by Julia Anna Morrison | Contributing Writer
My boyfriend, S., gives me a print of a poem called Blues by the Canadian poet bpNichol, published in 1966. The print hangs next to my bed in a black frame. I see my boyfriend’s name printed along the spine of the edited collection of Nichol’s work squeezed into my bookshelf. In Blues, the word love is written out 8 times, forwards and backwards, by each of its letters: l o v e. It looks like a heart. And after years of staring at it, it has become a metaphor for our relationship and the evolving nature of love.
The first time I see the poem hanging in S.’s apartment, I spend the morning puzzling it out, wondering, as if it’s an eight ball, what our fate will be. Like the poem, my boyfriend is sometimes elusive, unreadable, beautiful. In the beginning, love slips out of my fingers; S disappears for days on end, his text messages blank as snow.
I met him when I was a young mother almost three years ago, single for the first time. My heart was, I will admit, torn apart. Nothing could hold it together. Do you have a family? He asks me one night, early in our relationship. I think of the babysitter, of how I need to get home already. Do I have a family? Sort of. I want my car to slide on ice on my way home in the dark. I have a young son, I say, but I don’t see how that is relevant right now.
The poem is a kaleidoscope where love is at once abstract and utterly tangible, a snapshot of what it is like to have fallen in love (the word ‘love’ has fallen onto the page and has come apart, letter by letter). Slowly, like an arrow, I feel myself falling for S., though I know I am doomed from the start. The poem tells me it will take time and that is the truth. Our houses are identical but separated by a hill. When he holds me, I almost instantly fall asleep, safe. I see him biking ahead of me into the sun, his back straight, his hands off the handlebars. The thought of not being with him is unbearable, all those details gone missing.
Nichol’s poem is a concrete poem, the kind we wrote as kids in shapes of Christmas trees during mild December days. In the red clay hills of Georgia, the pine trees line the roads but you can still see straight through them all winter.
In the Iowa winter, I wake in a fog and as I adjust to the icy morning light, I watch the letters in the love poem settle, like they are falling in the ambiguous snow, into the shape of the heart muscle. I am healing, I think. I see hope in the poem. It promises love, after all, though not easily. I can tell there was a full moon last night because the lawn in covered in salt. S. is still asleep, the red wine stained at the crescent of his top lip. I’m surprised I slept. My son must be at his father’s house. I must have loved his father once; I know I did, but not in that way anymore. This seems to me a miracle; I barely hurt anymore.
In ‘Captain Poetry: In Love,’ Nichol writes: “love / spelled backwards / is evol / is ‘nature’s way (I’ve / overworked it / in a dozen / poems) has / nothing to do / with evil / but rather evolves / new themes.”
Before my marriage (we were never married) ended, my knees ached at night. My knees, instead of my heart. Can a broken knee kill you? I googled in the middle of the night, afraid the glow of the phone would wake the baby though he was a hallway away. No, the internet told me. But on scanners, your knees light up when you think about a lost love object. Not a love object like the doll you dropped behind the staircase when you were five. Like a lover who makes coffee the same way every morning in a tiny ceramic cup. Your knees light up on the scanner when you think of snow.
Bachelard writes, “If a poet looks through a microscope or a telescope, he always sees the same thing.” Love in the Nichol’s poem is at once microscopic and gigantic. It’s the color of my boyfriend’s coffee cup, creamy orange, and it’s our story, the ocean, and the starfish’s rays inside of it.
When S. leaves me, I feel like I finally understand the poem, that of course S. would break my heart. It says so right there in the poem (it is called Blues for a reason). During the break-up, I take long walks around the city, looking for signs. I look at the poem, looking for my S., but the letters slip out of my hands again. e v o l, I see. o o o o. Love shouldn’t be this fucking hard, but I don’t put the poem away. I wake at night covered in sweat thinking there’s a knock at the door. I twist the letters into other words: evil, evolve, oh, vowel, eel, elle, oval . . . I see the pine trees in Georgia. I see the shoreline of Lake Ontario where S. was born; I see the wolves he sees himself in; I see a wolf in the poem.
After it takes too long and S. still doesn’t call, the poem looks like a test I am failing. On a chest x-ray, in an autopsy, this is what I would see: the letters rearranged, black and white. It is unadorned, the alphabet is cold. The poem is a metaphor for love. My boyfriend is not my boyfriend and then he is.
One of the most marked features of Blues is the slanted line of eight e’s, an incision across the page, a see saw, that gives the poem its symmetry, reflecting one side back on the other: the deep green trees and the reflection of the trees in the dark lake. Karl Young writes that Blues’s “axis is the letter e, exerting its transforming influence on another vowel while remaining otherwise unobtrusive in the single syllable “love;” but dominating the two-syllable word “evol,” creating a scream that tears the poem in half.”
I don’t read the repeating e as a scream; I can’t hear it. It’s love, but slanted, in slow motion; the trudging up of the snow-encased hill and then, if there has to be a sound, it’s the squealing down of the hill in a red sled.
When we get back together, a month or so later, I am ecstatic, but cautious, wearing a lemon-colored bikini. My knees no longer ache. I have found the love object. In my excitement, the poem makes sense of the wound, in the S-shaped space in the center of the poem where the words converge. Love has stretched and unstretched the skin of my heart. S. appears at my door with a bottle of red and I let him in.
We are back together but there’s still a gap, a space, a caesura like the one in the poem. We never acknowledge that we have broken up or gotten back together, not really.
In one of the prose poems of Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies, Beatrice and Walter B. bring four things to test at the Reality Testing Booth: “hat, love, day, and the delectable.” The booth doesn’t work, of course; or, if it does work, it takes a lot of waiting for the booth to spit out its “printout” of the results (“It was a long, long wait, this waiting”).
Like Walter B. and Beatrice, I stand before the reality-testing booth with my small gold coins. I put “love” into the booth. Is love a metaphor, or is it real? “Mom, I am not a metaphor,” my son says when I ask him to please, for the love of God, give me a break. Oh yes you are, I think. That is exactly what you are, and how did you know? I am his mother; that is how I know if he is a metaphor or not.
I don’t know what S. loves about the poem, or why he hung it on his wall in the first place. His answer would probably be the opposite of mine, though we might see some of the same things. I have spelled and unspelled love many times looking at Blues. It has a pattern. My heart has loved a new person while loving another. The poem is a picture of the heart in the past and in the future, strewn apart, a snapshot of time. It never told me the truth. That our love would not be straightforward. That love is many things and most often, not love itself. That love is change, that we change.
I try not to say I love S., afraid it will ruin everything, though it slips out one night after he’s fallen on the ice and broken his ankle. He’s asleep. Come over and we will talk about it, he says after I call him the next day in tears. I come over. We don’t speak of it. His ankle heals but there are screws in it.
I thought this would be an essay about how I understand the poem after all these years, but the poem resists understanding. The more I look at the poem, the more I disappear; love breaks apart before my eyes. I don’t know the l from the e from the o from the v. I am left with more of the waiting, and a forecast of light snow.
Julia Anna Morrison is a Pushcart-nominated poet from Atlanta, Georgia. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BA in English from the University of Georgia. She is a Nightboat Books Poetry Prize finalist, a recipient of the Friedman Fellowship from the University of Iowa and a Yaddo Residency Fellow. Anna has taught creative writing at the University of Iowa, the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and to students through the Iowa Youth Writing Project. Currently she lives in Iowa City where she teaches at the University of Iowa and co-edits Two Peach with Catherine Pond.