The Drunken Sweetheart at My Door
Poems by Ken Meisel
Somewhere in my memory is a poet I knew who would complain of “thou poems”: unsuccessful poems about love harking back to Shakepeare’s sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day….” I, too, am suspicious of love poems because most of the time they lack the intensity that they supposedly intend to express. How are love poems that don’t even try to say something new supposed to demonstrate passion? Or devotion?
By contrast, Ken Meisel’s collection successfully takes on the challenge of the thou poem. While the poems here do not all fall into the ode mode, they do as rule center on the otherness of love: what it’s like for one person to love or lust another in many iterations, from teenage boys leering through windows at literally unattainable girls in “The Girls at the Vista Maria Home for Truants,” to a nun (sort of) teaching sex ed (“Love was joining./Death was letting go./ Life was the math of it.”), to the composer Robert Schumann desolately telling his wife among war ruins “you are not the red rose / anymore,” to the poet’s own connections and disconnections to love/lust interests. For Meisel, “Devotion is the aerobics of love,” i.e., it has to be exercised regularly, and the poem of that title embodies the otherness explored in the whole collection: “A woman is another country and so is a man” and marriage is “yet another Country that two / must walk sure-footed in.”
Even though there are plenty of lovey-dovey stock props (violins, roses, chocolate, and, well, tongues) they are employed in unexpected ways, such as the aforementioned nun caressing a rose during the “math” lesson thus confusing the heck out of the young narrator. In fact, the collection prevents itself from falling into clichés by not always taking itself too seriously. The poem “My Wedding” starts as such:
My wedding was a fish. It roused itself awake
by leaping out of calm water.
It flip-flopped all over the grass
on a steamy August morning in 1988.
The oddly apt metaphor serves to offset more declarative lines such as “A wedding ceremony is a healing” and says that Meisel has conviction enough to look (and love) deeply.