What SAL’s Reading: Favorite Love Stories

When we asked the different folks at SAL about the best writing on love, it was hard to know what to expect. The topic is so widely written about and so subject to cliché. And, yet, it is so satisfying to experience words on the page that somehow manage to capture the feeling and kind of relationship that so fiercely straddles the deeply personal and the vastly universal. Perhaps the fineness of that line accounts for the array of genres and forms—poetry, short stories, newspaper columns and more—that came in response to our simple question: what’s your favorite love story?

Ruth Dickey, Executive Director:
“To me, nothing, nothing beats e.e. cummings for love poems that capture the euphoric feeling of love at its all-encompassing best.  Mark Doty’s Dog Years is the best story of how love for a dog can animate our lives that I’ve read (always with tissues at hand).  And Something to Declare by Julia Alvarez is one of my favorite collections about a woman’s journey, as an immigrant and a writer, to come to love herself.  Love, in all its forms, is the greatest alchemy of all.

Nancy Tollefson, SAL Board Member:
“I really enjoyed The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.  It’s an unconventional love story that offers lots of humor and lessons to which we can all relate.”

Ann Teplick, WITS Writer-in-Residence:
“I’ve got Li-Young Lee’s poem ‘One Heart’ hanging in many rooms of my house. It comforts me—the birds, the wings, the ‘fastening of one heart to every falling thing.’ The first sky inside us ‘opened at either end of the day.’ For me, ‘One Heart’ is a love poem to the world about possibility, even with descent.”

Amelia Peacock, Community Engagement Coordinator:
“As a kid, one of my favorite books was an illustrated version of ‘The Gift of the Magi,’ the short story by O. Henry. I think it is the perfect example of what true love (and Christmas) are all about: It’s really the thought that counts and, in the end, spending time with the ones you love is much more important than fancy hair combs, stylish watch chains, or any other material possession.”

Kellye Testy, SAL Board Member:
“One of my favorites is ‘Twenty-One Love Poems’ by Adrienne Rich, from her Dream of a Common Language Book.  It is so real and beautiful.  I also love that it captures a particular time in history so well, when it was much harder to write about love between women.”

Jeanine Walker, WITS Writer-in-Residence:
“I like the work of so many poets, but I have only a handful that I absolutely love and will read over and over again. Alan Shapiro is in that category. His book Song & Dance is among my most cherished possessions, and one of the poems from that, which I consider a love story, is “Up Against.” I have taught this in WITS classrooms and read it to myself many times.

The book is, in part, an elegy to Shapiro’s brother, who passed away, and the poem takes us back to their childhood summers when his brother, the older of the two, would play a game he called “Up Against” that kind of exploited the younger brother—the way that older brothers and sisters so often do. As a younger sibling, I could really relate to this, and I admire how Shapiro takes us nostalgically back but also manages to stay so grounded. It makes me tear up every time—that absolute love for and missing of his brother.”

Rebecca Hoogs, Associate Director:
“There are too many to name, but here are a few: Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love, Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, William Butler Yeats, “When You are Old,” and Gerald Stern’s ‘Another Insane Devotion.’”

Andrea Voytko, SAL Board Member:
“I love e.e. cummings for Valentine’s Day, especially the last lines from “since feeling is first,” which keeps you marveling:

 ‘we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis’”

Daemond Arrindell, WITS Writer-in-Residence:
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss—especially these lines:

‘Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.’

‘So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves. On rainy days, you can hear their chorus rushing past: IwasabeautifulgirlPleasedon’tgoItoobelievemybodyismadeofglass-I’veneverlovedanyoneIthinkofmyselfasfunnyForgiveme….’

Christina Gould, Patron Services Manager:
“At WITS Writer Jeanine Walker’s wedding this past August, my conversation with Ruth Dickey naturally gravitated toward love and romance. She suggested I read the Modern Love column in the New York Times, promising that I would love it. I wondered at first, but when the Styles section appeared on my desk the following Monday morning, it felt like an incandescent love letter. My heart fluttered as I secretly slipped it into my purse.

The ritual has continued every Monday since and, needless to say, I am smitten. My favorite love story is the most current Modern Love essay! I can’t help myself– honest stories that speak to the heart warm mine. I also appreciate the serendipity of learning about the column at Jeanine’s wedding. I will always remember that magical evening as the one that brought Modern Love into my life.”

Marilyn Dahl, SAL Board Member:
“One of my favorite love stories is Ruby by Cynthia Bond. I am including our review of it here because it’s a book I mention whenever I get the chance– I’d love to increase its readership. The reason: the love that Ephram carries for Ruby, through times of cruelty, danger and despair, is a deep love strengthened by resilience and grace. It’s transcendent.”

Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate & Sonder Editor:
“Despite the story’s darkness, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is one that always comes to mind. Maybe it’s just because I first read it while I was going to high school in the suburbs, similar to its characters, but so many of the book’s scenes remind me of that lusty kind of love from young adulthood, when it was a such an all-encompassing, total body experience: the awkward corsage-pinning in front of your parents, basement parties with punch, sips of peach schnapps behind the gym’s bleachers, watching the object of your affections from afar…”

Wood Graham, SAL Board Member:
“I have a fondness for ‘enemies attract’ and ‘strange bedfellows’ relationships and stories.  Harry Joy and Honey Barbara’s relationship, in Australian author Peter Carey’s 1981 comic fable Bliss is a decades-long stand-out for me. It’s an unsubtle, disturbing book filled with one dysfunctional choice after another until the very end, when the sacrifice necessary for true redemption plays out quite beautifully.

On the sensual love story front, Michael Ondaatje’s 1982 poem ‘The Cinnamon Peeler’ still raises the hair on the back of my neck after all this time.”

Emily Bedard, WITS Writer-in-Residence:
Emily’s favorite love stories are poems written by four of her students at Roosevelt High School this year:

 Rocky Love

by Calvin Davis

I want to love you, to embrace you like a squid,
wrapping tentacles, every suction cup a soft kiss on your velvet skin,
forever together.
But I can’t, my heart is torn from my mind like
Congress, divided beyond repair. A slippery slope of bouncy balls,
leading to nowhere.

Even Heaven cannot match the look of your eyelashes
or your voice, a harp playing the sweet melody of cow calls
singing in the plains that whirl with the breath of life.

You are constant and unique, like the winds of a hurricane
forcing me to earth but elevating me to the highest peaks
where atop the crags and jagged ridges
a dirt trail may lead to a rockslide deep in the woods below
but it can also lead to a hidden oasis, a deep
blueberry blue that represents you.

 Every Day

by Benji Agosti

Every day I see the
Girl that everyone knows

There are men without
Eyes that will look without
Seeing

Long hallways full
Of rats and
One single angel

Loss

by Ruby Koh

Heart like a sand bag
Tongue like saw dust.
I never knew love hurt.
Years like paper,
Like the ember of fire,
Gone.
You don’t smile like you used to.
Words like ink
Skin like an open book
I was your canvas.
Passion like thunder
Kisses like lightning.
You don’t touch me like you used to.
Eyes like oceans
Blue like night
Dry like salt water
Crisp like ice.
You don’t look at me like you used to.
Voice like sorrow
Like comfort
Like nightmares
Like addiction.
You don’t sound like you used to.
Smile like hope
Like rain in the summer
Like sun in the clouds,
Warmth on my skin.
Where did your happiness go?
Strength like arrows
Like sky
Like stone
Like untouched earth.
And still, you ran away.
Love like need.
Like greed and insanity,
Like seas and skies,
Like waves and wind,
Like stones and stars,
Like mistakes and magic,
Like roses and rot.
Loss and love like sleep and nightmares,
Inevitable.

You Are Beautiful and He Is into Pro Wrestling

by Grace Jones

So I heard you’ve been struck
by Cupid’s pesky arrow.
And I get it.
He has a man bun and
he makes it work.
He bakes bread
and plays the guitar
and he writes poems
about kissing girls.
And I know you feel
like a sea urchin
when he wears actual pants
instead of basketball shorts.
But far from prickly and
sea-dwelling,
you are confident
and sunlight shines
out of your ears.
So go for it.
Because you found the one boy
on the planet that is not
dirt
compared to you.

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