We start the month of February with a different kind of love poem. Though it is joyful, uplifting, and profound, it does not address a romantic love for a beloved other. Rather, here we are urged to welcome back and embrace our true self, the one that we may have forgotten, or ignored, or simply hidden away to pursue a more conscious, idealized vision of who we want to become. Our personal challenges with being entirely at home with all aspects of who we are and who we have been underlie many of our ongoing struggles and sorrows. So this acceptance of the alienated and exiled self (or selves), while it may be different for everyone, is, ultimately, a necessary and blessed homecoming and union. The ‘love after love’ of the title is about loving oneself again.
With every turning point in our lives, whether we move forward to embrace the coming new experiences or not, we often leave precious pieces of ourselves behind forever. Sometimes, the changes are due to moving through the typical stages of life, and, sometimes, as is increasingly the case for many of us, the changes are due to emigration, vocation, friends, or partners.
Perhaps these changes occur without our volition, or, perhaps, we push and work hard to realize our dreams of new realities. Even if the effects of these changes are, overall, positive, there is, almost always, an underlying and permanent loss relative to our overall sense of self — as if, each time, an essential part of our identity remains rooted in that last place and time even as we move on to the next. So that, over time, we have these separate and estranged emotional or cultural identities, whether we’re consciously aware of them or not.
West Indian poet, playwright, and Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, was born and raised in Saint Lucia. With a racially and culturally mixed African and European heritage from the island as well as its British rulers, his vast oeuvre of poetry and prose is filled with ideas and themes about the reconciliation of his two selves. While ‘Love After Love’ does not explicitly address this particular unification struggle, it is certainly about the ultimate union of one’s identities, whatever may have led to the fissures. And Walcott’s simple yet powerful metaphors and images illustrating the universal themes of alienation, exile, and belonging have made this poem a popular classic with readers the world over.
Walcott’s poems are, sometimes, rather long and dense with classical allusions. This one is very different. Here, with 15 lines, he keeps it simple, accessible, and engaging. The direct, second-person narrator voice creates an immediacy and intimacy with the reader. The future tense and various imperative words (some forming entire sentences by themselves) throughout create a sense of urgency for actions that need to be taken by the reader. And the use of enjambment (the incomplete syntax at the end of certain lines, where he starts the next stanza or line with the completing words or phrase) creates a nice dramatic tension from the various delays. Yet, the overall tone of the poem is a celebratory one, as befitting a union that is being renewed and was always meant to be.
The opening of the poem is about a certain joy that is going to come to the reader. Not only that, the reader will be aware of this because (s)he will be filled with elation when this incident occurs. What a great way to start a poem, don’t you think? The promise of a future gift of happiness.
Then, we find out that the event being heralded is one where the reader will greet and welcome a former self at a door or mirror. Throughout literature, both of these mechanisms have been used as metaphoric portals to signify the connection of two different locations, dimensions, or points in time. In this case, they signify a connection of two different selves of the same person.
This former self will be just as filled with happiness to finally reconcile with its future version. The separated parts coming together to make a joyful whole. Their meeting will be like two long-lost friends coming together and sharing a homecoming feast. The allusion to the act of Communion with “Give wine. Give bread.” elevates the union to a spiritual and blessed level. The three-time repetition to “give” is, beyond an act of sharing wine and bread, about relinquishing and committing — the ultimate consummation.
There is a reference, twice, to the love between these two selves. Love, here, signifies attachment and acceptance. The first reference is about the conscious self learning to love the estranged self again — a renewal, implying that, at some point in the distant past, the two parts were indeed one whole. “Ignored” is also an interesting descriptor because it implies that there was a concerted effort to push that former self aside, whatever the reason. The second love reference is about how that former, estranged self has always known and accepted the reader’s conscious self — desires, needs, sorrows, mistakes, and even why the former self was put aside — entirely like no one else. Which is why, of course, this coming together, when it eventually happens, is also inevitable.
The old love letters, photographs, and notes that have been put away on the bookshelf are aspects or representations of that former self that was ignored and cast aside. The reader is asked to reconsider them, for they have always belonged to the reader, whether (s)he chose to pay attention to them or not. Of course, it isn’t just these inanimate objects that help us re-connect with our former selves. Sometimes, it is through reaching out to old friends and acquaintances — those who knew us when. It can also be through meeting new people — those who share attributes or qualities with our former selves. While these people connections take patience and effort and are more difficult and unpredictable, they are, often, more effective in bringing forward those suppressed or ignored parts of ourselves through ongoing interactions. [Side-note: Reading and writing fiction, similarly, allow us this exploration of forgotten or submerged aspects of ourselves.]
The last line is just the most beautiful: “Sit. Feast on your life.” For, who else can really know and grasp the entirety of your existence — every nuance of every thought, desire, achievement, joy, mistake, sorrow — but you? So that, in these acts of bringing together and accepting all aspects of one’s self, the ultimate consummation, there is a deep sustenance, unlike any other, to be had as well.
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love-letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
~ Derek Walcott, ‘The Complete Derek Walcott: 1948-2013‘ [Note: The watercolor landscape on the book’s cover, see above, was created by Walcott himself.]