Kim Addonizio’s What is this Thing Called Love reaches through the looking glass.
If that is not clear enough, where a confessional poet’s version of these poems might harp on the “woe is me” shtick, Addonizio manages to allow the reader to experience these poems as though they come from inside, and not from the page. So, not that we are reading a memoir, but experiencing all the love offered to us. Even reminding the reader in a subtle way of other personal experiences. Sometimes, I can almost imagine being the speaker. Whether that is a fault of Addonizio’s writing, or my own empathy, I do not know; but I have an understanding, a connaissance, that is drawn out by the poems in this collection.
As a poet, I believe this is the thing poets look for. If I can convey – for even an instant – what it feels like to be in a situation, and to have the reader feel like she has been in that situation, then I have succeeded. And this may be the point that Hoagland makes in his “Skittish Poem” essay. The technical is amusing, in other words, but it is the gut punch that lasts. The realization that I can understand, through words on a page, what another human thinks or feels, means that I can also convey that experience to those who read my poems.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of technical expertise in What is this Thing Called Love.
Death, for instance – yes, the character – becomes as loving as the speaker in “Cat Poem:” “he’s talking to her softly, telling her to stop…” This empathy displayed for the cat resounds through the collection, offering a full menagerie of loves. What the reader comes to, in the end, is the realization of journey, from the aching dramatic love of a teenaged girl realizing the power of love in “First Kiss” to the powerful echoes of all those kisses within the woman in “Kisses.” In between, the love for a daughter, the love for the cat, the love for the grand affair, a foreign man… these things reappear and echo, weaving through the journey as if they were constantly contemplated. Even the journey is embraced, as is the realization that the journey does not reach a conclusion.
The idea we are still reaching for love, even when we are loved, that we are alone even when together, pervades. Yet Addonizio’s collection stays on this side of solipsism, and well on this side of narcissism. How can that be? I would offer the answer that the speaker never indulges in self-aggrandizing-love, but generally stands, as in “First Kiss,” “amazed at the sheer / power of satiety,” almost as if astounded at the results of it all: the power of desire, of love.
Addonizio, too, does not shy away from the gritty. These doses of threat prevent the collection from being too grandiose and keep it grounded in life experience. A lot of sections 2 and 3, in fact, focus on the grit of life, but also on the empathy in those scenes. From dinner with a dying friend to an organ transplant to the realization and failure of self-control, these poems want to rip your heart out, but they want you to do it, thinking it was your own idea.
I want to dedicate more time to this collection. Alas, I am a grad student and graded work comes calling.