My clumsiest dear, whose hands shipwreck vases,
At whose quick touch all glasses chip and ring,
Whose palms are bulls in china, burs in linen,
And have no cunning with any soft thing
Except all ill-at-ease fidgeting people: 5
The refugee uncertain at the door
You make at home; deftly you steady
The drunk clambering on his undulant floor.
Unpredictable dear, the taxi drivers’ terror,
Shrinking from far headlights pale as a dime 10
Yet leaping before red apoplectic streetcars —
Misfit in any space. And never on time.
A wrench in clocks and the solar system. Only
With words and people and love you move at ease.
In traffic of wit expertly manoeuvre 15
And keep us, all devotion, at your knees.
Forgetting your coffee spreading on our flannel,
Your lipstick grinning on our coat,
So gayly in love’s unbreakable heaven
Our souls on glory of spilt bourbon float. 20
Be with me, darling, early and late. Smash glasses —
I will study wry music for your sake.
For should your hands drop white and empty
All the toys of the world would break.
Romantic love can be defined as a deep devotion or affection for something or someone and is often shared between two people. When a love is mutual, lovers find themselves compelled to communicate the love between them, for example, expressing love in a solid form such as poetry. The rhythmic flow, vivid imagery, and ability to encapsulate abstract emotions makes poetry the perfect medium for expressing romantic love. This type of poetry is so popular; it has become a separate genre called ‘Love Poems.’ Traditionally, love poems render the beloved as an ideal of perfection, placing the lover on a pedestal. John Fredrick Nims’s “Love Poem” however, beautifully contradicts this tradition by describing a love that transcends human faults. The poem is written to, and about, a woman who possesses this kind of love, and the speaker is a man thinking about the adoration that he and others feel for his beloved. The poem’s images present the dominant theme that a genuine love and caring for humanity–a graceful and beautiful soul–can exist beneath an awkward surface. Although the speaker offers images of the woman as clumsy and destructive, he also presents a gentle side to contrast her awkward nature.
The images of the first stanza portray a woman’s awkwardness with daily tasks. For example, the woman is a person “whose hands shipwreck vases, /At whose quick touch all glasses chip and ring, /Whose palms are bulls in china, burs in linen” (lines 2-4). In this hyperbole, the woman’s hands are personified as if they move of their own volition. By doing so, Nims absolves his beloved of blame. The continuance of this theme through the striking image of “shipwreck vases” suggests a force spun out of control, as if her hands were chaotically destructive, as storms are to ships. This image is again reinforced by the idea of wild bulls breaking glass in china shops. In the china shop, her hands are powerful but out of place. The woman’s ineptness is further described as “A wrench in clocks and the solar system” (line 13), making her clumsiness seem timeless and eternal. However, it is in fact her benevolent nature that transcends time and place.
The second stanza highlights the contrast between the woman’s ineptness to her external environment and her internal grace. She gives solace to others in need, providing stability to the wavering of the drunk’s “undulant floor” (line 8). This act of kindness is done “deftly” (line 7), with skill and grace that directly oppose her clumsiness with inanimate objects.
Striking contrasts of imagery continue to portray the speaker’s affection for his “Unpredictable dear” (line 9), whose “traffic of wit” can “expertly manoeuvre” (line 15) itself, whilst her driving skills are presented through the hyperbole of “red apoplectic streetcars” (line 11). Here the personified images of vehicles behaving both angry and terrified in her presence blatantly juxtapose her composure and cleverness when it comes to dealing with human beings and their emotions.
Reinforcing the idea that the beloved is adored in spite of her faults, the fifth stanza points out that love has its own “unbreakable heaven” (line 19). Here such mundane concerns as “coffee spreading” and “spilt bourbon” (lines 17 and 20) are of no consequence. In fact, because the spills are associated with her, they become almost spiritual in nature, as the word “heaven” emphasizes. In heaven, for all eternity, nothing breaks at her touch. As a result, her warm nature seems more admirable than any social graces would.
It is also important to recognize the poet’s use of irony to contrast the woman’s compassionate nature with her awkward behavior. For example, the speaker says she has “no cunning with any soft thing” (line 4); nonetheless, her altruistic manner with which she handles the frailest human psyche. The use of the word “cunning” goes beyond suggesting that she is not consciously careful by exemplifying the fact that she is not manipulative. Her sincerity dominates the chaos of her movements. Even though the beloved lacks skill with delicate inanimate objects like glasses and vases, which “chip and ring” (line 2) at her slightest touch, she has a tranquil effect on people around her. In fact, she mends rather than breaks where people are concerned. “Fidgeting people” and “The drunk clambering on his undulant floor” (lines 5 and 8) find solace and stability in her manner.
As the speaker says, “For should your hands drop white and empty/All the toys of the world would break” (lines 23-24). In other words, the same hands that are dangerous at the beginning of the poem ultimately act to disguise an extraordinarily gentle soul beneath the clumsy surface. The phrase “toys of the world” is a metaphor for the fragility of people’s minds and hearts; if the beloved were absent, all who know her and depend on her kind heart would surely be as lost and broken-spirited as children whose toys are broken.
John Frederick Nims’s “Love Poem” exposes a woman for who she really is. Nims portrays her as reckless, destructive and downright inept. He tallies up her shattered glasses and maimed bed sheets to present a woman at odds with her environment in the most extreme of ways. But Nims accomplishes much more than just this. He leads his reader through these descriptions all for a greater good. He moves on in the poem describing her inner-soul, her intrinsic good will towards those in need. Through the juxtaposition of these two types of images — the awkward and the adept – Nims’s beloved is reborn. By the final stanza we too see her true beauty and grace. And, most importantly, we come to understand this poem for what it is…a true love poem.
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