Valentine’s Day. One of the stories Julia O’Malley included in her Anchorage Daily News Valentine’s Day piece about love stories was that of a woman at a florist shop, who purchased $200 worth of flowers. When the shop clerk asked who she wanted to write the accompanying card out to, the woman replied, “To me. With love, from me.”
In 1984, during my troubled early twenties, I fell in love with a friend of mine. This poem was written to her. But it’s especially a poem about how I came to love myself, & to give up my former self-hatred.
Alaska Love Poem
If I thought I had let go, I did not.
It was hidden only, riding low,
deep in the labyrinth of my soul.
But now I play the waiting game:
the labyrinth dissolves — soon my heart
will have courage to speak to you —
I practice here now.
Just past the longest day last year —
but the nights were still bright with the light of the sun
until very late.
And we met on the dancefloor where the music played loudly,
we danced where the fan blew our sweat down to coolness,
we danced when the others fell off the floor
Then another told me your words of me —
that I could hold my place in the song
as long as could you.
And when next in the noisy rhythm,
the loudness of the soap opera bar,
we moved our bodies to the beat —
I opened my eyes to your movement and knew
that my heart could open in such a way still,
and the protest of my mind and fear
could not dampen the joy that rose above
the smoke from so many nostrils.
Still alive! — I could feel this
for one, for you, the love, the hope
I thought had forsaken me —
dropped dead in the post with the letter
that at last said goodbye to one far away.
The woman can hurt me as no man can,
so far all that time in this country
I counted only men friends, too afraid
to end the pain of my long loneliness.
I clung like a fool to she who was past,
who I could not touch, not in my dreams.
I let go of her, at last, to find
myself face to face with you.
But our eyes were all drawn to the woman who died
a month later.
We gathered and mourned, and her loss sealed us all
in a friendship blessed by remembrance, then more.
In those days my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth
like thick peanut butter.
I sought like one possessed, obsessed,
in the bar, in the smoke, the music, the dance,
the hope of you there within it.
But my tongue now cut out — I bought you a rose,
cut the thorns off — I
would give you no bitterness, no — just the rose —
clean-stemmed — its thorns
cast away, like my voice.
In my silence I uttered no protest when
I saw how you spent time with her.
My friend also she was, and is, and I
said nothing when she told us that
you loved one another,
that you were together — I
But deep inside I screamed as though
my life were being taken from me.
I knew I’d survive.
This I’ve gone through before.
And I heard her say it with some relief.
I taught myself that it was due
to my leaving, how I did not want to be
tied down when another place called me.
But the deeper truth I well knew, that my
relief in spite of the pain was due
to the knowledge of how now I need not dare
to be brave, to tell what I felt to you.
For I know quite well how to hide.
This game is mine, conceived of shame,
the shame I somehow grew up with.
To hide, and to no one show what’s inside,
this deep confusion and maze of myself,
disbelief at my right to exist — or to
love a woman — such as you.
A year passed. I was doing a dance with death.
I can’t count the times, the times, the times
you both rescued me from that fixation.
Just someone to talk with, just someone to hear,
just someone to witness the tears, the tears
that had drowned me for so many years.
You both were important to me.
I did not know always why.
I left but came back because I knew
that something awaited me here.
As if by merest accident,
I came upon some faith —
I felt I was on the brink
of some vast realization
that would make life bearable for me.
She told me the way from my troubles
was to find the right woman for me.
But I knew that the warm old wool
of my anguish could not be unraveled
by pulling another under my blanket,
a lover to suffocate with me.
I wanted to breathe — not stale old air,
not the air of my bell-jar depression, not
the smoky air of the soap-opera bar —
but to breathe, fresh and clear and new,
to inhale the mountains, the sky, and the sea,
and to know that someone shared in this breathing,
someone who wanted to explore
what it means to have life — with me.
But the noose around my neck was tight.
I was my own hangman, adjudged guilty by
the interrogator inside, who did not
recognize the existence of innocence.
Do I believe I am to die,
my last words to be spoken to you? — or is this
an instinctive necessary step,
one step closer to liberation
from this lonely cell on death row?
You are tired, but you sit with the patience
that only my friends can muster.
I am afraid, I cannot meet your eyes.
Each word is an effort of all of my body.
This one sentence takes whole minutes to say,
whole hours, it takes my whole lifetime:
I am . . . in love . . . with you.
When I have said it you ask me
how long I have held this hidden.
Its history I repeat to you,
puncuated with tears, aeons of fear,
despair so much older than only a year.
It is only a year that I tell you…
but in lifetimes past I have ever been
ashamed of my desire,
ashamed of my lust for life,
convicted by the illusion that
I was not worthy of it.
I sentenced myself to whole lifetimes
of wandering lost in the labyrinth,
suffocating on stale smoky air
I had breathed countless times before.
And for what crime? The simple fact
that I was afraid to love.
Some nights later we went to the soap opera bar.
There, without warning, the fear came upon me.
I stood unmoved by the noise of the dancefloor —
all its rhythm was but a dull thumping —
I stared, transfixed, at the terror within
and deeper and deeper the maze sucked me in,
it swallowed me whole with a terrible grin.
When we went home my body moved to the car,
but my mind and my soul were locked into the hellhole.
The butcher knife beckoned, its sharp gleaming called.
I wanted to cut the hole in my belly,
the empty chunk of unreasonable pain —
to slice through skin and muscle and tissue,
to kill the demon, even if
my murder would be accomplished with it.
I cried in the dark for someone to save me,
to come to my aid. But I knew that you could not.
Not you, not her — you both had tried
too many times before.
We all knew that. What I must face
here, in this last confrontation,
I must face alone.
Never before would I have believed
there existed such utter loneliness.
All that there was in the universe
was me, alone, agony, me —
no care, no hope, no love, no reprieve…
no reprieve but the butcher knife.
My hands tight on each other, they thrusted
my thoughts through my belly. Had they
held not just thoughts, but violent steel
reality, stabbing — had they held the knife…
then the rug I had countless times soaked with my weeping,
this my bed between couch and coffee table,
would have been my final bed, my deathbed,
brown shag stained dark with my red blood.
But the butcher knife was in the kitchen.
That alone saved me — the distance to me
from the right-hand drawer, the second one down —
only that distance prevented the living
blade from sheathing itself in my guts…
in a tangle on your living room floor,
I fell to a drunken slumber.
I woke numb, glad to find that you both still slept.
I could bear to see no one, too full of remorse
and shame at what I had put my friends through,
how I had tortured myself.
Too certain that it would happen again.
It always had before.
I escaped to the grey day,
the dull routine of a mundane life,
I’m not sure what it was I waited for.
Some escape, some release,
a saviour to cart me away
the next time, the ambulance, DOA….
VI (Arctic Valley)
Remember the day we hiked Arctic Valley?
You, me, and two dogs —
one which you lost and found over the hill —
so did freedom find me.
How we climbed, our legs straining, over the city.
We sat at the summit, the world at our feet.
We ate in the high place where ancients saw god….
The way back down was more difficult yet:
it was steep, we used muscles we normally didn’t.
Our legs shook like the legs of delirium tremens…
but peace found them again when they found flat ground —
so did peace find me.
Slowly as the slow dawn
of the sun on an autumn morning
I awoke from my delirium.
Nine years to recognize my healer —
so did life find me.
Day followed day, the old stream of time,
just the same as before.
But each day I saw the mountains change —
one day growing gold in the afternoon sun —
one day dusted white by the season’s first snow —
one day touched by clouds as soft as white roses —
I could see them and breathe them and touch them and feel them.
Each day I saw the mountains change —
so did change find me.
Things about me have changed.
Not in what I feel for you —
I find that I still do love you.
I also find that where there has been
occasion to speak of it to you
I can meet your eyes.
Across a table, in the light,
I can meet your eyes.
I can love you without shame.
And of all joys, surely this is the greatest —
that I, at last, consider myself
worthy to love and to be loved.
But in awe I hold the power of this
feeling — how it takes hold of me —
when I am so at a loss to know
how with this strength and depth of care,
I do not hold you.
At times I am plainly satisfied
to enjoy your company —
to visit your home, you and your lover,
to drop by for lunch and sit over coffee,
to go to the malls and watch women together,
to drink dark beer, to talk, to dance…
but then as we wait at Baskin & Robbins
for our scoops of Jamocha Almond Fudge
a rich and vibrant chord of you
plays itself upon my intestines
and echoes and echoes and echoes, fading….
My whole body rings of you
and groans at the lack of your touch,
groans at the wanting to touch you,
to show you all the ways,
the infinite ways that I love you.
I am at a loss to understand
how the great power that freed me from my living death
can imprison me yet in this unfulfilled love.
As the days pass in my wanting you
I begin to wonder if I have returned
to my folly of loving, as a lover would,
a woman who I cannot reach.
I still feel sorrow. Each time I’m afraid
the old dank despair will possess me again.
But I know too much now for that.
I have a guide. I know the way.
The staleness that turns to a petrified stink —
no longer can it envelop me.
I have a guide. I know the way.
In my deepest sadness there is yet joy.
I know I won’t die alone in the wallow.
I know I’ll come out on the other side.
I have a guide. I know the way.
On my arm, tattooed, is the large wave, the boats,
the mountain — my life, crisis on crisis:
opportunity rides on the dangerous wind.
You’re my friend, and in that way I’ll never forsake you —
just as you, my friend, never have forsaken me.
But I find myself caught in the hurts you are going through.
I find them likewise hurting me
in the old pattern — to place expectations on love.
When I expect things of you, am I really a friend?
Is love to enslave, or is it to free?
This love, my love and desire for you,
is a dangerous wind, destructive and mean,
and though in the past it has helped sweep me clean,
given me breath and a hope to cling onto —
my only hope now — opportunity —
is to let go at last, all the way to my bones —
to my soul, no longer a labyrinth.
Understand me — I am not angry,
not depressed — that is past history.
I am grieving this death, the death of a dream.
A hard death, a cruel death, to fall like a leaf
from the thrill of riding a dangerous wind.
To fall like a leaf, to fall to the ground.
I come to a leaf and, turning it over,
I find myself, a woman, and stand.
Alive without protest, I’ll be on my way.
[Jul 8-Nov 17, 1984]