(by John Frederick Nims)
At whose quick touch all glasses chip and ring,
Whose palms are bulls in china, burs in linen,
And have no cunning with any soft thing
Except all ill-at-ease fidgeting people:
The refugee uncertain at the door
You make at home; deftly you steady
The drunk clambering on his undulant floor.
Unpredictable dear, the taxi drivers’ terror,
Shrinking from far headlights pale as a dime
Yet leaping before apopleptic streetcars—
Misfit in any space. And never on time.
A wrench in clocks and the solar system. Only
With words and people and love you move at ease;
In traffic of wit expertly maneuver
And keep us, all devotion, at your knees.
Forgetting your coffee spreading on our flannel,
Your lipstick grinning on our coat,
So gaily in love’s unbreakable heaven
Our souls on glory of spilt bourbon float.
Be with me, darling, early and late. Smash glasses—
I will study wry music for your sake.
For should your hands drop white and empty
All the toys of the world would break.
I once read this poem in public to a group of twenty to twenty-five people. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and said that I had brought her to tears. Although it was a nice compliment, I knew surely that it wasn’t I that did it. For who could hear those final lines “For should your hands drop white and empty/All the toys of the world would break” and not get a catch in their throat?
I love this poem because it is an anti-ideal love poem.
Shakespeare did the same thing 400 years ago with his Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.)
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Here too, the poet celebrates the flaws and the humanness of his beloved. In embracing her reality–and announcing that he has no need to “belie her with false compare” as so many other poets did–he claims a superior, purer love… “a love as rare” in Shakespeare’s words.
Both men, separated by four centuries, are similarly battling against a constructed “ideal.” Whether it was the “ideal woman” presented by the Renaissance sonneteers or the “ideal woman” fashioned by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, it was a false image. And both men knew it. Their love, they claim, is special because it is grounded in the real world, not in an imaginary, air-brushed, wish-fulfillment world. Their love exists in the everyday, “everyman/everywoman” world that most of us mortals inhabit.
We know little of Shakespeare’s beloved except for what she looks like: dark hair, pale-lipped and dun-skinned, bad-breathed, clunky-walking and shrilly-voiced. Nims, on the other hand, gives us more information about the object of his love. She deftly handles those who are ill-at-ease, exiled or drunk; she moves easily with words and people and wit and love. Certainly, she has her frenetic failings–and Nims recounts them with affection– but that is not what makes her unique; that makes her human. She is much more than that. She is unique in the welcoming warmth of her love, in her compassion for and embrace of life.
Nims truly appreciates and loves her for what she is. And isn’t that what all of us is looking for?