A Refletion on Valentine’s Day

There seem to be two camps on Valentine’s day — those who are happily coupled, and those who aren’t.

Those who are happily coupled maybe spent today doing cliched things and being happy about it. They maybe spent today wishing they could actually be with the person they are happily coupled with because so many things come between people: work, family emergencies, school, deployment, etc. They maybe spent today fighting, because fighting can still be part of being happily coupled. They maybe spent today like they spend every other day because they could, or because they couldn’t afford to do something special, or because of other circumstances.

There are a lot of maybes.

And those who aren’t happily coupled maybe felt sorry for themselves or angry about it or resentful of those who are happily coupled or hurt or profoundly sad. Maybe they feel self-righteous. Or maybe they spent it with friends or mourning someone who they still love and have lost or treating themselves to something special. Maybe they did the cliche things with their parents or children or roommates.

Sometimes, I’ve felt annoyed by all the pink and red that is seemingly everywhere and by what it represented I didn’t have. I’d feel lonely or sad or sorry for myself. And, usually, I’d be strangely amused by heart-shaped everything at the grocery store and the snarky Victorian Valentine’s floating around on the internet. Sometimes I’d roll my eyes and make one of the self-righteous statements about not needing a holiday to tell people I care about that I care about them. Sometimes, I’d see friends who were happily coupled, and be so completely happy about them and their obvious affection for each other.

In other words, my reaction varied. A lot.

This year, I was fortunate to spend part of Valentine’s Day with a friend. I was lucky to later see another friend, who dashed up behind me at a grocery store to give me a hug. I was fortunate to have a relatively warm and sunny morning, and the chance to go on a run with my pup — something we haven’t been doing as much lately. I saw friends celebrating their love on the internet. I saw a couple kissing on the sidewalk before walking into the botanic gardens and a bunch of people doing acro-yoga spelling out LOVE with their bodies. I saw someone buy a fancy dog treat for their dog at a fancy grocery store and give it to their dog outside, along with a kiss on the nose.

I know Valentine’s Day is hard for a lot of people. It has been hard for me in the past. But this year, I couldn’t help but think about how sometimes it’s nice that we remember to slow down and check back into our lives. To be present for, and with, people we care about. I couldn’t help but think about how great it is that we have days where we make a point of treating people with additional love and kindness. The world needs more of both of those.

I also had the chance to read a bunch of love poems, posted by my lovely friend, Rachael. The poems she selected aren’t necessarily about romantic love, or current love, and that’s what I love about the poems she chose. We, too often, reduce Valentine’s Day to only romantic and sexual love. We forget, sometimes, how love has many faces — and how sometimes we can dislike, or even hate, the people we love and it’s okay because we are complicated and other people are complicated and love is complicated. We forget, sometimes, how fleeting our connections to other people can be.

In that vein, here are a few of my favorite love poems:

For the way we keep falling, inexplicably, and helplessly in love with people

By Matthew Dickman

We fall in love at weddings and auctions, over glasses
of wine in Italian restaurants
where plastic grapes hang on the lattice, our bodies throb
in the checkout line, bookstores, the bus stop,
and we can’t keep our hands off each other
until we can–
so we turn to rubber masks and handcuffs, falling in love again.
We go to movies and sit in the air-conditioned dark
with strangers who are in love
with heroes like Peter Parker
who loves a girl he can’t have
because he loves saving the world in red and blue tights
more than he would love to have her ankles wrapped around
his waist or his tongue between her legs.
While we watch films
in which famous people play famous people
who experience pain,
the boy who sold us popcorn loves the girl
who sold us our tickets
and stares at the runs in her stockings each night,
even though she is in love
with the skinny kid who sells her cigarettes at the 7-11
and if the world had any compassion
it would let the two of them pass a Marlboro Light
back and forth
until their fingers eventually touched, their mouths sucking
and blowing. If the world knew how
much they loved each other
then we would all be better off. We could all dive head first
into the sticky parts. We could make sweat
a religion. We could light a candle
and praise the holiness of smelliness. Imagine standing
beneath the gothic archways of feet,
the gilded bowls of armpits. Who doesn’t want to kneel down
and pray before the altar of the mouth?
For my part I am going to stop
right here,
on this dark night,
on this country road,
where country songs come from, and kiss her, this woman,
below the trees,
which are below the stars,
which are below desire.
There’s a music to it. I can hear it.
Johnny Cash, Biggie Smalls, Johann Sebastian Bach, I don’t care
what they say. I loved you
the way my mouth loves teeth,
the way a boy I know would risk it all for a purple dinosaur,
who, truth be told, loved him.
There is no accounting for it.
In fact there are no accountants
balancing the books of love, measuring
the heart’s distance and speed.
In the Midwest, for instance,
there are fields of corn madly in love with a scarecrow,
his potato-sack head
and straw body, standing among the dog-eared stalks,
his arms stretched out like a farm-Christ
full of love. Turning on the radio
I know how much AM loves FM. It’s the same way
my mother loved Elvis
whose hips all young girls love, sitting around the television
in poodle skirts and bobby socks,
watching him move across the screen like something
even sex dreamed of having.
He loved me tender for so many years
that I was born after a long night of Black Russians and Canasta
while Jailhouse Rock rocked.
I love the way my screen door, if it isn’t latched shut,
will fling itself open to the wind,
how the clouds above me look like animals covered in milk.
And I’m not the only one.
Stamps love envelopes. The licking proves it.
Just look at my dog
who obviously loves himself with an intensity
no human being could sustain, though you can’t say we don’t try.
The S&M goddess
who brings her husband to the mall,
dressed in a leather jumper, leading him through the food court
by a leash. The baker who scores
his wife’s name into the thin skin of the pumpernickel
before peeling it into the oven.
Once a baby lizard loved me so completely
he moved into my apartment and died of hunger.
I was living there with a girl who loved to say the word
shuttlecock. She would call
me at work and whisper shuttlecock
into my ear which loved it! The blastoff
of the first word sending the penis into space.
Not that I ever imagined
my cock being a spaceship,
though sometimes men are like astronauts, orbiting
the hot planets of women,
amazed that they have traveled so far, wanting
to land, wanting to document the first walk,
the first moan,
but never truly understanding what
has moved them. Love in an elevator.
Love in the backseat of your parent’s Chevette.
Love going to college, cutting her hair, reading Plath and sleeping
with other girls.
Sometimes love is lying across the bed
but it might not be yours.
And sometimes it travels into a hostile territory
where it’s hardly recognizable
but there all the same.
I know a man who loves tanks so much
he wishes he had one
to pick up the groceries, drive
his wife to work, drop his daughter off
at school with her Little Mermaid
lunch box, a note
hidden inside, next to the apple, folded
with a love that can be translated into any language: I HOPE

As a reminder: we are complex

by Timothy Liu

I was always afraid
of what might get
revealed in a psychic’s
                   Forgive me
for not knowing
how we were
every card in the deck.

from Rattle #43, Spring 2014

A poem comparing bras, binders, and boyfriends — and loving yourself. Because humor is sometimes the best way to talk about tough things.

Bras and Binders


A poem for when we feel alone

14 Letters to a 52-Hertz Whale
By Matthew Olzmann


Dear 52-Hertz Whale: Because you sing at a frequency no other whales can hear, scientists have nicknamed you “The World’s Loneliest Whale.” I’m sure it’s unbearable out there, swimming through eternity, calling out and calling out and calling out and calling out and never getting a reply, never hearing a kind word in response.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re being careful.

Dear 52-Hertz:  Would it be weird if I came to the ocean to visit?  I haven’t figured out the logistics of this, but it’d be cool to hang for a while.  The problem is, I don’t know how to find you. I could get to the beach, but then what?  If I swam out to meet you, I’d get eaten by tiger sharks. If you swam to the shore, you’d get stuck and die.  Once, there was a video going around the internet of a beached whale and it was dead and the villagers didn’t know how to get rid of the carcass.  So they tried to blow it up with a bunch of dynamite.  That didn’t work out too well for them.

It was kind of messed up, actually.

Dear Whale. It was stupid of me to mention that other whale getting blown up with all the dynamite and everything. Totally insensitive.  Sorry.  I have no grace. I’ve been told this before.  That I have “no grace.”  I apologize.  Just trying to make conversation.  I’m no good at this. Sorry.

Hey. Do you ever dress up as other animals?  If so, what kind?  It’s almost Halloween out here. I was just wondering.

Dear Whale: Halloween was totally lame.  This one little kid came to the door dressed as a dolphin.  But he had a net over him.  And I said what’s with the net? And he said, Every year hundreds of thousands of dolphins and whales are killed by the tuna fishing industry because they don’t know how to avoid the nets.  And I thought he was insulting your intelligence, so I said: Look motherfucker, you don’t know a goddamn thing about whales.  Get the fuck off my porch. 

Maybe I overreacted there.

Dear Whale:  Do you ever see people swimming nearby and think to yourself, I could really have some fun with this?

Like maybe you could surface right next to them and then yell something like, Jonah!  I’ve been looking for you!  And then open your mouth really wide?

That would be awesome.

Do you have any goals or fears?

Do whales believe in God?

Do you ever float on your back and scrutinize the stars and see unexpected figures among them, like maybe other whales? Do you assign them names, and imagine stories for those make-believe creatures as they drift through the dark?  Do those stories lend structure to your days and nights? Do they comfort the nervous waters, constellate the disjointed heavens, and render the marvelous in a manner that you can endure?  Do you believe them?

How cold is the bottom of the ocean?  How crushing is the pressure down there?

Do you ever worry that because your voice is impossible to hear, maybe no one will make the effort?  That you can work really hard and try to be a good person and try to make a difference in your community, but then—at the end of the day—the waves will just swallow you whole?  They will take you under.

You’ll disappear from the world.

And you won’t even leave a ripple on the surface.


Originally published in Hobart, June 10, 2015


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