Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
to love is to battle, if two kiss
the world changes, desires take flesh,
thoughts take flesh, wings sprout
on the backs of the slave, the world is real
and tangible, wine is wine, bread
regains its savor, water is water,
to love is to battle, to open doors,
to cease to be a ghost with a number
forever in chains, forever condemned
by a faceless master;
- Ah love. It crumbles glory and pain. At least, it does so according to our speaker.
- The famous line "to love is to battle" is repeated twice, in line 353 and line 360, which might seem a little weird. But the speaker doesn't mean that love is to battle each other—it means that love battles all of the things that divide people. (Check out "Best of the Web" for some spin-offs on this line.)
- The stanza tells us all the wonderful things love can do, like make desires and thoughts flesh, and give a slave wings. But it's not all make believe, either. The cool thing about love here is that it makes the world more real—"wine is wine, bread / regains its savor, water is water."
the world changes
if two look at each other and see,
to love is to undress our names:
"let me be your whore" said Héloise,
but he chose to submit to the law
and made her his wife, and they rewarded him
- That "love is to battle" line is altered in Line 365 to say "to love is to undress our names," meaning that loving means getting rid of identity, like the lovers in the room at the center of the world earlier. And that makes sense, too. If you're one with another, well you're not yourself anymore, are you?
- Lines 365-369 make yet another literary and historical allusion to Heloise. See "Allusions" for more on her tragic story.
better the crime,
the suicides of lovers, the incest committed
by brother and sister like two mirrors
in love with their likeness, better to eat
the poisoned bread, adultery on a bed
of ashes, ferocious love, the poisonous
vines of delirium, the sodomite who wears
a gob of spit for a rose in his lapel,
better to be stoned in the plaza than to turn
the mill that squeezes out the juice of life,
that turns eternity into empty hours,
minutes into prisons, and time into
copper coins and abstract shit;
- If Heloise and Abelard are examples of what not to do (which is follow the law), the poem then lists a bunch of types of love that might, depending on time and place, be considered deviant.
- Forbidden loves that end in suicide like that of Romeo and Juliet, along with incest, adulterers, and sodomites are all considered brave in the poem—they choose to face the punishment and taste love rather than conform and suck all the joy out of life.
- Check out the metaphor that has everybody turning a mill, grinding life away, squeezing time into worthless or nasty things. That brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "daily grind."
better chastity, the invisible flower
that rocks atop the stalks of silence,
the difficult diamond of the holy saints
that filters desire, satiates time,
the marriage of quietude and motion,
solitude sings within its corolla,
every hour is a petal of crystal,
the world strips off its masks,
and at its heart, a transparent shimmer
that we call God, nameless being
who studies himself in the void, faceless
being emerged from himself, sun
of suns, plenitude of presences and names;
- The last stanza was a celebration of all the "criminal" types of love, and this one takes the other extreme.
- Also better than conforming is chastity, because it keeps time satisfied, and all of the names of everything slip away and we find God at the center of time.
- At the beginning of the poem it was the beloved who was nameless and faceless; here, God is nameless and faceless, the object of meditation.
- Why do you think the speaker refers to both the beloved and God in these terms? What do they have in common here?