Foreword: The Point Where All Begins and Ends
Love Threads can be a painful book because it is about a hurtful relationship, but more important, it is a clear call to love and to love even when there is difficulty. A clear call to love spiritually and in body. It is essentially a transcendent calling, an ecstatic one—and a genuine journey of love.
These are poems whose obscurity win their way graciously with resonances that wistfully suggest sweetness and light without identifying many specifics or concrete manifestations of the sacred other. These poems make up invocations that appeal through the plausible and very humane nexus of dream, or vision, and longing. Continual hope for something solid that never appears or makes itself known in features that are not quite enough to satisfy a strong undercurrent of almost ambiguous desire. The poet makes clear his romantic trajectory in the early poems. It is not long before most readers will know where they are, as long as we are amenable to some real ambiguities of image and style. The title, “Beta” of the opening poem, seems to denote, as in physics, a variable, the speaker’s other coruscating from the first words of the book. Gentle images of dreaming the other reaching out in bed collide with the somewhat blunt and graphic biological terms of connection, an “umbilical” arrangement.
Making to clarify the iffy relationship, the second poem, “Aboriginal,” proves the speaker believes the lover more in spirit than in person. The beloved declares a need for the freedom of love so commonly invoked, to plead connection: “Do not let me go.” The triangle, if there is one emerging, is between the two in love and the spirit, which over-rides pettiness for them both. But who has not been attracted to the whims of love? Once love is tasted, that is a part of its charm. It should be solid as the experience, but it usually is not. Certainly substantiality is in pleasant question throughout.
Bring your John Donne for the third, poem, “Doing Theology,” for, true to the dedication, Donne’s language, “twin compasses,” demands a bit of a gloss. I won’t give that here, but Donne added “stiff” to the twin compasses, giving it a more edgy erotic ring. This book is only in part about erotic matters, not to take any of Donne’s transcendence away from the revered subject.
And so we go as the book goes, into the thick with a kind of eroti-theological ambivalence. For I want to point out that the writer often here and in other works allows confusion of language to permeate the character and meaning of the lover, as though, sometimes, it were hard to distinguish the lover from Christ. This is a layer that I don’t recognize as coming from Donne, and is solely Watson’s own. Maybe this is the new metaphysical poetry of the twenty-first century. I don’t know, but I read it with scrutiny and pleasure.
The fourth poem may be the best portrait of the lover, the other, “Artesian Waters.” Reeds of sorrow go with waters, the stillborn child of death of hope, the confusion the speaker feels between his sorrow and the beloved's, and water, of course, made so remarkable by being dowsed for in the depths of the spirit. It’s an intricate whole where some may find the reference to a “still small voice,” clangs too explicitly from scripture, others right on target, but the poet is carrying the collection straight in the direction of mystical Christianity, and there is no going back. We are on track with the major resonance, and we will force our way if the images are too obscure for us now. This, of course, is both a fault in subtlety, and a strength in purpose.
“Sanctus Bells”—these words illuminate a lot about the relationship without explaining that which the speaker cannot quite explain either: “Still, that [the intertwining of past lives] does not resolve/ this peculiar vacuum/ left by knowing you're there,/ but not quite held.” Central to this book of poems is the dreadful feeling of the absence of the lover, even when at hand the most intimately.
“Glossolalia” employs the phrase, “love threads/ the soul back/ into the body/ and anchors it,” providing the in-text basis for the title of the book. The bodies of the lovers provide both feast and altar for the familiar communion. Less comfortable for me than the religious ecstasy is the image: “corridors dark/ and red as birth canals” early in the poem, for I know nothing of the loved other ever giving birth (as a pretext for this shocking image). In other words, the redness seems incongruous, especially in the meeting between the two in the same poem in idealized nature, among “meadows sweet/ with beebalm and honeysuckle.” But all these poetic gestures are based in part on that long-lasting metaphysical music from Donne, Herbert, and the like, so a reader might expect some jarring images.
With so much intertwining of the lovers' selves and acts with God, with the solemnities and rituals of Christ, it is necessary to step back sometimes and remember that neither the speaker in the book nor his lover is really a deity. This may seem difficult sometime, with the language used, the old “religion of love,” for the implications come up, as in the poem, “Driving Home”: “But I repent/ to call you again.” However, taken as a whole, few readers will take this as a flaw—rather, a layer, a delight.
For it is not only Christian feeling that binds the two in this book, of course—thought that permeates the most, even to rhapsodies about the nature of God and attributes of God. It is also contemporary psychology. We learn in the poem, “Shambhala,” of this feature: “abuse has sharded—/ clouded/ your ability to sing.” Sometimes such revelations are necessary to give earthy weight to the litanies of the divine in all this. This feature comes up several times in Love Threads.
Solomon had many wives, but in this book, the speaker does not garner one. Instead marriage is in the classical ideal, the marriage of minds, as in the poem, “The Wisdom of Solomon,” which, while it recommends closeness, urges the lover, always hampered by past wounds, to open to God for a truer fulfillment than marriage.
The secrets of the ultimate temple of old Israel, radical, personal renewing in this world, a glass house, another garden, even a revisiting of Tao—the windup poems of this collection pull toward a general summation of spirit. The lingering failure of the beloved to rise fully from brokenness does not seem to cause great pain. The world is as it has been in the rest of the book, but it is rather left behind—caught up in greater concerns. In some sense, these more expansive spiritual realms are also higher than the dear but desperate strife of the journey of the troubled relationship itself. They are the Alpha from which the entire journey begins. And where it ends.
Alan Naslund, author of Silk Weather