Saturday, June 19, 2010

Review: Love Speaks Its Name

Love Speaks Its Name
Gay and Lesbian Love Poems
Edited by J. D. McClatchy

Published by Everyman’s Library

Reviewed by Paul Kane


Just under 150 poems are contained in this compact volume, arranged in various sections which follow the process of falling in and out of love: Longing, Looking, Loving, Ecstasy, Anxiety and Aftermath. In life, the last two are optional and not really to be recommended, but if everyone and in particular poets skipped them, our literature would be much the poorer. 'Domestic as a plate' (a simile taken from Millay's poem ‘Grown-up’) does not really cut it.

Among the poets represented here are the famous and the indisputably great - Sappho, Shakespeare, Whitman, Lorca, Auden, Elisabeth Bishop - yet there are poets to be discovered in these pages too. One such is Naomi Replansky, whose poem 'The Oasis' traces a renewal or a reawakening of love. Here's the last verse:

I thought the desert ended, and I felt
The fountains leap.
Then gratitude could answer gratitude
Till sleep entwined with sleep.
Despair once cried: No passion’s left inside!
It lied. It lied.

There are a number of Cavafy's sensual and elegiac poems: all about beautiful sexy young men who will yet grow old and die. A single theme, virtually, but he riffs on it superbly. ‘The Badgaged Shoulder' is an astounding poem, especially when read in the light of the tragedies wrought by AIDS. That last line – ‘the blood of love against my lips’ - induces a very definite frisson.

It was a welcome experience to encounter Housman's verse once more. On one level he is an unpretentious and uncomplicated poet and there is nothing fancy about his verse forms at all. But the direct way in which he communicates emotion is extraordinary: heart to heart. Every poem of Frank O’Hara’s is wonderful and there are four here. Once heard, his voice is irresistible Finally, the editor has made the commendable decision to include a quartet of song lyrics - such as Noel Coward’s ‘Mad About the Boy’ - along with the regular poems.

This is a fine anthology, although there are some notable absentees: John Ashbery, Genet and Jeremy Reed, the translator of Genet's poems, being three.


Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com.

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