Why Do Things That Go Without Saying Keep Getting Said?

These two new volumes of verse communicate certain truths well, others less well.

Book covers of ‘Love’s Many Names’ and ‘Infinite Arrivals’
Book covers of ‘Love’s Many Names’ and ‘Infinite Arrivals’ (photo: Angelico Press)

To say that love is the most consistent theme of poets would be a near-platitude. Is this a problem, though? As I heard a priest recently quip in a sermon, “Things that ‘go without saying’ bear repeating many times; and first among them is ‘I love you.’” Reading new poems in recently released volumes from Angelico Press made me wonder about this perennial affirmation, “I love you,” and recurrent question, “What is love?”

Love’s Many Names

Poet Sam Davidson in Love’s Many Names loses himself in the immensity of experience. He hears “churchbells from before churches” and tries to articulate the places where the varied traditions, experiences and languages of men have named Love; thus, we find Sufi, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian references which he sees as reaching to the one “eternal song.”

The overwhelming nature of God leads him not to master love but to be mastered by it; consequently, Davidson’s poetry seems to stem from an experience, like that of Jeremiah, where knowledge can only express itself in non-expression: “Ah, ah, ah, Lord God: behold, I cannot speak, for I am a child” (Jeremiah 1:6). If I have a criticism of this verse it would be that, to use the words of Father Luke Bell in the book’s Introduction, the “primordial feeling” that “flows through” the poems is so primordial as to be sometimes unintelligible. That being said, the mist — sometimes golden, sometimes gray or black, sometimes lavender — which Love’s Many Names conjures up can certainly be conducive to glimpses of morning (and mourning) light.

Dawn silence might be the best setting for meditation on the many names of Love; our experience might then be one where “you taste the chai of dawn / Flavoured with all the spices of light, reborn.” It is extraordinary that “When I’m kissing you all I want / Is to kiss you.” What is more chilling is the necessity of (sometimes) passing through “death, mud, cigarettes, hope” “for you.” Such openness to suffering leads to a vision of what “lovers must be like / To those who have no lust.” 

The “funny” thing that might be love is also “a dangerous thought,” a scary thought, when we realize that God might give us “voices just to sing / Immortal songs of human suffering.” I would agree with Father Bell that these poems are able “to show without repeating the banalities of piety that even terrible suffering serves love.” I just wish Davidson wasn’t allergic to the use of periods; his passages are so obscure at times it is difficult to assess whether he is talking about real or imagined experiences, sensuous or spiritual, and whether they were good or not. It seems Davidson is perfectly content with a plenitude of ambiguity in all of these areas. His search, then, seems to rest in the mysterious tension between wondering what love is when your desire shouts “I love you,” and you might not even know exactly whom you are loving!

Infinite Arrivals

Nick Maione, however, sets out with a more consistent backdrop of Catholicism to his Infinite Arrivals — even if he shares Davidson’s aversion to periods. The result of a Camino pilgrimage, Maione’s book is really a sketchbook of life — both in poems and the handful of his drawings which interrupt the verse now and then.

I wonder if, fundamentally, many of Maione’s fragmented poems — songs “to remind God this was his idea” — were really written to remind us that this (life, suffering, whatever it might be) was God’s idea. I read some of these poems to a friend. 

The surprise articulated in Infinite Arrivals is at the fact that “I have been loved.” This realization “is worse than I feared.” Such surprise and fear is, I think, also present in Davidson’s work, though less clearly. The hardest truth is also the most wonderful and difficult to accept; because “My throat acts allergic / to all the things we could do / if we believed we were loved.” The encouraging thing in all of this is that “after all God does not ask us to be successful, but faithful.”

The freckled patchwork of sunlight which the repeated arrivals of infinity create this pattern: when supernatural charity informs natural affections, terrifying selflessness and faithfulness can be unlocked. When only “God know[s] why you walk” the path of pilgrimage — both of this life and of the Camino — and grace is experienced on the road, pilgrims can become 

Terrified of themselves
for having resembled love
for an instant and known it
They weren’t ready
They were only people[.]

“The good thing” of Christ’s loving redemption “is harder to take” than rejection or loneliness because of the humility it requires. It is hard “to know what to do with.” The same is true of human love. To this end, my favorite piece of advice from Maione is this:

We should heal
not in the easiest
but in the most loving
way possible[.]

 These two new volumes of verse from Angelico Press fall squarely into the modern idiom of semi-abstract or impressionistic poetry; accordingly, they communicate certain truths well, others less well.

“As for the poet, he may use what words he likes, and go to any extreme, or to any excess, so long only as he hits the mark. For it is with poetry as with love and with singing in tune. It is with poetry as with the sense of reality. It is with poetry as with the toothache. Either you have it, or you have it not,” says Hilaire Belloc in The Cruise of the Nona.

Ultimately, I think Maione hits the mark more frequently and more satisfyingly than Davidson; others may disagree because there are an infinite number of arrivals in the discovery of love’s many names. Each discovery of the mystery is unique and new. This is why poets return, age after age, to the “things which go without saying” but must be said many times.