Artist Date 26: Some Kinda Love

10 poems to set you free

I have come to crave myself.

The words surprise me.

It is subtle.  A quiet yearning.  It doesn’t scream with white-hot fervor.  It is not that impulsive.

It guides, rather than drives, me.  Less a need, more of a desire – a siren calling with patient intensity.

I am not certain I have felt this way about anyone.

But how could I?

I’ve been “seeing’” myself (pun intended) for six months now.  Twenty-six Artist Dates.  Half a year.

This is my third-longest relationship, the longest being my ex-husband, followed by my first real boyfriend – who I dated for just shy of a year.  The others have been days, weeks, a couple of months.  Until now.

Some dates are exciting, juicy, aimed to impress – the Lyric Opera, Steppenwolf Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet.  Others are simpler, without fanfare or tickets.

Saturday is the latter.

I am on my way to the Conrad Sulzer Library in Lincoln Square.  An Artist Date return destination.  I want to read poetry.  Anne Sexton poetry.

I’ve been chipping away at her biography for several weeks, renewing it twice from the library, and paying $7.50 in overdue fines.  I read a chapter each night before bed.  I had been reading old journals.

One detailing a love affair with a man I imagined was beyond my reach.  Movie star handsome.  Devilishly sexy.  With a name to match.   Fantasy sex.  It was 19 years ago.  I had forgotten.

Another notes that I have stopped reading.  Stopped writing.  I have been dating my now ex-husband for one month.  My therapist has called me out on this.

In many I have written” I want to drink.”  Again and again.  I know I can’t.  But I don’t know how to not.  Not yet.  I lament the end of early love.

A trusted friend suggested I put the journals away.  At least for now.  An exercise in being fully present.  It’s been Anne and I, mostly, ever since.

I imagine poring over, pouring myself into, her work.  To Bedlam and Part Way BackAll My Pretty Ones?  Love Poems?  I’m not choosy.  Whatever is on hand.  I want to go to the source.  To the one who now keeps me up late at night.

But there is no Anne Sexton here.  None of her writings, that is.  Most of it is housed at the Harold Washington Library downtown, the one with the huge gargoyles on the roof.  I’ve yet to go inside there.

Plan B.

I roam the poetry stacks.  Ten Poems to Set You Free, by Roger Housden.  Lofty promise.  I’m intrigued.  Hopeful.   I grab it, find a seat near a window – near the jigsaw puzzle half done, inviting patrons to add a piece to its completion— and begin to read.

My head softens.  Opens.  Like when I meditate.  I didn’t realize I had a headache but now it is starting to clear.  It is quiet.  Blessedly quiet and I am blessedly alone, reading – once again.  Like I used to.

“Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit; sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate that brushes your heel as it turns going by…the only thing which lasts is the work; start then, turn to the work.  Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,” Miguel de Unamuno

“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others.  Unfold your own myth, without complicated explanations, so everyone will understand the passage, We have opened you.  Start walking toward Shams.  Your legs will get heavy and tired.  Then comes the moment of feeling the wings you’ve grown, lifting.” Rumi.

The poetry is like prayer, each word a meditation.

My nose feels hot.  My nostrils flare.  My eyes are wet.  Emotions greeting my senses.

“And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away from wherever you are, to look for your soul?”  Mary Oliver.

No one, I whisper.

“Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!”

I cannot move fast enough.  Suddenly I know that I’ve come here only to receive my map and my marching orders.  Not to stay.  Not today.  My soul isn’t in this place.  It is outside the window.

In the park across the street where 10-year-old boys are playing baseball; where parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, sit in folding chairs, drinking beer and soda, watching.

In the gelato shop where this date began.  Where I let cinnamon and toasted coconut and sea salt caramel play on my tongue.

I rush down the stairs, adding myself to the check-out queue.  Quickly, it is my turn.  “Come on down,” the librarian cries.  “I don’t watch the Price is Right since Bob Barker retired,” I say.  She laughs.  Neither does she.

I rush out into the sun that made itself known just an hour ago, after a wet, grey morning.  The air is hot and thick.  Moist.  Steam rising up out of the sidewalk.

I cross the street, walking into the park I pass nearly every day, but have never stepped inside of.  I find a quiet bench, mostly, and continue reading.

“…don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, work gone wrong, your plans all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly…say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.  Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say it was a dream, your ears deceived you: …go firmly to the window and listen with deep emotions, but not with whining, the pleas of a coward; listen – your final delectation – to the voice, to the exquisite music of that strange procession, and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.” C.P. Cavafy.

I read the words again, flummoxed.  Surprised.  Affirmed.

My experiences are real.  All of them.   No matter how long or short.  No matter if another understands or believes.  Each is real because I felt it, thought it, lived it.  It is true.

This is what I hear.

Celebrate it.  Honor it.  Mourn it.  Give it a proper send off.

The former symphony conductor.  My traveling companion in Germany.  The horny artist from New York.

The photographer, fantasy-sex lover, from journals 19 years old.

My ex-husband.

I savor each word, read them over and again – like a mantra offering me permission, I tenderly hold each little love.  Precious.  Complete.  Over.

I lie down on the bench and close my eyes.  I feel the sun blanket my body.  Lie on me heavy, like a lover.  Church bells merge with traffic and the dull empty whack of a bat hitting ball.  Clapping.  Squealing.  A man is doing lunges on the cement patch in front of me, groaning.

I walk home slowly, eyeing the cute boys on Lincoln Avenue.  They do not look back at me.  They never do, I think.  And then, “Lesley, that is simply not true.”  My own voice.

I walk into my apartment, turn Pandora to Lou Reed.  He sings to me.  Straight to me, through me.  Always.  I bypass songs, one, two, three, four, five.  Six, I cannot bypass.  “Some Kinda Love.”  It is what I had hoped to hear.  God is with me in the little things.

I chop onions and garlic, cook them with wild cod, capers and tomatoes, grill a side of bright green asparagus.  I sit at the table.  Cloth napkin.  Sunflowers in a vase.

Some kinda love.

Artist’s Date 19: We’re Only As Sick As Our Secrets

anne sextonI met Catherine Kaikowska my senior year of college, in an 8 a.m. poetry class.

She was all black.  Turtleneck.  Boots.  Leggings.  All hair.  Brown.  Shoulder length.  Wide and kind of frizzy.  She hiked herself up on the desk, crossed her legs in front of her and cracked open a can of Diet Coke.  “Fuck, it’s early,” she mumbled.

I liked her right away.

She liked me too, and invited me to meet her at The Peanut Barrel – an East Lansing institution known for good burgers, cheap pitchers of beer, and peanut shells covering the floor – where we sucked down Labatts Blues, chain smoked and talked about sex until closing.

She was from Ohio, and used to work the door at a club where Chrissie Hynde played before she made it big with The Pretenders.  The place she vowed she’d never return to until that time.

I haven’t thought about Catherine in a long time.  Until last Thursday, when I slipped a biography of Anne Sexton into my robin’s egg blue Samsonite carry-on bag, circa 1972, and boarded a plane bound for Nashville.

I was first introduced to Sexton in Catherine’s class, along with Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and her mentor at Michigan State University, Diane Wakoski.  Yet my interests lied with the testosterone-rich voice of Charles Bukowski.  The beatnik fantasy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I pulled the book out – a tomb, really, nearly 500 pages, hardcover and wrapped in acetate that is supposed to protect it – at Midway Airport, after checking my orange hard-case luggage and picking up a mediocre Americano.  Artist’s Date 19, surrounded by fellow travelers with faces tucked into ipad and smartphone screens.

If we are only as sick as our secrets, then Sexton was the picture of health – for she had none.  She was transparent, as I have been described.  Only more so.

Teacher and mentor John Holmes begged Sexton not to publish her darker, highly confessional poems.  Advice she ignored, and turned into, “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further.”

And yet, clearly she wasn’t well, as she took her own life at 45, just two years older than my 43.

Sexton threaded the stories of her life through men – how they reflected her.  She was wildly flirtatious.  A presence.  And, at times, profoundly sad.

She tended to sexualize significant relationships.  She had fluid boundaries.

She felt, at times, in competition with her mother.  And was considered alcoholic.

She gave away her heart too easily.

In “More Than All the Rest,” a poem to her long-term psychiatrist Dr. Martin Orne, she writes:

“Oh, I have raped my inner soul/And give it, naked, to you,/Since my warm mouth and arms/might love, and frighten you.”

I saw myself.  I looked around the airplane to see if anyone else saw me too.

I felt sick, like the medical-school student convinced she has contracted each disease she studies.

But I am not Anne.  I didn’t suffer post-partum depression.  I didn’t hand over my children to be raised by my mother-in-law.  I don’t have children.  I’ve never been pregnant.

I haven’t been institutionalized.  I didn’t take my own life.

Sexton’s gift was making something out of her sick.  Creating art.  Allowing others to see inside the most shameful parts of herself and whisper, “me too.”  In the process, she found both “her people” and herself.

Me too.

The plane touched down.  I was 78 pages in.  I slipped an index card into the book to hold my place, on it is a prayer I had written.  My own words.  My own healing.