Ages of Love

Harbor city extending back onto mountains.

In the poem “The Question” collected in the book The Captain’s Verses, Pablo Neruda writes: “I want you straight / as the sword or the road.”


Neruda writes while exiled on the island of Capri. Waves and storms make the throes of passion and longing accessible, even if the one you love isn’t. Dangerous or high stakes circumstances help an intense love poem materialize.

Living and teaching in twenty-first century New York City, Eileen Myles writes of love and sex in ways that are more pointed and succinct, though less epic—no swords or storms—just as moving as Neruda.

Her poem titled “Movie” opens with these lines:

You’re like
a little fruit
you’re like
a moon I want
to hold

There’s the direct address of a love poem, the metaphorical language, the symbols of nature, many things Neruda uses in his verses. However, there is simplicity in Myles’s work, a driving forward from line to line without flourish. Perhaps because like the poem’s brief title reminds, nowadays you can see most everything you want on a screen: there’s no need to write about it to excess.

Neruda wrote post-film but pre-streaming and post-photography but pre-Instagram. In his verses there’s a need to be visual, a tangible urge to describe the look and feel of things with adjectives.

In the haunting poem “If You Forget Me,” he writes:

if I look at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you . . .

Neruda wrote pre-internet and all that comes with it: easily accessible pornography and online dating, to name only a couple. Ours is a layered, complex landscape of interactions and maneuverings through romantic relationships that are often ambiguous or undefined in nature.

In “Each Defeat” Myles writes:

I feel your
absence in
the morning
& imagine your
instant mouth
let me move
in with you—
wrapping your limbs
on my back
I grow man woman
I see wild wild wild

Here “wild” isn’t describing the moon or the fire of love or desire in a visual sense. It’s a stand-alone word the poet can see so fully, it’s echoed three times in the ear: “wild, wild, wild.”

In today’s interconnected world, there are seemingly more options for seeking romantic fulfillment. Chasing after them is easier still: you’ve only to swipe right on Tinder. Modern love seems more convenient and ripe for the finding. Even Myles’s mouth is “instant” and readily available. Freedom, independence, and autonomy are prized more than ever, as further on in the poem, lies the self-aware warning: “I’m a little / controlling.”

Jealousy and competition will always be a part of love, as Neruda explores in his poem “Always”:

Come with a man
at your back,
come with a hundred men in your hair,
come with a thousand men between your bosom and your feet,
come like a river
filled with drowned men
that meets the furious sea,
the eternal foam, the weather.

Neruda’s rivers and seas are far from skyscrapers and train lines. His verdant island isn’t much like Myles’s neon city, where rivers tend to be placid and not ones in which to dip the toes of your feet.

There is a dark, animalistic side to Neruda’s poems. In one he waits for his lover like a tiger behind leaves and slashes at her body like prey. Still another sees him scooping her up like the condor, a North American vulture, and flying with her through cold atmospheric air.

In “Each Defeat” Myles’s creatures are less threatening, though still tied to danger: a “slow skunk walking across the road” and “a coyote . . . hit by cars on the highway / Again and again.” The repetitive drone of post-industrial life sings here with the coyote’s ongoing accidental death.

Love contains harsh dualities—pain and pleasure. The navigation through these is the love poem, whether in view of oceans or subway cars.

Myles’s poem concludes with this titular bit:

Each defeat
Is sweet.

The last lines of Neruda’s poem “The Earth” read:

And each wound has
the shape of your mouth.

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