The lovers are young, in their early twenties when they meet in Paris, “a blind bargain at that first date.” He is “a poet, a rebel, a black sheep, a clown,” she “a dancer, a flute player, a butterfly being,” both soulfully unprepared for this passionate love affair. A month after they meet, she leaves him—sans note— with no refuge to still his lonely heart.
Why does the poet recall this woman’s absence with such fervor? Even as their affair ends by her departure, he continues to write about her for the simple reason that “at the bottom of things you know/There’s a pain that cannot be said.” On the title page, these places and dates appear:
Paris, April 1969
Buffalo, January 2017
On the last pages of the book is a photograph of him at the age apparently when the affair took place. Years later, as 2017 affirms, the poet is still writing about his Parisian lover, because, as he explains, “Print on a page is my only escape,/A liberty more difficult to find/Than pineapples in Siberia.”
The answer to the poet’s relentless search to reinterpret the meaning of this woman’s absence may be found in the dedication to The Absence Of The Loved, where Stevenson writes, “To the woman whose absence at last became a presence.” Recasting her absence, the poet at last decides that his loss does not have to last longer than loving her must, and so, with this insight, he unravels the conundrum that in her absence is also her presence. Moreover, the poet realizes that love doesn’t only flow outward but also flows inward. To conjoin the two—the outer and inner direction of love—the poet becomes the sole proprietor of his lover’s absence as well as her presence, transforming this love into “a fine art.”
There is another way to look at the conundrum of the lover’s presence in her absence. The title The Absence Of The Loved is instructive here. “The Loved” of the title injects an ambiguity ripe with meaning: Why choose “the Loved” instead of a denotation such as “my butterfly lover,” or “a loved one,” or “the flute player”? After all, his lover is “a real woman/Who touched the jewel of jubilant joy.” I would suggest that given the nature of romantic love itself and the poet’s experience with this particular lover, the above denotations do not express what the poet is after in the deeper layers of Absence Of The Loved. The “the” in the title connotes not only his specific lover, but also a generalized class of “the loved.”
The title also signals that this book of poems is about not only the absence but also the presence of a class called “the loved.” If this is the case, the title also summons a paradox of intent. What is it? I counted at least fourteen poems that mention absence in the body of the poem, or more directly in the title—“Absence Oyster,” “Your Absence,” “Absence Lesson,” “Gulag Of Absence,” “Empire Of Your Absence,” and “Absence, Where Is Thy Sting”—but no title that includes presence. Take, for example, “Gulag Of Absence” which helps to explicate this paradox:
The farther I am locked away from you
The more I gravitate toward you
In my vacant time incessantly I weave
Strands and fibers of our days together
Into a knot of necessary longing,
Thin rope of an impossible hope!
Even as the poet writes about her absence in this poem, she is endurably present—a presence he cannot escape. Paradoxically, he is bound to her in both absence and presence, unless he tries to write his way out of her, which he does brilliantly in the final poem, “You And You Again.”
Three poems in this collection suggest the poet has come to terms with the ardent attachment of his youth. Of the three, the poem “Can You Ever Touch” elucidates most clearly this point. Here, the poet reflects on his Parisian affair and reveals a maturity not present in his wild youth:
Playing with the goddess was a dangerous game
Perhaps you loved the idea more than the thing
You ran after it like your white dog a squirrel
With the same frenzied desire, the same fatal
Knowledge of failure foretold
In the end what was real was what you knew to be true
It wasn’t her body, her whispers, or beautiful mind
It was what came alive when you touched her in the spring
“Can You Ever Touch” appears halfway through the collection, as if to confirm he is less of the twenty-some-year old rebel and more of the discerning mature poet who has reconciled with his absent lover.
This discerning poet and the younger poet are surely the same person, but the final poem “You And You Again” is so different from the poetic style of the earlier poems that it almost takes your breath away. The heptameter and octameter lines flow sensuously into one another as the varied trochaic, dactylic, and anapestic meter stride toward a symphonic conclusion. The loved is now “you” and “you,” no longer object but subject, as “one in two or two in one,” a reconciled whole. The last five lines of “You And You Again” fuse the distance between the lover of his youth and the presence of “the loved”:
What matters is the oneness of it the wholeness the holiness of it
The holding indivisible and togetherness of it the two bodies joined
You and me beyond life and death beyond the coming and the going
Now as one joined as one merged as one meshed as one moving as one
Immovable as one for now and always think about it don’t ever forget
“You And You Again” is a lyrical tour de force of beauty, a poem of collective memory and wholeness, putting to rest the materiality of mourning.
The Absence of The Loved has just been released by BlazeVOX books. The above review is included as the Afterword.