Poetry Review: “The Warning” by Robert Creeley

23 Sep

Imagine, if you will, that you’re in some bar and a woman (or man or whatever your flavor is) attracts you hard.  I mean she is the stuff.  And though she’s gorgeous, it’s not just her looks, but she actually has personality and humor and everything you want.  It takes you a while to approach her, but when you finally do, you tell her:

“For love–I would/split open your head and put/ a candle in/behind the eyes.”

What you’d get as a reaction would not be swoony, but more of an ugh and probably a drink in your face.   This poem by Robert Creeley is deeply creepy.    This first seems more like a mass murderer’s expression of love if taken literally, but even as a metaphor–he’s basically saying that he will make her head into a lantern–a decorative object to have around the house.    For love, he would take this head and make it into a piece of grotesque art.   Also, there’s a distortion of the idea of getting into her head, and lighting up her eyes that would be romantic if not taken to such extremes.

“Love is dead in us/if we forget/the virtues of an amulet/and quick surprise.”

This second line is less grotesque and more puzzling.  Love is dead in us–well that carries over from the last stanza, but the two things that kill love is forgetting the virtues of an amulet and quick surprise.  The amulet could either be riches or talismanic protection.   Quick surprise?  I mean I’ve heard that love requires changes now and then to keep things from being dull, but the first line is beyond quick surprise and more like shock.  Also is the head at the beginning the amulet he’s talking about?

What’s interesting is that this reads like a couplet, exactly the sort of love message that would end a Shakespearean sonnet, but without all the other lines to give us some background.   Clearly this is written by someone who either doesn’t understand love, or understands it all too well–because he’s giving a fun house mirror version of the love platitudes we hear every day.   In western culture love is almost always universally praised as a beneficial thing, where there is only goodness and nothing else.   Creeley is showing how these same attitudes can be destructive, that love isn’t always a safe game.   Love can involve an idea of ownership, of inflicting harm, of obsession, and yes, you might say if you have those things you don’t have love, but if you listen to the top 40 and consider how deeply creepy the songs would be if they were actually expressed to someone on a personal level, you get the message.

The warning here too is that love creates monsters.  Love will not always bring out the best sides of people.  Love can harm.  Now I’m not saying that this will always happen, but love brings out risk, because you aren’t seeing with clear eyes and your feelings  are all irrational.  What will happen when the stars go out in your eyes and you see the other as they actually are.  Will you then want to cut off their head?  It happens.

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