Discover more from Listening in the Dark with Amber Tamblyn
The Punishment Gift
A moody love poem for your Valentine’s Day
Love can feel like a fire burning you to the ground. Unrequited love can feel like watching something you love burning to the ground in the distance while you watch helplessly. It can show up without warning, destroy everything in its path, leave you broken and devastated while still rendering you speechless with all of its unpredictable beauty and wonder.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m sharing a poem on unrequited love, jealousy, and longing from my 2016 chapbook, The Punishment Gift. The publication was a limited edition pressing, and copies are hard to find. (I myself only have eight copies of it left in my stock.) It's a collection that feels fitting for this particular day that celebrates all the different ways we connect with love and its many meanings, from yearning for it to hating it to falling deeply for it.
One of the poems in the collection, “Coda, Etcetera,” was originally commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles as part of an annual series Dr. Mindy Nettifee and I did through the nonprofit we founded and ran for a decade, Write Now Poetry Society. (It’s since disbanded, but you can still check out our old Instagram page!) The Getty brought us in to produce a poetry series celebrating the opening of certain exhibits. We commissioned poets to write original ekphrastic poems inspired by select pieces from those exhibits. It was a cool, interesting way to bring a fresh perspective and interpretation to art that was sometimes over 400 years old.
“Coda, Etcetera” was written for an exhibit the Getty had on the 19th century romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, and I decided to write this piece on the unrequited love between Turner and his assistant, Hannah Danby.
Through Write Now, Mindy and I, along with Shawn Marie Turi and MJ Witenberg, produced dozens upon dozens of literary showcases that allowed poetry to really shine on stages across the country. Our aim was to broaden poetry’s audience through unique and provocative programming—to break the stereotype of a poetry show as something boring or corny and to show people that the experience could disarm your preconceived notions and be as good or better than any concert you’ve ever been to.
For ten years, the shows Write Now produced did just that: from several years of collaboration with the Getty Museum, including Year without a Summer; to a seven-year-run of the Los Angeles literary series, The Drums Inside Your Chest; to Feminist as Fuck, a showcase Roxane Gay and I created for Vulture Festival.
(I have produced a lot of literary things. A lot.)
To celebrate my love of poetry, and my love of love, below is the poem “Coda, Etcetera” from The Punishment Gift. I’ve also included an audio recording of the poem from my reading at the Getty Museum in 2015.
Put on some good headphones, go buy flowers for someone you’re pining for, and enjoy!
CODA, ETCETERA On the unrequited love of Turner’s assistant, Hannah Danby. Commissioned for the Getty Museum, 2015 I tie my life to the mast of your brush and ask for the salt’s forgiveness. A hundred tourists are caught in my throat trying to speak the tones with which you stroke. Red: I love you sorely. Gold: I am not good enough to leave her for. Copper: I am your long offering, your secret, wifeless bride. White: I know your body only as its shadow. You do not know mine. Silver: I will never take your last name. Black: Blackness. You, Master of the plastered cracking sea, Master of a natural disaster’s epiphany, Master of coral, ash, cream, and river bream, Master of the century, Master of me. I want to be more than the loyal sorter of your oils, the soiled dress you press against a bookshelf of bound metaphors, our clasped gasps shaking those spines from their nests, all the larkins above us falling to their deaths. We should’ve been amongst the greats. We could’ve been up there with the classics. (Dear Philip, I ask the poet in you: What is worse? Being in love with someone you can’t have or being in love with someone you can have only in secret?) I want you to read not just the subtexts of my flesh. I want you to read more than just between the lines between my legs, unbeknownst to that blonde dawn who rises daily from your sheets, her ceaseless love like a sun always beating me from the east. I want to have you like Warhols sell to warlords. Like Balthazar had a bucket list. But I know there will be no ending to this suffered coveting. Her body is yours and your body is ours and mine is nobodies. So forgive me, Master: To the screaming waves you conjure, I imagine you losing her. Forgive me: The flat across the street is on fire and I want to save no one. Forgive me: Hera should’ve written Europa, the poem that showed her no mercy. Forgive me: Browning should’ve prepared for the hell of infinity when she began to count the ways she loved thee. Forgive me: I want back those passwords that sprung encrypted from your lips into my lungs. I hereby reverse the cursed worshiping of a coffin built for two, buried half true. I have forgotten you. I do not remember the smell of your turpentine neckline, your kerosene scent carried through the vents like heroin in a forearm’s dent. We never met. I did not let you sleep on the moving sheets of my silver screens. There were no second thoughts. I was never your one of a kind. I did not write your name on my father’s arm. I did not want to know your daughter and son. I did not think about bearing you another one. I did not let your legendary thumbs touch the tips of my unsung ones. I did not come. Your voice was not a soundtrack for my blood. Your voice could not make me die forever. Your voice. Your voice. Your voice. There was never a first kiss, regardless. You were not guilty. You thought only of her, forever. It never hurt. It did not touch me. I was safe. I did protect myself. The scar was so small. I was not a drifting ship dipping into tortured clouds. I did not look at my empty hands and think of white wolves dying in the snow. There were no other women besides her. She does deserve you. She is worthy of your hands. She— I did not think cruel things. I was not ashamed. I will be forgiven. I never told you I loved you. You did say you loved me, too. I do not remember. We did say goodbye. We did finish this. Our bodies never brought us up again nor did our pens. Red: I loved you. Gold: I was not good enough. Copper: Your secret. White: Your body. Not mine. Silver: She'll take your last name. Black: Black. Black. Black. Black. Black. I repeat the needed mantra, like opera needs sonata, I am your coda, etcetera: The life I will never have with you will be the life I will forever have with you. The life I will never have with you will be the life I will forever have with you. The life I will never have with you will be the life I will forever have with you.
What are some of your favorite love poems, or poems on unrequited love, jealousy, and longing?