Maybe it’s because I’m getting married in a few weeks—that event you think about since you hit puberty but never imagine will actually take place—or maybe it’s because I want to take my mind off of the horrific murders that happened here in Athens this afternoon, but Adam Kirsch’s 2002 book of poetry, The Thousand Wells, hit me really hard today.
I’m not much of a poetry person, honestly, but Kirsch’s work is free from the excesses of modern poetry—the pretension, the nonsense, the “found objects,” etc., etc.—and the whole book is wonderfully crafted. It won the New Criterion prize the year it was released, and that makes sense. It’s classical and modern in the way that Roger Kimball would appreciate.
It’s the third section (out of four untitled divisions) that really interests me. None of the other sections appear to be more than loosely themed, but the third presents us with what is more or less a narrative arc. We begin with the cutesy “Autobiography,” in which Kirsch presents us with his romantic history as translated into ethnicities. That’s all fine and good, but the section really gets off the ground with the second poem, “One Weekend.”
The poem is harrowing, a picture of life in Kierkegaard’s aesthetic sphere. The narrator wanted to get out of his small town, wanted to go where he would “have a choice” (I.6). He wanted existential freedom, and what he got was spiritual emptiness, life in the city where “though you would hold / Fast to some things, you blink, and they are lost” (I.15-16). His supposed freedom encompasses him, smothers him:
the tideLife in New York drives people apart, puts between them the palpable space of their freedom. People become Walker Percy’s Will Barrett, working underground (at night!) and blacking out for days at a time. And forget about sex; it’s an empty gesture never shared by only two people, not with the choking presence of the ghosts of everyone else they’ve slept with hanging around. At the moment of supposed closest intimacy, the narrator “know[s] I’m alone” (III.16).
Of option and ambition washes us
So far apart that we can barely see
The outline of the face that used to be
The morning’s first sight, peaceable and precious. (II.8-12)
And I don’t see a way out of it. At the end of the poem, the two sexual partners could conceivably commit to each other and enter Kierkegaard’s ethical sphere. The narrator sees this scenario playing out in the movie in his head. But they won’t let go of their precious freedom, the freedom that kills them: “I promise love, and faithfulness, and you / Say you are mine; and somehow it is true, / And we part weeping. No, that’s not for us” (V.10-12). This is an empty world of empty lives and empty sex. Even the laughs are cheap.
Even after the inevitable breakup, things remain in the air. In “Post-Mortem,” Kirsch bemoans his ex and the fact that “the final consummation is not hate, / Nor growing up and past to indifference, / Nor even love, but this thought of you tonight” (ll. 10-12). Everything is indefiniteness.
“A Love Letter” is clearly in a line with these two. It’s a fascinating poem, in that it seems to respond simultaneously to “Post-Mortem” and to “One Weekend,” making both of those poems somehow positive. Specifically, it brings them more explicitly into the philosophical realm. We get a vision of deconstructed emotion; the expression I love you “loses / All obvious meaning, so that when we’re through / We can’t be sure of ‘I’ or ‘love’ or ‘you’ ” (ll. 30-32). We see an attempt to break the binding nature of love, as in “One Weekend.”
But the issue is not with the word love—it’s with the lover himself. The Self has been so radically destabilized by the life it has attempted to lead that the narrator cannot be sure that he’s even the same human being who made that vow all those years ago.
But there’s hope, in that Kirsch says that “a word, we’ve learned, is an arbitrary sound / Yoked to a meaning, and will never do / To describe what’s essential, necessary, true” (ll. 118-120). That’s not what the deconstructionists would have us believe. They tell us that there is no “essential, necessary, true”—it’s not merely that words can’t describe those things, it’s that those things are completely bound up in words and thus do not exist. Kirsch maintains the existence of the thing that our words (I, love, you) cannot reach.
As such, he can find something undeconstructible—if language can’t touch something, then it can’t “explode its binaries,” no matter how many pages of unintelligible prose someone spills trying. And that something, predictably enough, is love:
Love becomes for [the lover] the Unmoved MoverIt’s this “sustaining ground” that allows promises to be made and to be kept; it’s what allows the narrator and his beloved to cling fast to their vows even as the river of time flows on past them, water they can never see again. His language is important here: “That night we were pledged . . . / To love and each other” (ll. 73-74). That commitment is the solution both to the empty sex of “One Weekend” and the crushing longing of “Post-Mortem”; it’s what holds the universe together.
No logical proof explains or justifies;
He rejoices that in love at last he’s found
The self-evident good, the all-sustaining ground. (ll. 101-104)
The next poem, “Epithalamium,” takes it even further; Kirsch blesses “the form that marriage gives to love” (l. 14). More significantly, he claims that
only the modern couple, freedIt seems as though true freedom is required for commitment; only when we are given the options of empty sex and crushing longing can we truly commit ourselves to the undeconstructible Unmoved Mover that is love. Let's hope my marriage has that commitment.
From sexual and financial need
That anciently condemned
To bondage without end,
Without embarrassment can choose
To give themselves, so serious,
Serene and dignified,
Like this groom and bride. (ll. 25-32)