[Dos Madres Press; 2022]
Ever since the archaic Greek poet Sappho described her desire for a young woman as “sweetbitter” (glukuprikon), paradox has been the essence of erotic poetry. Anne Carson, author of Eros the Bittersweet, explains in the opening pages of her book that Sappho’s glukuprikon is more faithful to desire’s chronology than the English “bittersweet.” Pleasure always comes first in the order of erotic experience. Pain comes when the cathecting lover realizes that her fixation on her beloved expropriates her vital energies, making her life difficult to bear. Robert Burton, another anatomist of eros (or, as he calls it, melancholy), concurs with Anne Carson on this point. Melancholic love is a “Paradise” of “blessed days” and “sweet contents” that exceeds all conceivable joys. In due time, however, it is a “torment” of “waking nights” and “jealous fits” that no grief can equal. Both Carson and Burton follow Sappho in portraying eroticism as an ineradicable paradox that has a definite order of operations within experience. Poetry’s task, on this classical view, is not to crack the paradox but to show its swerving movements through the soul and, most of all, through the flesh.
A new poetry collection by Kristen Lucia Renzi, Saudade for a Breaking Heart, fits the modern Portuguese concept of saudade into the same Sapphic tradition as Carson’s eros and Burton’s melancholy. Like these other authors, Renzi sounds the paradoxical depths of her theme, compiling her own poetic definition of saudade out of the many meanings it has had within Lusophone literature. Each of the collection’s three divisions begins with an epigraph from a writer who has a unique understanding of saudade. Although these definitions range from the acutely emotional (“the pleasure you suffer”) to the broadly existential (“the spiritual experience of contingency”), Renzi’s collection teases out the common somatic denominator in all of them. Poem after poem argues that desire’s rending of the animal body is saudade’s moving essence, and in this regard, Renzi could be called a thoroughly classical poet. That said, the book’s firm polemical bite suggests a critical orientation to its own tradition. In particular, Renzi seems troubled by those “cosmic half-truths,” all-too-common in love literature, that confuse desperation for devotion and violence for tenderness. As the book’s title signals, then, Renzi’s saudade is for that reader whose heart is breaking, not just from her own “sweetbitter” dilemma, but also from her consciousness of love’s frequent collusions with injustice.
Time and again, Renzi turns to the ode as the optimal poetic form for expressing saudade. Her odes have many different addressees (autumn, a grocery clerk, a Bobbie Gentry song, a curly-haired head), yet they all have the same inner tension that distinguishes saudade from less fraught emotions. That tension can sometimes be funny, as in “Ode to the grocery self-checkout clerk and his impossible wishes,” where a gawky young man betrays his attraction to a customer by initiating an awkward high-five with her. In others, however, like “Ode to the ‘Ode to Billie Joe,” the tension can be difficult to bear with equanimity. Disturbing sequences of images (fleshy foods, lusty trysts, slow deaths) remind us, like Bobbie Gentry’s original, of the dreadful, indifferent carnality that haunts love. Premised on the tension between the speaker and her subject, Renzi’s odes pluck the taut string that links them together until they sound their anguished note.
Another of Renzi’s concerns is to show saudade’s movement through the human body. One poem, titled “Dog Days Triptych,” reads like a bawdy encyclopedia of hands, thumbs, thighs, throats, mouths, tongues, pores—as well as their various functions—spitting, seeping, sweating, weeping, loosing, pressing, gaping. Renzi’s enumeration of all the body parts involved in desire has the effect of transforming somatic concepts, which have no other content but living matter, into interpersonal concepts that grasp complex relationships. A gaping mouth, without any additional description, signifies intentionality toward one’s lover. A mere juxtaposition of limbs (“you, thigh, my hand,/ the nothing but salt that lies between”) establishes intimacy without the aid of a verb. Renzi’s poetic language, like saudade itself, is somatically maximalist and grammatically minimalist at once. “Let the bodies alone sing,” she writes, “Let them lean in sweaty delight.” After the “leaning in” that delights, saudade’s next movement is the “backing off” that bruises, as described in the poem “Thigmesthesia”: “Let me back off, close down my smile/ when your hands brush my thigh, or flee, eyes/ askance, tongue swelled and bruised with its caging.” Where erotic touch once inflamed, now it wounds; where lovers once embraced without restraint, now they “sheathe their hands” out of caution. “I can be so trenchant,” writes Renzi, “an epidermal/ diamond drawing blood when, while spooning,/ you seek a soft breast, are razed by ribs instead.”
We cannot fully know saudade until our bodies experience pleasure’s phantom pangs. Its retrospective structure resembles that of music, where the full meaning of the work cannot emerge until the final note sounds. Like so many Lusophone musicians (Tom Jobim, Elis Regina, Joao Gilberto, Cesaria Evora), Renzi intuits saudade’s inherently musical structure, making it the focus of poems like “I remained a saxophone skeptic until.” Here, the speaker is in a jazz club listening to a saxophonist “scream” out a solo that launches her into a reverie about her last lover. Private as this moment at first seems, the speaker observes that the trumpet player in the combo has likewise been transported into a state of nostalgia, “gap[ing] wide his mouth/ in tandem” as if in “moaned rebirth,” causing her to realize, as the saxophonist’s scream dies away, “that [the trumpeter] and I too had been screaming.” Throughout this musical sequence, Renzi keeps her focus on the desiring body, emphasizing how the trumpeter’s movements—knocking knees, tightening thighs, curling toes, gaping mouth—respond to the saxophonist’s provocations.
This much and more could be said of Renzi’s positive account of saudade. Something must be said, too, about the concept’s critical import, namely, how Renzi defines it over against the more bellicose sensibilities of writers like Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien (or anyone who writes of eros and war as if the two could be made synonyms). In a poem called “Hemingway and I disagree about love,” Renzi appears to assume the voice of a masculine protagonist like Jake Barnes or Frederic Henry who falls in love “while machines/rot across fields,” the smell of his darling’s blood reminding him of “the smell of guns” and “skin corroding iron/ in negative against a hill.” As in a Hemingway novel, war is the overall backdrop, indeed the very condition of possibility, for the hero’s great love. Another poem, titled “A Genuine Meeting of the Minds,” begins with an epigraph from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and considers whether an anecdote about torturing a baby buffalo during wartime can be, per O’Brien’s claim, a “love story” that reflects the contradictory complexities of war. Writes Renzi in response: “replacing “war” with that four letter word/puts our humanity (of which I’m a part)/ at risk.” Now, there is no doubt that, for Renzi as for O’Brien, suffering is never more than a stone’s throw away from love. The difference is that Renzi never attempts to rationalize the curing of one’s own suffering by causing another’s pain, even in those all-too-common tales of “folks [who] beat their lovers then get down on their knees,/ then grow lax jealous or drunk, beat the loved one again.” Too often, she writes, such tales justify physical violence through recourse to “cosmic half-truth,” mistaking the concurrence of love and pain, love and sadism, love and war, as evidence of their interchangeability. As a counterpoint to the buffalo torturer, Renzi offers the case of Vincent Van Gogh, who “thought only to maim himself, cut his own flesh/to flag: here!—is where the hurt occurs.” The truth of Van Gogh’s action is not in its self-harming brutality but in its unambiguous expression of where love really pains: right here, in his own body, as he suffers his beloved’s absence.
Saudade for a Breaking Heart concludes with a love “epilogue” that fulfills the author’s paradoxical vision. It takes the form of an ode addressed to “you, whom I do not yet know,” and it tells of how the speaker is “cleaning all the rooms that make myself up for you,” much like the empty-nester moms who “vacuum air/ while the kids travel home.” The calm domesticity of these images is made more jarring by the poet’s earlier tours through war and masochism. Striking, too, is the epilogue’s anticipatory structure, which contrasts with the retrospective structure of many of the earlier poems. The poem ends, not with the beloved’s much-anticipated arrival, but with an open invitation to bypass the speaker’s “clean rooms,” to head straight for the “dirtiest [room]/ where hides the hardest, most/ stubborn of stains: please/ go there, I say, and say you can stand it,/ take shame on your shoulders, I’ll not clean here again.” In this moving description of what committed love requires (lodging permanently in another’s unkempt rooms), the reader begins to wonder if the overall addressee of this collection, the “you, whom I do not yet know,” may in fact be someone who is already here with us and not yet arrived, someone whose everchanging body and ever-broadening interiors remain, in an important sense, unknown to us. If so, then Renzi’s saudade is that feeling of “sweetbitter” alienation from what is most familiar to us, or as the book’s first epigraph has it, “a sort of homesickness that can even be felt at home.”
Kelly M.S. Swope is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the creator of the podcast series Life on the Ark: The Zanesville Animal Catastrophe a Decade Later (2022). He hails from Granville, Ohio.
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