Love is the Drug & Other Dark Poems edited by Jessie Carver and Jennifer Lewis
Red Light Lit Press, July 2018
88 pages / Amazon
Since 2013, the Red Light Lit reading series has provided a space for writers to spill their secrets about love, sex, and gender. Based in the Bay Area with events across the country, Red Light Lit’s live curated shows – featuring poetry, prose, art, and music – are captivating and gorgeous, all the more for their ephemerality. Two hours later, everyone goes home.
But the experience of reading Love is the Drug & Other Dark Poems, the debut anthology from Red Light Lit Press, feels like holding other peoples’ secrets in your hands and pressing them against your chest. Like any good secret, each poem is staggeringly personal and somehow relatable. The 33 poets and 8 visual artists featured in the anthology explore the intimately visceral terrain of desire, relationships, and sexuality, navigating landscapes of love and longing, the topography of bodies, and offering a glimpse into moments at once distilled and timeless.
Love poetry may be the most well-trodden and clichéd of territories. But these poets investigate and re-imagine the possibilities for how to write into those flickering moments, where the only language present is the language of the body. Sarah Kobrinsky conveys the poignant magic of Sunday mornings: “We wake up / on dream-spattered sheets / the ceiling fan re-circulates / last night’s love / dead skin we sloughed off / in our friction / falls like fairy dust.” Kimberley Reyes’ “Anticipation” reminds us of how deeply uncomfortable love can feel: “Even love / in the moment / like static / like worry / like doubt / like masturbation / wine on the couch / feels like film and plastic / feels like reel and repetition / feels unreal.” “Extraction” by Lara Coley speaks to the inextricability of love and loss, how pulling at one means pulling out the whole damn tooth.
Consider Sarah Bethe Nelson’s “The End of Our Casual Fucking”:
When one of us is naked
Standing before the other
More naked even than naked
The clothed one cannot help
But reach out to touch,
To soothe, to become naked, too.
Nelson’s poem takes us to those subtle, slippery places where boundaries cross and merge. But the poem also captures something important about the experience of reading this anthology. Each poem’s nakedness calls out for others to join them– to “reach out to touch, to soothe, to become naked, too.” To dance and howl at the full moon.
There’s an urgency to these poems, an insistence to find language for what which is wordless. Many of the poems probe this fickle territory, starving for “something that feels like love” (B.B. Queen) or forced to “carry the weight / of this thing in my chest / that is supposed to be love” (“Sunflowers Seeds,” Kelsey Kundera). Others indict or sear with clarity, such as “Fuck You Part 2” by Riss Rosado: “Fuck your Oedipal complex / Your mom is out of her fucking mind… Fuck you for fucking me over / And over and over again.” Or Kristina Ten’s haunting refrain from “Front Row Take One Pass It Back”:
Front row. Take one. Pass it back. This body is not your moon.
Front row. Take one. Pass it back. This body is not your fat peach,
Front row. Take one. Pass it back. This body is not your folk medicine.
Many of the poems haunt like the touch of a lover long after they have left. Bodies flit by in shadow-light, never allowing you to see the whole. There are few “characters.” There is you and me and him and them and her. How the world feels when the body is lit with desire, or anguished with heartbreak: reduced to its essential components. Every moment is broken, splintered, and infinitely whole. The poems are so personal, obfuscating even as they let you in – but isn’t the experience of hearing anyone else’s love story? These are the poems you would tell your best friend if you could skip over what happened – telling them instead how you coated your fingers with sunflower seeds and maple syrup (“Sunflower Seeds,” Kelsey Kundera), or about the reckless pleasure of driving steadily at 35 mph on the highway (“Steady,” Kar Johnson), or about “a single bud of dry weed wrapped in a white, wrinkled cocktail napkin tucked into the zipper pocket of your gold purse” (“Faith” Josey Rose Duncan). Or if you could be as devastatingly honest as “Four” by Devin Copeland: “They won’t let you just say, no / No / Everything hurts / And it always will.”
I am grateful that “Maggie” by Bradley Penner arrived early in the collection, sparking a revelation for me:
- Suppose poem a verb: like love: I poem you, X, I do. I poem you more than X or Y or whathaveyou. And like love –delicate minutiae, time of attention –poeming, like loving, doesn’t care to be found out. Have to. To poem is to love the difficulty of it. The satin strain. Blindfolded, feeling for silk. To find it. Have you?
Penner’s gorgeous poem made me realize: isn’t every poem as ephemeral as a love story? As weightless, fragile, and impossible to pin down and capture. And isn’t every poem a failure? Perhaps it’s the very impossibility of writing about love that makes poetry its most fitting companion. In both, aren’t we just feeling our way in the dark?
The art in the anthology is evocative and poignant, offering shape and dimension to the poems. All black-and-white, and mostly photographs, images include Lucille Lares-Kiwan’s blurred overlay of a woman looking in two directions, Trever Hadley’s photograph of a hand hovering a heavy blade smashing a clove of garlic, and Hannah Burgos’ illustration of a woman’s head with a perfectly-lacquered face set on the ground, her teeth sitting there beside her. Perhaps the most striking example of harmony between image and text is Chris Mancari’s “Imaginary Friend” and Jackie Hancock’s photograph. The final lines of Mancari’s poem read: “I have a friend, an imaginary lover / that has begun to look like a ghost.” Turn the page and we encounter Hancock’s photograph of a naked figure standing before turned-down blinds, their body deeply silhouetted in shadow – except for their breasts, which gleam with the interplay of darkness and light.
Considered as a whole, this collection is a decadent feast. “Like this we get to it, set to making our bodies into summertime foods, jicama, mango, papaya, the wet arcs of sex, the shapes we prefer, no matter the weather” (“Neighbor,” Lisa Alden). Writes Fisayo Adeyeye in “Flight”: “He sticks his fingers all the way in. Opens me like a mango” The beauty of Love is the Drug is how everyone is invited to the table, bound by our collective state of wanting and hunger. As Tomas Moniz writes in “What will save us all”:
desire / never satiated & always resurrected / is the true god
the / creation & the revision / the process of becoming whole
because the wanting itself is what will save us all
There are sublime pleasures and perils to feasting. Delight, all too quickly, becomes a memory, carrying a shadow of loss. But these poets have tasted from the table of pleasure and possibility and poem to tell the tale.
In the words of Christine No’s “Valentine Reprise”: “Feast if you are not afraid / Of the bite back. Feast.”
Arya Samuelson is currently an MFA Prose student at Mills College, where she is writing a novel about Jewish immigration, the messiness of desire, and the inheritance of grief. She is the Prose Editor of 580 Split Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Hematopoiesis Press and The Millions, and was recently awarded an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train‘s Short Story Award for New Writers.