The night before I left for camp one junior high school summer, my mother and I stayed up past midnight watching the eight-hour movie version of Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds – a story that was to dominate my views of romantic love for over a decade. I had read the novel earlier that year (I remember hiding the bright orange mass market paperback inside a textbook so I could sneak a few pages during social studies class), and it immediately overwrote everything I knew about Roman Catholic priests, Australia, and of course romance. I have not watched the movie since, but I can still conjure in my mind the grand panoramic views of the endless Australian outback, the soft silk Ashes of Roses gown against Meggie’s fiery red hair, and the sublime melancholy of the music that would run through my head all summer long. That was the summer of my first boyfriend, and though I did not take the book with me to camp, I had already memorized its first and last paragraphs:
“There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the price of great pain… or so says the legend…
The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.”
These two paragraphs were to become my credo of romantic love, a statement of everything I believed about the human heart. I was determined that I would love just once, but that it would be a grand and majestic love that would demand every ounce of my being. I was sure that this love would be painful—deeply, agonizingly, heart-wrenchingly painful—but that the depths of the pain would be matched by heights of passion and ecstasy. I would put the thorn in my breast and perhaps I would die in so doing, but still I would do it. Still I would do it.
When I graduated from junior high to high school, The Thorn Birds was supplemented by other articles of faith that shaped and hardened my romantic constitution, including Catherine Earnshaw’s declaration to Nelly Dean that her “love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath—a source of little visible delight, but necessary”; a statement by Sartre encountered in a Rebecca Goldstein novel (“Thus suddenly an object has appeared which has stolen the world from me…”); and Keats’ valorization of a love “forever warm and still to be enjoyed / Forever panting, and forever young.” I quote each of these passages from memory as I write this post because I learned them “by heart” – by which I mean that the ink with which these words were written coursed through my veins, beat against my staggering brain, and carved out the channels of each chamber of my heart.
With time, as I have loved and lost and loved and lost again, I suppose I have developed a more sober view of romantic love. Bronte and Keats have been supplanted by the determined calmness attained through great effort of will which I found in Edna St. Vincent Millay (“What lips my lips have kissed and where and why / I have forgotten” – a poem that goes on to invoke Wuthering Heights, I think); at some moments I was even able to adjure myself that “I find this frenzy insufficient reason / for conversation when we meet again” (though I highly doubt that I or Edna ever really believed that was true; what do we have if not for the frenzy?). I have resigned myself (not without kicking and screaming) to Yeats’ take-no-prisoners enjoinder that “to be born a woman is to know / although they do not talk of it at school / that we must labor to be beautiful.” When I chant Shir Hashirim on Pesach it is not with a heart open to the possibilities of the future, but with a heart weighed down by memories (What men have recited Shir Hashirim to me and where and why / I have forgotten….) And just this morning (while waiting each half hour for my next appointment to arrive at the London Book Fair), I memorized a poem by Jack Gilbert called “Waiting and Finding” (discovered in a recent New Yorker magazine), which I think I shall henceforth regard as my new credo of romantic love — a poem that, like everything I have quoted until this point, I can now recite “by heart”:
While he was in kindergarten, everybody wanted to play
the tomtoms when it came time for that. You had to
run in order to get there first, and he would not.
So he always had a triangle. He does not remember
how they played the tomtoms, but he sees clearly
their Chinese look. Red with dragons front and back
and gold studs around that held the drumhead tight.
If you had a triangle, you didn’t really make music.
You mostly waited while the tambourines and tomtoms
went on a long time. Until there was a signal for all
triangle people to hit them the right way. Usually once.
Then it was tomtoms and waiting some more. But what
he remembers is the sound of the triangle. A perfect,
shimmering sound that has lasted all his long life.
Fading out and coming again after a while. Getting lost
and the waiting for it to come again. Waiting meaning
without things. Meaning love sometimes dying out,
sometimes being taken away. Meaning that often he lives
silent in the middle of the world’s music. Waiting
for the best to come again. Beginning to hear the silence
as he waits. Beginning to like the silence maybe too much.
Like The Thorn Birds, encountered when I was less than half as old as I am now, “Waiting and Finding” relies on a musical metaphor for love. There is Colleen McCullough’s “one superlative song,” and then there is Gilbert’s “perfect, shimmering sound.” These two metaphors bookend my thoughts on romantic love until this point in my life, with the latter taking the place of the former. Love is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime song that the whole world stills to listen, but a series of cacophonous rehearsals in which everybody tries to learn how to play their part, and most of us never get it exactly right. The romance of romantic love lies not in the uniqueness of its limited-time-offer-only, but in the guaranteed “fading out and coming again” (enacted by the constant back-and-forth flashes from tomtoms to triangle throughout the first thirteen lines of the poem). For Gilbert, romantic love is romantic not because it requires us to surrender our lives, but because it requires us to live the surrender again and again. Love has poetry in the same way that a sunset has poetry; the color streaks across the sky as the light fades, but then the sun always rises. “The best,” a phrase that appears in both texts, is something that costs us our lives for McCullough; but for Gilbert it is inevitably reborn again and again, like the morning light.
Unlike McCullough, for whom life ends when the song dies, Gilbert allows for the silences, and even acknowledges that the silences have their own appeal. As I sit alone in a tiny top-floor London hotel room overlooking a quiet park, scribbling these words in a notebook with my feet curled under me in the corner of a narrow single bed, I have no use for birds and thorns and savage breasts. I am beginning to like the silence – maybe too much.
See also “Love in the Time of Omer” (part I): http://tinyurl.com/c36qvl