On a September afternoon in 1966, when I was a 21 year old student at Cornell, I met an older man—he was 25—in a motorcycle shop in Ithaca. His muscular body arched over the skeleton of an upside-down motorbike and grease smeared his Levi coveralls and hands. Vic was a graduate student in astrophysics, but my lust had already landed hard on the motorcycle racer in him.
One winter’s night, we sat in his tiny apartment in downtown Ithaca listening to Buffy St. Marie and drinking cheap red wine. He read me this poem.
Because hate is legislated…written into
The primer and the testament
Shot into our blood and brain like vaccine or vitamins
Because our day is of time, of hours—and the clock hand turns,
Closes the circle upon us: and black timeless night
Sucks us in like quicksand, receives us totally—
Without a raincheck or a parachute, a key to heaven or the last long look
I need love more than ever now…I need your love,
I need love more than hope or money, wisdom or a drink
Because slow negative death withers the world—and only yes
Can turn the tide
Because love has your face and body…and your hands are tender
And your mouth is sweet—and God has made no other eyes like yours.
~ Walter Benton, This Is My Beloved
Two years later, we read this poem at our wedding, taking turns reading the stanzas and weeping. Twenty-five people huddled around us in a friend’s living room where we’d retreated from cold rain and fog. The energy intensified until one woman fainted.
Many years later, we had survived disappointments and learned the art of compromise. Our passion, tempered by age and cancer, still survived in a gaze or caress. On our 39th anniversary—we thought it would be our last—we read our marriage poem, alternating stanzas, weeping. We each chose a second poem for that day. He read his surprise, and I read mine. We’d chosen the same poem.
…When men and women come together,
How much they have to abandon! Wrens
Make their nests of fancy threads
And string ends, animals
Abandon all their money each year.
What is it that men and women leave?
Harder than wren’s doing, they have
To abandon their longing for the perfect.
The inner nest not made by instinct
Will never be quite round
And each has to enter the nest
Made by the other imperfect bird.
~ Robert Bly, “Listening to the Koln Concert”
On our 40th anniversary, just days before his death, he withered in a hospital bed in Strong Hospital in Rochester. I turned off my cell phone, closed the door to the hallway, and sat by his side. He had no voice, so I read our poems to him. First Benton, then Bly. I put my arms around him and we wept over our coming separation, but we had weathered a life together and emerged with our passion and idealism intact.
“I don’t know what will happen to me,” Vic whispered, “but I know I love you.”
What poems create a container for your love? I hope you enjoy reading some of my other blogs about marriage and loss, such as Continuing Bonds, Speeding to Strong Cancer Center, or Creating a Grief Ritual.