Study Guide for Love Poems by Modern Women


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Source: Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women. New York: Fawcett, 1991.

There are many passages in these poems that I don't claim to understand completely; but try to discern the feelings and patterns they contain even if you can't explain every line. The best way to appreciate most poetry is to read it aloud. Try it. Be sure to read the biographical notes on the poets that begin on p. 245.

Sonja Akesson: From "What Does Your Color Red Look Like?" p. 9, notes on p. 245.

The poet begins by proclaiming that there many meanings to the word "love;" but instead of enumerating them, she asks whether what she feels now is love at all. Why do you think she does this? What similarities are there among the images used in the lines from "There is a flush . . ." to "in the dry heat"? What seems to be the main theme of this poem? "Black crepe" is a kind of cloth which was traditionally used to symbolize mourning. The description at the end of the poem sounds rather repulsive. Can you see any ambiguity in the attitude of the poet toward "you"?

Nuala Ni Dhomnaill: "Labysheedy," p. 19, notes on p. 250.

The title is a place name in Ireland. The Shannon in an Irish river. The repetition of the first verse as a "refrain" at the end of the poem suggests a song. What time of day is being described? Why are the trees described as they are? How is the image repeated later? What image is taken directly from the Song of Songs? Of which sex is the "you" in this poem? How can you tell? The beloved must have very long hair if it flows over the "ravine" between her breasts and then over the lower "ravine" between her legs. Fuchsias are very common in Ireland, growing as hedges along many highways.

Marina Tsvetaeva: "You Loved Me," p. 31, notes on p. 267.

How does the title become more clearly defined as you read the poem? Why is the end of this love particularly shocking to the poet?

Rita Dove: "Adolescence 1," p. 32, notes on p. 251.

African-American writer Rita Dove was Poet-Laureate of the United States 1993-1995. What sort of weather could be described as "water-heavy"? What is the situation being described? What does it mean to say that "Linda's face grew wise?" What color are pecans? Is she referring to the nut, or to its shell? What images of light, feathery touching can you find in the poem? What images of light are in the poem, and how do they relate to each other?

More about Rita Dove.

Jelena Lengold: "Passion," p. 53, notes on p. 257.

A "lift" is an elevator. What is the speaker learning about her lover? What is the nature of her relationship to him? What causes the lover's "shudder," do you think? What does it tell us about him? Why does she identify with the cat at the end of the poem? What qualities might they have in common?

Joy Harjo: "Nine Below," p. 67, notes on p. 254.

The Bering Sea separated the Cold War foes the U.S. and U.S.S.R., between Alaska and Siberia. Downed fliers are often searched for in the Arctic using both planes and trained sled dogs. Why does the poet use these metaphors in describing her love? What is she trying to say about her relationship? Can you translate these images into feelings? The "blue saxophone" is probably not literally blue, but a sax used in playing bluesy jazz. "The shimmering houses of the gods" are probably the northern lights.

Marina Tsvetaeva: From "Poem of the End," p. 71, notes on p. 267.

In this poem a man tries to end a relationship with a minimum of communication which arouses powerful emotions in the poet. Which images reflect this theme? What does the first stanza mean? The eagle image occurs both at the beginning and end of the poem. What traditional associations are there with eagles? How does the poet stress the intimate, profound nature of love? To what sort of love does she contrast their love? Is this a dialogue? Who is doing most of the speaking? To what departure does the conclusion point?

Marilyn Hacker: "Languedocienne," p. 129, notes on p. 263.

Languedoc is an old name for Provence, an area of southern France in which the violent winds are reputed to drive people mad. A "Languedocienne" could be a poem written in the style of Languedoc (the home of the troubadours) or a woman who lives in Languedoc, or both. What does the weather imagery suggest about the state of the poet's mind as she anticipates meting her beloved? What do you think the images of longing for water suggest? She imagines going to collect her beloved at a nearby train station and making her way back on the bus past the houses closed up for the traditional afternoon siesta. How does this make their meeting more intimate?

Rita Dove: "This Life," p. 131.

What does this poem have to say about the disillusionment with love that may come with maturity? "That one" upstairs may be a husband or partner who perhaps told her the same intimate words that the person addressed as "you" has just uttered. She longed for "you" without really knowing it, but the image she uses for this longing implies permanent separation, unfulfilled longing. How does the poet feel about her current relationship?

Solveig von Schoultz: "The Rain," p. 144, notes on p. 267.

What images of the extinction of light are there in this poem? What have they to do with love? What similarities do "carelessly," "blindly," "oblivion," and "darkness" have? What does it mean that darkness, rather than light, streams out of someone?

Adrienne Rich: " From Twenty-One Love Poems, III;" pp. 155-156.

What makes this poem about love between older people different from a poem about young love? What do the first two lines mean? How does she contrast her feelings now with what she felt at twenty? Note that she is not saying that young love is better. What is better about love that happens late in life, according to the poet?

Ntozake Shange: "Get It & Feel Good," pp. 166, notes on p. 264.

This poem is written in a style which was popular in the 80s, designed to capture the feeling of informal, colloquial speech. It has a light, dancing rhythm which works best when read aloud, and is intended for oral performance. It is crucial while reading this poem to keep in mind that the poet has probably had many unhappy encounters with men, so she is trying to cheer herself up by listing some of the benefits one can still salvage from this frustrating business of love, even in hard times. Instead of agonizing over the lack of a perfect love, she seems to be saying, try to celebrate the little pleasures that it can still offer. The tone is humorous, impudent, ironic. What aspects of this poem do you think are positive? Which negative?

Margaret Atwood: "Eventual Proteus," p. 168, notes on p. 246

Proteus was a god who could transform himself into many different shapes. The only way to subdue him was to cling on tightly when he went through all his metamorphoses until he settled down into his true shape. How does this ancient myth reflect the theme of this poem? This is one of the bitterest poems in this collection. In what ways has this relationship changed? How has the image of the man changed in the poet's eyes? How does she feel about herself? She no longer believes in the early illusions she associated with him, the way he presented himself, so the early language in which he presented himself is no longer credible. Why is their lovemaking now a failure?

Audre Lorde: "Sisters in Arms," pp. 185-187, p. 258.

Audre Lorde is a highly political black lesbian poet who here expresses her solidarity with a South African lover in a poem which is more about the struggle against apartheid (correctly pronounced "apart-hate," rather than the common but erroneous "apart-hide ": the word is Afrikaans, not German). What are the various sorts of things which the poet wishes she could do for her grieving lover? Her daughter was murderd by the police while the poet was away, and this sense of tragedy, rage, and frustration is mingled with her love. The limpet mine is a bomb used to cause a terrorist explosion, and the calabash is a gourd which in traditional African belief can be used to enclose the sole of a departed loved one. After the list of things she could not do, what does she say she was able to do? Note that after the blank line, the scene shifts to the U.S. at a later date. The incident that has caused the New York Times "finally" to mention South Africa is the brutal 1984 shooting down in Sebokeng of a group of people running from police and troops, including the six-year-old Thabo Sibeko. What sort of victims does this poem especially concentrate on? Sulfur is used in the manufacture of gunpowder. How does the stanza at the bottom of p. 186 express the absence of the beloved? In what way is the final stanza affirmative or hopeful?

Alice Walker: "Did This Happen to Your Mother? Did Your Sister Throw Up a Lot?" p. 192, notes p. 268.

How does Walker try to create a sense of commonality among women in her musings on love? What does she have to say about the relationship between needs and love? How is the lovesickness in this poem different from Medieval lovesickness? What is a "conservationist" in this context? Is the last line despairing or hopeful, do you think?

Solveig von Schoultz: "The Lover," p. 216.

Describe the emotions that are expressed in this poem. What is going on?

Marina Tsvetaeva: "Where Does this TendernessCome from?" p. 223.

Here an experienced woman is astonished to find herself so moved by a new lover she barely knows. What causes her astonishment?

Nina Cassian: "Prayer," p. 223, notes on p. 248

This poem evokes old myths of animal lovers or gods who mate with mortal women. The poet "prays" to perhaps nonexistent pagan gods--potential lovers, in hopes of being transformed by their love. What emotions does the poem express?

Jayne Cortez: "Rose Solitude," p. 234, notes on p. 249.

This love poem--or eulogy--to the memory of the great composer and band leader Duke Ellington alludes to the titles of a number of his compositions, including "Solitude," "Satin Doll," "Caravan," and "Cotton Tail." Edward Kennedy Ellington was famously a lover of women, but it his music which is the object of adoration here. Musk is an important ingredient in many perfumes, taken from the mink. "Satchmo" was the nickname of the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Nat (King) Cole (father of Natalie) was a major jazz pianist before he became even more famous as a singer and had the first network television show hosted by a black performer. Shango is a West African god of storms and power often evoked in the Caribbean and Brazil by black cults. How is the permanence of art expressed in this poem?

Registered students in Hum 410 may listen to recordings of the pieces alluded to in this poem in the Griffin online audio reserves. Contact your instructor for the password.

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