‘The Kiss’, Gustave Klimt (1908-1909)
It is so obviously beautiful, isn’t it? An outrageous depiction of love in gold (and platinum) leaf laid on oils that seem to have been poured and stoppered in Ancient Egypt. The lovers are oblivious to it, the way rich people’s champagne flutes are refilled at a restaurant. But the most expensive thing here isn’t the gold, it’s the way they hold each other. Kneeling together on the verge of dissolution, they are so inside each other it makes me want to shout ‘get a room!’ But they have a room. I’m looking into it.
And so have others. Their display of desire has been reproduced on egg cups, umbrellas, keyrings; sold as giant posters at Fresher’s fairs; Blu tacked to dorm walls. I feel almost as sorry for the lovers as I do for Marilyn Monroe when I see her hanging, dress blowing up, in all-night kebab shops.
I Blu tacked ‘The Kiss’ to the door of my most formative bedroom. It represented the sort of love I wanted. A love in gold-leaf, with all my parts and all my lover’s parts in that kind of harmony. After nearly a decade of not having that poster tacked to my door, I realised that all but one of my examples of love and sex growing up were white (the one being my parents, but like most kids it grossed me out to think about them like that). I’m not saying that it is impossible to imagine ourselves in love or desire if our examples do not look like us, but I wonder what having ‘The Kiss’ and Barbies and EastEnders and Hollywood and 90s boybands and sitcoms and all blonde girl magazines does to a young wannabe lover, a budding romantic, what it eventually does to her heart.
Maybe what makes me love it and yet roll my eyes is not their insularity as a couple but how exclusionary ‘true love’ and timeless desire have always been for me (and so many others, in a myriad of ways). How only certain lovers ever get to be posters, and what damage was already being done in love’s name by the time we noticed.
‘To Be Explicit’, Caroline Bird (from In These Years of Prohibition, Carcanet, 2017)
‘I wana rip you open / like a sack of doves’
is how this tiny earth-moving poem opens. It is the smallest but perhaps the most pack-a-punch poem in Caroline Bird’s fifth collection, In These Days of Prohibition, shortlisted for the T.S Eliot Prize in 2018. I happened to be on a beach when I finished it, and lay there for hours afterwards unable to do anything but look up.
Caroline Bird explores love, sex and desire in ways that are by turn hilarious and thundercloud-like, honest but uncertain, and then absolutely sure. Stepping into her poems I think, oh, good, it’s a love poem, I know/have known love, but then she will teach me about a whole new ventricle of the heart. Things I have heard rumours about, sure, like most heart-folklore, but never felt, until reading her.