Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2005 / 6 Adar I 5765

Paul Greenberg

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A poet's holiday | This week we had that day again — when the entire world seems to be celebrating love. It's never clearer that love makes the world go 'round. Less well known is its power to stop the planet dead in midspin when it ends, turning Paris in the spring into Chicago in January.

But despite all its hazards, consider this a three-square endorsement of love. Nothing can beat what John Barrymore once called "that delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock."

That delightful interval tends to grow ever briefer in our high-speed, multi-tasking, attention-dissipating society, but there's still no substitute for it, certainly not for poets. Or for anyone else who wishes the world would go away.

It was a German poet (no, that is not a contradiction in terms) who observed that the great advantage of being in love is that one loses all interest in the newspapers. Today he'd probably include 24-hour news channels, blogs, talk radio and all other forms of the all too common delusion that politics is life — a delusion that does not augur well for the continuation of the species.

It was a Russian poet (no, that is not a redundancy) who understood that love is present even before it has arrived. And that it restores color to the world. As in Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Waiting" — "My love will come . . ./In from the pouring dark, from the pitch night/without stopping . . . /she'll run dripping upstairs, she won't knock,/will take my head in her hands,/ and when she drops her overcoat on a chair,/it will slide to the floor in a blue heap."

Love is present long after the lover is gone, as in C.S. Lewis' song for his lost Joy:

To take the old walks alone, or not at all,

To order one pint where I ordered two,

To think of, and then not to make, the small

Time-honoured joke (senseless to all but you);

To laugh (oh, one'll laugh), to talk upon

Themes that we talked upon when you were there,

To make some poor pretence of going on,

Be kind to one's old friends, and seem to care,

While no one (O G-d) through the years will say

The simplest, common word in just your way.

Happily, love turns out to be inseparable from the human condition; it may lie fallow for the longest time but there's no telling when it will crop up, or what will set it off, or whom it will strike. A smile, a glimpse, a memory, a gesture, a taste, a hint of perfume may bring it all back, like Proust's madeleine.

Even a fragment — of a Greek vase, an Egyptian tomb, an ancient song of songs — is enough to bring love back whole. "The richest love," wrote Lawrence Durrell, who loved Alexandria and all things Alexandrine, "is that which submits to the arbitration of time."

His "Alexandria Quartet" of novels — "Justine," "Balthazar," "Mountolive," "Clea" — stands dusty on the shelf now, like a violin waiting to be played, a memory to be recaptured. But one need only open a single page, take the first sip, hear a single note, taste the tiniest bit of halvah . . . and it all comes back. It's true then: Love is timeless.

("The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, the memory of all that, no, no, they can't take that away from me. . . . The way you hold your knife, the way we danced till three, the way you've changed my life, no, no, they can't take that away from me.")

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And when love is seasoned by time, and blooms into the quiet joys of domesticity, it may be best of all. Maddest love becomes utter sanity, and love turns into love.

There is no envy like that of the unloved of the loved, and it is made only fiercer by the nonchalance of those who love and are loved as if all that were only their due, thankless fools.

There is no anger like finding one has loved only a figment, as in Wendy Cope's "Defining the Problem" —

I can't forgive you. Even if I could,

You wouldn't pardon me for seeing through you

And yet I cannot cure myself of love

For what I thought you were before I knew you.

For you who have been disappointed in love just in time for this Valentine's Day, allow me to offer this piece of solace from Wendy Cope's "Loss" — "The day he moved out was terrible — /That evening she went through hell/His absence wasn't a problem/But the corkscrew had gone as well."


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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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