As a child, I was obsessed with poetry–to this day, poetry still drills deep into my heart. My cherished 20-year-old Shel Silverstein books are falling apart at the seams, stained with years of chocolate finger prints and gleeful tears.
In elementary school, I would finish my homework and search for animal poems on the internet and then print them out to create my own little book of poetry. I would write silly poems about my own pets, and my family. It was a way to capture ideas and pin down my emotions, to make sense of things.
As I entered my teen years, I discovered of Rilke, Rumi, Neruda, and Plath. I drove recklessly into their unique experiences of ecstasy, anguish, and the commonplace moments that make up life. I checked out books from the library. I consumed them quickly, and then slowly, and then slowly again like a scorching cup of tea. I cried at the beauty and the sadness. The emotion was palpable, and it made me feel alive.
In my twenties, I discovered Roger Housden’s poetry compilations which introduced me to dozens of new poets. I scoured the internet and discovered the inconspicuous word weaver, Jess Janz. I found Lang Leav’s playful love poems. I felt understood, connected, and–somehow–more myself.
There were a handful of poems that struck a chord with me–shaking me to the core, resonating with truth, with wisdom, and with hope. One of my top ten favorites is The Knowing by Sharon Olds. I read the poem so often that I could almost recite it from memory. The poem depicts an encounter of love, of true connection. When I first read the poem, that was a feeling I had never experienced. I had met people, but never truly known them.
The Knowing by Sharon Olds
Afterwards, when we have slept, paradise-
comaed and woken, we lie a long time
looking at each other.
I do not know what he sees, but I see
eyes of surpassing tenderness
and calm, a calm like the dignity
of matter. I love the open ocean
blue-grey-green of his iris, I love
the curve of it against the white,
that curve the sight of what has caused me
to come, when he’s quite still, deep
inside me. I have never seen a curve
like that, except the earth from outer
space. I don’t know where he got
his kindness without self-regard,
almost without self, and yet
he chose one woman, instead of the others.
By knowing him, I get to know
the purity of the animal
which mates for life. Sometimes he is slightly
smiling, but mostly he just gazes at me gazing,
his entire face lit. I love
to see it change if I cry–there is no worry,
no pity, no graver radiance. If we
are on our backs, side by side,
with our faces turned fully to face each other,
I can hear a tear from my lower eye
hit the sheet, as if it is an early day on earth,
and then the upper eye’s tears
braid and sluice down through the lower eyebrow
like the invention of farming, irrigation, a non-nomadic people.
I am so lucky that I can know him.
This is the only way to know him.
I am the only one who knows him.
When I wake again, he is still looking at me,
as if he is eternal. For an hour
we wake and doze, and slowly I know
that though we are sated, though we are hardly
touching, this is the coming the other
coming brought us to the edge of–we are entering,
deeper and deeper, gaze by gaze,
this place beyond the other places,
beyond the body itself, we are making
I read this poem and it brought me to tears. At twenty-three I decided: if the feeling described in this poem is real (and isn’t all poetry real?), I refused to settle until I, too, have experienced it.
I still recall vividly the first time I lay gazing into my boyfriend’s eyes, our noses nearly touching. We were stripped down to nakedness, raw vulnerability both physically and emotionally. I remember the moment he took off his glasses, and I saw piercing intensity juxtaposed with gentleness. It was the first time I’d stared into a man’s eyes and found tenderness, like a timid dog rolling over to expose her belly, saying “I trust you.”
In that moment, I though of this poem. The insecurity of “I do not know what he sees” drifted into visions of the earth from outer space and the phrase “the animal which mates for life.” That tear from the poem fell from my eye, drifting down my eyebrow like an irrigation canal. And over and over, I silently repeated to myself, “I am so lucky that I can know him.”
In that moment, I came to understand both poetry and love with such poignancy. Poetry is truth, tangible emotions laid out like miscellany at estate sale for others to discover and make their own. Love, on the other hand, goes far beyond any action or intention.
Similar to Margery Williams’ story of The Velveteen Rabbit, love is a continual unfolding, a process of becoming.
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
That day, I learned that love is a deeper connection which, when real–like The Velveteen Rabbit–only grows as we whittle away at our sharp edges and allow a perpetual closeness that invites saggy eyes, balding scalps, and lumpy thighs. Love is not based on looks, lovemaking, money, or prestige. Love is vulnerability, tenderness, and the willingness to allow yourself to be loved by another.