“You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.”
I have Kit Stolz to thank for turning me on to Vera Pavlova. I devoured her first collection in English, aptly titled If There is Something to Desire. Keen, startling, and erotic–poems of such love and longing have not made as deep an impression on me as since I first discovered Pablo Neruda. And it occurred to me: I have been attending the erotic in poetry with shyness and apprehension. For example, although I love and support the Artists’ Union Gallery, each year when their erotic poetry fundraiser reading rolls around, there is always some good reason I cannot attend.
Toward the end of my study in the Pacific MFA program, the poet Marvin Bell suggested in one of his lectures that instead of writing so many elegies to the dead, we might do well to write more love poems to the living. It occurred to me in that moment that I could be rightly accused of giving too much attention to Thanatos, at the expense of Eros. My recent reading of Vera Pavlova only added evidence to the prosecution. In fact, she might be speaking directly to me when she writes, in poem 15, in her characteristically direct manner:
Do you know what you lacked?
That dose of contempt without which
you cannot flip a woman on her back
to make her flounder like a turtle,
to make the heartless fool realize:
she cannot flip back on her own.
Though heartlessness and contempt are hardly qualities I actively cultivate in my life, a certain coldness in writing can actually heighten the reader’s emotional response, as Pavlova demonstrates time and again through her razor-sharp concision. This concision becomes all the more cutting when applied to delicate passions and vulnerable emotional states, as when she confesses her wish that “tenderness would melt / memories, and I would sleep, my cheek / pressed against your back, as on a motorbike…”
Desire, after all, as any good Buddhist will tell you, is the wellspring source of suffering. And Pavlova makes use of a deep and beautiful longing that springs first from love and intimacy, but soon transcends the sexual, into a universal hope and sadness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stunning and remarkable poem 52:
A weight on my back
a light in my womb.
Stay longer in me,
When you are on top of me,
I feel triumphant and proud,
as if I were carrying you
out of a city under siege.
Intimacy between lovers, carefully and sparingly rendered, suddenly becomes heroic, maternal, dangerous, compassionate, brotherly, violent, tender, tenuous, and brave. Not only death and lamentation, but love itself is also this complex. Pavlova reminds me that because of love’s complexity, love poems to the living can, in fact, contain as much lament as elegies to the dead. Thank you, Ms. Pavlova, for opening my eyes, with such keenly observed moments, to all the triumph and floundering that love poems can, fleetingly, hold.