Oh Petrarch…

The subject of my week has been love, specifically Petrarchan love: the frustrations of loving and not having, viewing but never possessing… and its attendant imaginative freedom and force. To quote Petrarch (albeit in translation):

“and in whatever wildest place and most deserted short I find myself, so much the more beautiful does my thought shadow her forth.”

In these lines from the Canzoniere (129) it is precisely Laura’s distance that enables the speaker to imaginatively recreate her, and more beautifully than in real life. Which leaves me wondering what on earth my boyfriend is so bothered about? So I’m not there: imagine me, more beautifully than when I was…which, sweaty and humidity frazzled, can hardly be difficult. But perhaps my boyfriend is not poetic or egotistical enough to think that his own conception of me is greater than the real thing. And yet is the ‘real thing’ not what she was when he knew her in Hong Kong?

Suddenly, I feel Thomas Hardy speaking through me; that terrible-to-teach poem ‘The Voice’, which for those of you who don’t know, begins:

“Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.”

I mean, “saying that now you are not as you were /When you had changed from the one who was all to me”?! What does that mean, and how – anyway – would you expect a fourteen year old to know? But, of course, for those older and wiser, more shot through with the bitter rays of experience, it makes some (for I do not claim to have advanced quite to the state of this dead woman!) sense: we do not stay the same, but are altered by time, experience and finally, of course, death. Eek. So… “Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds”? Nonsense. Love must keep pace with change – love possibly is all about acknowledging and accepting the changes; if it does not it is not to say that it is not true, but that it is no longer commensurable with the rest of one’s life, with one’s pursuit of happiness or – better – eudaimonia: one’s sense of flourishing. Surely?

How then am I not as I was when when I was the one who was all to him? (Excuse me while I laugh at myself) I am still myself of course, only it is as if I have gone back in time to my old Oxford days – though, thank god, by the benefit of that trial by fire, with a slightly tougher skin – when I could spend hours poring over and pouring myself into books: poetry, criticism… With never enough hours in the day to get accomplished all one hoped and wanted…Always just one more book before bedtime… And another ten awaiting when you get up… And that is even before you try to make sense of it all in a beautifully executed 5,000 words…. You get the picture.

So while I am physically miles away from Hong Kong – the place of myself for the last three years – I am mentally even further away. But perhaps, one one level at least, it was ever such, and now those two halves are simply reunited. This is not to say that I do not think of that place, my life there, my boyfriend. The latter at least is ever on my radar, coming in and out of focus like an endlessly delightful, fascinatingly ethereal jellyfish. Yes, a jellyfish. Forgive what will strike most as a rather bathetic metaphor for a loved one, but I really am terribly in love with jellyfish, but unfortunately – while love is – they are not, the subject of my doctoral thesis. Ahh, if only they were. I could’ve stayed in Hong Kong and my life would’ve been completed.

Such fickle creatures we are that, like Petrarch perhaps, we desire the more that which is hard to attain… Is this what my boyfriend suffers, pining away in Hong Kong? (I told him to make a trip to Wan Chai or Macau, but alas, he is more puritan than even my seventeenth century poets who, in refracting Petrarch, will go to bed with anything – one-eyed, plump, hunchbacked mistresses included: “Thus Love and you at bo-peep play” and no doubt ring Notre Dames bells the live-long day.) Why not, I cry, be like John Donne who can “love any, so [long as] she be not true” and presumably be screwed over by as many as you screw? But it seems not to appeal. As a biologist I think he is too frightened by venereal disease, and perhaps it is just as well. We might have agreed that a time apart would be good for our personal growth, but growths…? Perhaps then there remains something more enticingly romantic about distant love, as least for a while.

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I was complaining to my boyfriend on Skype only this afternoon that it is nearing the end of my second week here at York and I have yet had time to put pen to paper and write a single word about it. One solution would be to do as Charles Bernstein and leave a scrawled message: “Busy, blog you later”, but I fear that – as with my boyfriend – I may lose you altogether if I do not give at least a few moments and a few – if only of other people’s – words to you.

But I have been busy. I am busy. And even now, taking this time out to write to you is a guilty pleasure. A hurried indulgence slotted in somewhere between lectures, dinner and study. Skyping with my boyfriend has become an equally fiercely scheduled event: something desired and yet feared and resented. For, and I am sure – in fact, I know – that it is the case with him too, that when he really wants to talk to me, I am not there, and when I am free it is either too late or too early, one of us is tired, hungry or late for work. At least, I am one or all of these things. Beautifully preoccupied by the excitedly pregnant state of First Year PhDness, I am guiltily aware of neglecting him, while in my quiet moments longing that he was here. And he? Heroically, giving me space and licence to be busy and distant, and to waffle on endlessly when I do speak to him about how happy and excited I am to be here doing this. Then our hour’s window of direct, face to face contact is closed and I lose myself once again in work, social events and yet more work, blissfully ignorant of missing him. For a while.

This thorny problem – the expectations, demands and trials of a long-distance relationship – has been the background noise of my afternoon, unconsciously churning away until, sitting in Jonathan Culler’s lecture this evening on “Theory of the Lyric” (delivered in our very own Humanities Research Centre! Aren’t we the lucky ones?!), he came to a poem that put this question into some (albeit, academic) perspective, and more eloquently than I ever could. So instead of a blog – because, lord knows I do not have an epideixis of my own! – I will give you a poem.

‘This Room’ by John Ashbery

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here