What Is This Thing Called Love, by Kim Addonizio, contains poems about her lovers, her daughter, the death of her father and others, her own aging, and the horrors in the world. With sensuous, blunt and tender language, Addonizio goes beyond the surface to find rich layering of meanings. (What I strive for in my own work.)
The opening poem, “First Kiss,” is not just a poem about a lover. Instead, it is about vulnerability and the power to hurt. Addonizio compares her lover with her infant girl nursing. The “crowning moment” is when the baby or the lover shows how vulnerable, helpless, and trusting each can be. The opening line of the poem is strong, making the reader want to read on – “Afterwards you had that drunk, drugged look/.” Right there is a terrific line break because the next line begins – “my daughter used to get . . . .” Nice surprise and turn there. Ending the poem on a rueful note , Addonizio describes her lover as “that vulnerable,/ that easy and impossible to hurt.”
In “Death Poem,” Addonizio asks if there is any subject other than death. Ultimately no, right? Not for her or the rest of us. In the poem, we see her father in his blue burial suit, a dead squirrel, a woman with a tumor, children with holes in their heads and chests. Going deeper still, Addonizio understands that death lends urgency to the meaning-of-life questions we all ask. The poem’s ending is a plea – “Remind me why I’m here.”
Without sentimentality, in “Eating Together,” Addonizio describes a friend who is dying of cancer – the courage it takes to reveal a bald head, the hunger for food, for life, even as the cancer feeds on her body. There is tenderness, not
pity, in Addonizio’s matter-of-factness.
In “Cat Poem,” Addonizio ignores the warning to not write about one’s pet. By shifting the focus to other animals deemed more appropriate for poems – like beached whales and lab monkeys – she can return to her dying cat without
In “February 14,” Addonizio addresses the person whose heart was donated to her brother as “oh beloved whom we did not know,” adding a profound level of gratitude to the complex surgery.
In “The Work,” Addonizio describes her own struggle with aging, calling it ”the building of an old woman.” And while “31-Year-Old Lover” spends many words describing his body, the poem is also about aging and how, in bed with him, she is “going to have it all back the only way [she ] can.”
In several poems, Addonizio deftly writes about the horrors of the world. We poets should add our way of seeing to these events, not just write of hearts and flowers, but how to do so without polemics and diatribe? I find Addonizio’s ways instructive.
For instance, in “Knowledge,” she wrestles with the desire to believe in the goodness of humanity while knowing the cruelty and brutality of which we are
capable. She does so from a macro, broad view, thematically.
In contrast, “Missing Boy Blues” succeeds by using the details of a crime, and by putting herself in the poem as the missing boy. In the last stanza, Addonizio imagines the boy being tucked into bed by his mother. Then in the very next line, she writes in parentheses, “Then he tore my pajamas and my legs were bare.” What is there left to say? Addonizio does not go too far when she adds, “If you’re still looking for me, you won’t find me anywhere.”
In “Human Nature,” Addonizio begins with details of a crime and then turns personal and at the same time, big-picture. With image and word, she expresses the desire that the perpetrator not be a human being, not do ordinary human things, and instead, that he be “not carbon-based,” not even alive.
One of my favorites among favorites in the book is “Miniatures.” Addonizio uses wonderful details about the small bottles of alcohol available on airplane flights, and the tiny sewing kits in boutique hotels, to come up this terrific line – “I
love/that there is a realm in which we’re giants.”
At the end of the poem, she calls the dollhouse she built for her daughter “the world/I had made, and could save.” Implicit in this line is her awareness that she cannot save this big wide world in which we all live, suffer, love and die.
Returning to the lover theme she is known for, Addonizio book-ends this collection with “Kisses,” in which she remembers all the kinds of kisses she has given and been given. But she goes further, asking us, after she is dead, to kiss this poem – “give it your lovely mouth,/your living tongue.”
And so, for Addonizio, a kiss is not simply something to remember, but the remembering itself. And for me, to read and savor a poem, to kiss it with your eyes and heart, is to kiss the poet herself.