This is a story about the practical applications of romantic verse.
It gets the job done.
I have proof.
It happened like this: Sophie Zambarano, a woman I fell in love with in college while my girlfriend was at home with her troubled family, a woman I walked away from to do “the right thing” and found again five years later when she was unavailable, in love with someone else; and then lost for almost two decades, while I married the girlfriend and watched the marriage fall apart like a piece of second hand furniture, was finally back in my life again. I had done it with one surprise phone call that went on for hours and an invitation to visit Nantucket. Sophie came, we talked, we ate dinner, we slept in separate beds and she told me the horrific story of her childhood, the father who abused hr and the mother who took his side, the sister she left behind when she ran away.
She dared me to love her after hearing that tragic confession, and I took the dare. In fact I loved her more after that.
I remember her coming downstairs late on Sunday morning. I had fresh coffee, bagels and the New York Times waiting for her. She wore a blue kimono tied with a sash. She was barefoot, her hair was tangled, her cheek indented from the wrinkles on the pillow, and she looked so gorgeous I felt big sections of myself separating, floating free like chunks of an ice-flow in the spring thaw. I knew Sophie could look spectacular in a designer dress, but I preferred her this way. Carefully gowned and coiffed and made-up, women’s beauty seemed like the result of hard work – a brilliantly mounted illusion. Looking at Sophie I saw something far more dazzling: the effortless truth.
We ate and kissed and lounged aroui8nd my little apartment with a bittersweet, spurious domesticity: it was so easy to imagine this morning as part of an ordinary weekend, one of a thousand casual moments in a shared connubial life.
We walked the island, I took her to thsw airport and she flew home to break up with her dreary boyfriend.
I kissed her and said “I’m glad you came.”
She held me and said, “I’m glad you called,” and walked out on to the tarmac in the hurrying crowd.
We had decided that I would visit her next time. She wanted me to see her house, her town., her world; the store where she bought her art supplies, the shop where she got coffee in the morning.
I had a friend who owned a little Cessna with two other people. He had been trying to get me up in the air with him for months. This would be the perfect opportunity to take him up on his offer: he could get to the Northampton airport in just over an hour, whenever I wanted to go.
Another friend had given me a standing offer to take care of the kids if I needed him to.
She called me that night, late, she always called late at night, and she said “I wrong not to sleep with you last night, and you were wrong not to sleep with me at Hampshire. I don’t want to die without that – without making love to you.”
And she told me the nightmare she had dreamed at my house that night: she is in a blank prison cell, with a guard outside in the corridor. But the door locks from the inside. When she realized this she slips out, but only to furnish and decorate her cell – she brings back chairs, lamps, rugs, pictures, books and bookshelves. The warden find out what she’s done and moves her to another blank cell for punishment. The locks are still on the inside, but she just sits quietly and waits for her punishment.
I said it sounded like her life. But at least she tried to decorate her cell, which is more than most of us do. I said I wanted to break her out; she said it might not be possible.
She said, “Is this wrong? Am I unfaithful?”
I didn’t know. But there’s another kind of fidelity – not to a person but to a feeling. Biologists say love is an evolutionary trick, a hormonal illusion that promotes the propagation of the species. I said to Sophie, it was two in the morning by then and I was talking to much, but I said – to me it’s just the opposite, and this sounds crazy but I wrote a poem on the spot, and grabbed a pen and copied it down on the back of an envelope while we spoke:
Of course the truth is precisely the reverse.
Scientists, so astute about the principles
Of the Universe
Have once again missed the point.
We crawled out of the ocean and learned to walk
To build tools and language
Solely to be the host for this emotion
Which is much finer than anything
The human race has done --
Greater than all the works of man,
Greater than all the laws of man,
This sacred thing
Which trembles in the haunted air between us
When I look into your eyes.
And yeah, it was corny and over the top and verbose, just like me, but it set her mind at ease and she laughed at me while I scribbled it down, and we made out plans for my visit and hung up happy.
And that’s not even the poem I want to tell you about.
The day before I was planning to visit her I had to go off-island with my son. My alarm was set for five, to make the six O’clock boat, but Sophie;s call woke me at four-fifteen.
“You can’t come,” she said. “I’ve been up all night, it’s making me ill, I’m losing Eric in my head, I haven’t b roklen up with him, he just moved out but all his stuff is here and he keeps calling and I don’t know what to say. He asked me to marry him, I mean, he asked so many times and I was thinking about it, I was actually talking about building my life around this man and now it’s all flying apart, and he doesn’t understand and I don’t either. I need time to think. I can’t stand to be this confused. It’s too much for me. I’m sorry, but I just can’t stand it.”
I was shaking as I listened, wide awake, trying to organize my thoughts. It was like trying to get a school yard full of antsy kids lined up for a fire drill. I told her we didn’t have to make love, it could just be a visit, just some time together, no pressure, no expectations.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said and I told her to just stop, and set it aside and let it rest until the evening. I was going off-island. When I got back I’d call her and we could talk again. If she didn’ want me to come at that point of course I wouldn’t. But I had to get my kid out of bed and get out of the house or we’d miss the boat.
Sophie agreed to the call and we hung up and I was thinking, no matter what I tell her, no matter what we decide, I’m going there. I’m showing up. If she sends me away I’ll go but I’m not giving up on her. Then I thought, that’s crazy I’m not stalking this woman. If there’s really a wall around her I’m not running face-first into it.
Stop. Let this alone for a day. Go to Hyannis. Enjoy your son. Call her when you get back. See what happens.
On the boat, Tommy found some friends to play with and this phrase kept running around in my mind: “This is what you have done to my heart:” The colon was a kind license, an open door to free association. What was she doing to me heart? Anything that occurred to me was fair game. So I started writing … phrases and images and metaphors-- five, ten, twenty little fragments, wjhatever crossed my mind. I made notes as we strolled throught the mall and waited for the movie to start. Then on the boat going home I started sorting through them, getting rid of the weak and the obscure and the nonsensical ones, putting them in order and trying to find some conclusion, some point to the list. The Ferry was bumping against the dock when I figured it out.
I scrawled the last lines as everyone pushed towards the exits. I dropped Tommy off at his mother’s drove home and called Sophie.
“Before you say anything,” I told her, “I want to read you something.”
Then I dug out my folded sheets of graqde school notebook paper read her the poem:
This is what you have done to my heart:
You have brought it fruit in the desert
You have kissed its eyes
You set the killer dogs on its scent
And sent its orphans away to the border.
You have shared silence with my heart
Like a palmful of stream water
You have fasted for its soul.
You have abandoned my heart
Danced for it in the candle-light
You have burned the houses of my heart
And made runes with the ashes
And watched your writing
scattered by the wind.
You have raised sunken ships
And presented my heart
with fragile glassware
From extinct graceful eras
Dressed in barnacles and kelp
You have heard me cry for help
With immobile pity.
You have taken my heart through streets
Of condemned houses
In the dark city
And washed grafitti from the walls.
You swam with my heart in the deep water
And drowned it in the shallows
Until it breathed the brine --
You whispered “Be mine”
Then you tied my heart with silk
And left it dangling from the high places.
You took my heart as a slave
And awaited its orders;
You made it speak to the waterfall
And wear the spray like armor
You have taught my heart that knowledge is empty
That rules are the stone-work of our fear;
That only the moment matters --
Keeping your grip
On the slippery thrashing heat of a human truth:
The seed of your youth
The body’s rage
The tortured breath that refuses
That uses all its strength to say no to death.
You taught me all of these things
You made me learn them for my sins.
So I must finally say
In the stinging silence of this yearning
In the last light of the last day
Before your other life begins
And you turn away, with these passions
Like clothes out of fashion
Stored on a dusty shelf
(Speaking to your noble soul
Speaking in the tongue of kings)
You taught me each one of these terrible things:
Now you must learn them yourself.
There was a long moment of silence on the line; for a second I thought she’d hung up, that I’d gone too far, that the flood of words was toxic.
Then she breathed a single word of her own:
And I did; and that’s the best testament I can give to the power of poetry, as we hit the half-way mark of National Poetry month.