surprise, taking the suspense and mystery and melding it into a significant lesson. Gwendolyn Brooks gives us a chance to learn about ourselves with her unusual poem To Be In Love.

“To be in love / Is to touch things with a lighter hand.” Brooks begins the poem with this beautiful couplet. It's a simple way of describing the euphoric state of being in love, and yet it fits. A softer, gentler touch allows for more sensation, a deeper feeling. Being in love brings about this growth: “In yourself you stretch, you are well.” It changes you in a profound way—you become a better version of yourself, more in tune to the world because looking after the happiness of another person has become your lifework. It is your masterpiece. “You look at things / Through his eyes.” Brooks presents a proactive view of being in love, a view that looses us from the confines of our own bodies and allows us inside the intimate sections of our loved one's mind and soul. The sustainability of this connection seems natural and without fail. “He is not there but / You know you are tasting together.” Of course we will have impediments separating us from those that we love, but because we are in love we share a connection that can travel the distance that separates us. We expect that love harbors and fosters these uber positive conceptions. As Gwendolyn Brooks delineates poetically the virtues of being in love, we read and nod along. We remember our own unrivaled highs of being in love. This is how she establishes the grounds for surprise. This is how the first act is written and ends.

Surely if I gave you a choice you would choose love over loss. As we revel in the delights of being in love we are a breeze, a footstep, a mere hiccup from the hellacious lows of losing it all. What once was special and gave us goosebumps will just as soon be the most painful memory, keeping us awake at night, morphing us into a version of ourselves we don't like and can't control. “His hand to take your hand is overmuch. / Too much to bear.” Brooks catapults us between the natural landscape of love and loss with a seamlessness that is a testament to her velvety smooth poetry. But even as her poetry itself is smooth, the subject matter is rife with bumps on our way down to the lowest point. Life is difficult in the shadows of love. Brooks warns us “You cannot look in his eyes / Because your pulse must not say / What must not be said.” Grown of pride, this declaration focuses on the body's ability to betray the heart. It could be something as simple as a lifted eyebrow, a forced smile, or a slow gulp for air. These are enough to say, in body language, what pride prohibits us from saying; we must not give any satisfaction to the source of our pain. It is macho (although not limited to men), it is stupid, and it is unavoidable. And to think just moments ago we knew the joyous nature of being in love. And to think we thought we were reading a poem about love and being touched “with a lighter hand.” Now, “When he / Shuts a door— / Is not there— / Your arms are water.” Just as love loosed us and allowed us inside the mind of the one we love, we are also loosed when love deserts us—our body, including our heart, exists beyond our control.

So what comes next? After highs and lows how do we rebound to a normal existence? Stuck within an emotional turbulence that we helped create, we “are free / with a ghastly freedom.” In this moment of the poem we are a millennium from the opening lines that laid out the beauty of being in love like a warm quilt covering our whole body on a snowy night. When Gwendolyn Brooks gave us the chance to be in love we took it, assuming and expecting it would be romantic. We didn't take into account the terrible aftermath of loss and the stages of love that none of us want to travel. Suddenly, we “are the beautiful half / Of a golden hurt.” My eyes fill with tears and my heart slows to its gentlest beating when I read that line. It touches me like few others I've ever read and it remains with me like those inexplicably persistent random memories from childhood. I'm overcome by the line's duality: soul-altering beauty and mind-shattering pain. Are we to “remember and covet his mouth, / to touch, to whisper on,” if doing so will blanket every millimeter of our bodies with dread? In that moment of utmost pain we very well might wish our pain out of existence, saying I wish this had never happened. I wish I'd never been in love. Once again we prove how foolish and prone to emotional swells we are. These words are not a spell reversing time, cleansing our hurt, and restoring our deep wounds to before they knew such sorrow. What these words represent is the ultimate lesson embedded in the middle of surprise: we admit defeat by love and that we want no more of it, still we live on in search of love. The process will begin for each of us again. This is an expectation, not a myth; not the “Column of Gold” but the “commonest ash.” Made of what is common, we earn and savor the touches of gold that come our way.


lita said...

Your discussion/analysis of Brooks' poem is wonderful. This is probably my favorite poem as Brooks articulates the beauty and pain of love.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thank you Lita for your compliment! I'm glad you took the time to check out my blog. Please come back in the future, specifically next April when I'll be entering year three of my National Poetry Month Blog.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely beautiful analysis! It really helped me prepare for my presentation of this poem to my class. Thank you!

伊仁 said...

absolutely wonderful. thank you

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thank you all for your kind words! I'm glad you could find something useful in my study of this great poem.

Anonymous said...

I know my comment is really late. But I would just like to applaud you on your amazing analysis of this poem. I am trying to perform it at a show, but I kept getting confused towards the second half. Now I know why. This poem doesn't depict the ideal romantic kind of love but the deep down hurt real kind of love. And that's what makes it so beautiful. Thank you for helping me see that. :)

butterfly92 said...

Wonderful analysis :) Do you know when this poem was written or published? the year