Photo by Louise Coghill Photography
Over the last fortnight, I have listened to the same pop album every day. Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour (2021) sounds like a frozen moment of my own adolescence: the teenage infatuation, the first heartbreak, the earnest intensity of what forever means when you’re eighteen. She sings, ‘today, I drove through the suburbs / and pictured I was driving home to you’. Throughout the album Rodrigo is reaching beyond her specific heartbreak, towards a listener that has never met the ‘you’ she directly addresses. Here, I am interested in how a poem or song written from within the subjectivity of desire can pinpoint melodrama and catalogue it in such a way that it never fades. The hurt in this album never stops hurting. Sour’s persona is a preserved version of Rodrigo; a statue cast from the mould of what this heartbreak made of her. The lyrical self is a freeze-frame of unreciprocated longing.
Relationship psychologist Esther Perel writes, ‘love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it […] Love is about having; desire is about wanting’ (44–45). When writing ‘Longing: Three Ways’ I returned to this quote when trying to differentiate between a love poem and ‘a desire poem’. Although these two definitions share a suburb, a love poem exists like an afternoon stroll, compared to desire’s late-night walks of those same streets1. Significantly, Perel believes that longing requires mysterious absences for imagination to occupy (45). It is a wet-mouthed and wistful realm of possibility. Although not always sexual, desire wants what is not yet grasped. In ‘Longing: Three Ways’ the lines stretch towards each other from opposing margins of the page, as if trying to touch, visibly representing Perel’s proposed gaps.
Whenever I read or write about desire, I am paying attention to absence. Richard Siken’s poetry collection Crush articulates intimacy by describing what surrounds it: ‘green eyes flecked with yellow, dried leaves on the surface of a pool—you could drown in those eyes I said’ (6). Ocean Vuong describes desire as a temporary hunger, saying ‘I wonder what it feels like to move at the speed of thirst—if it’s as fast as lying on the kitchen floor with the lights off’ (68). By detailing what surrounds or borders intimacy, LGBTQIA+ writers Siken and Vuong use omission to depict yearning. As a disruption of the heteronormative gaze, this hunger occupies gaps and silences of representation, in which imagination is safer than actualisation. In The Guardian, Rebecca Shaw writes,
It makes sense that yearning is the gay emotion. For most of history, queer people have been forced to internalise their emotions. We have been forced to hide, to stay safe by not acting on our feelings. We have wanted from afar. We have desired in secret. Yearning has often been the one and only option.
When observed through a queer lens, the literal and figurative distance in my poetic series achieves an increasingly politicised purpose.
I recognise desire at protests. Crowds of strangers raise their arms in unison, call-and-response chants stretch across the city, engaged in a wider purpose of reaching towards political change2. In a seven-part series about the 2017 marriage equality postal survey titled ‘I Can’t Stop Crying’, Quinn Eades explores how LGBTQIA+ love constitutes a political navigation of permission, in which bodies are positioned on the intersection of policies. Want is both political and politicised. Trans poet Joni Boyd writes of love as ‘breaking the cycle and the silence […] romance—resilience—resistance / just like our myths and manifestos promised’ (72). For queer people, desire is a defiant act. Texting your crush is a tender revolution. Regardless of the object of desire (their gender or their identity), my pursuit of pleasure is a self-sustaining act. It is a story I tell myself in the shower.
By introducing the act of reaching as a structural formatting choice, ‘Longing: Three Ways’ aligns the intensity of longing with the intensity of the prose poem’s ‘pressure cooker’ form (Iglesias 15). In The Prose Poem: an international journal, Peter Johnson proposes that ‘the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels’ (6). Traditionally the form can be described as a ‘paragraph-poem’ (Munden 11) that exists in a tight and non-lineated box. This condensed content results in a visual emphasis of any sparseness. In Kaveh Akbar’s work, particularly ‘Calling A Wolf A Wolf: inpatient’, the author’s introduction of gaps contributes additional gravity and breath to each phrase (14)3. Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington describe this technique as ‘almost a ghosting of lineation’ that ‘encourages the reader to leap over these gaps or spaces’ (148). Inspired by Akbar, my writing experiments with a hybrid version of the prose poem that uses visual silence to suggest distance between the persona’s desire and acquisition. As I note in Westerly 66.1, ‘in a prose poem, each gasp and sigh is amplified. As a form that exists between two dominant understandings of genre, there is already a sense of reaching within the prose poem itself; it can be perceived as a place where prose brushes the outstretched fingertips of poetry’ (80).
The prose poem is a busy room. With words pressed tightly against each other, there is a notable presence of proximity and pace. Having a crush in a busy room scrambles linear time, alters the density of air and reroutes attention. In a similar way, breath is held or rushed in the room of the hybrid prose poem, as epitomised by reading aloud the disrupted lines of ‘Longing: Three Ways’. When listening to Olivia Rodrigo’s album about desiring what she can no longer have, I look forward to the instrumental surges4. Between lyrics, longing takes the form of a dance break. As a busy room filled with dance breaks, my suite of hybrid prose poems uses absent space to document desire as an act of extension, as the persona reaches melodramatically and unapologetically for the hands they want to hold.
1 This image of dichotomy is shaped by lyrics from ‘Eight’ by La Dispute: ‘Two totally different worlds, sharing nothing but longitude and latitude. There was the nation in the day, and the nation at night, existing side by side but each fleeing the other.’ These lyrics were adapted from Midnight Nation by J. Michael Straczynski.
2 Although this example is set on a street, it is important to acknowledge the multitude of ways that protest can manifest and recognise ‘all the other invisible bodies, with their fists up, tucked away and out of sight’ (Hedva). Johanna Hedva writes, ‘most modes of political protest are internalized, lived, embodied, suffering, and no doubt invisible’. Further reading: http://www.maskmagazine.com/not-again/struggle/sick-woman-theory.
3 I’ve included the reference to Akbar’s book in the end-text references, but this poem is also available online via The Adroit Journal: https://theadroitjournal.org/issue-seventeen-kaveh-akbar-the-adroit-journal/.
4 For reference, see the 1:30 point of Rodrigo’s song ‘Déjà vu’.
Akbar, Kaveh. Calling A Wolf A Wolf. Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2017.
Boyd, Joni. City Without Stories. Perth, Western Australia: Indifference Publications, 2018.
Eades, Quinn. ‘I Can’t Stop Crying’. The Lifted Brow, 2017. Sourced at: https://www.theliftedbrow.com/liftedbrow/2017/9/7/i-cant-stop-crying-by-quinn-eades.
Godfrey, Madison. ‘Longing: Three Ways’. Westerly 66.1 (2021): 80–83.
Hedva, Johanna. ‘Sick Woman Theory’. Mask, 2016. http://www.maskmagazine.com/not-again/struggle/sick-woman-theory.
Hetherington, Paul and Cassandra Atherton. Prose Poetry: an introduction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.
Iglesias, Holly. Boxing Inside The Box: women’s prose poetry. Florence: Quale Press, 2004.
Johnson, Peter. ‘Introduction’. The Prose Poem: an international journal 1.2 (1992). Sourced at: https://digitalcommons.providence.edu/prosepoem/vol1/iss1/2.
La Dispute. ‘Eight’. Here, Hear II. Caledonia, Michigan: No Sleep Records, 2008.
Munden, Paul. ‘Playing With Time: prose poetry and the elastic moment in Monica Carroll, Shane Strange, Jen Webb (eds.), Beyond the Line: contemporary prose poetry. TEXT Journal 46 (2017). Sourced at: http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue46/Munden.pdf.
Perel, Esther. Mating in Captivity: unlocking erotic intelligence. New York: Harper, 2016.
Rodrigo, Olivia. Sour. Dan Nigro.Santa Monica, California: Geffen, 2021.
Shaw, Rebecca. ‘Waiting to hear if my girlfriend can arrive from New Zealand, I’m back to being a yearning teenager’. The Guardian. Australian edition (2020).
Siken, Richard. Crush. New York & London: Yale University Press, 2005.
Vuong, Ocean. Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2016.
Maddie Godfrey is a writer, editor and educator who lives on Whadjuk Noongar land with a rescue cat named ‘Sylvia’. Maddie’s debut collection How To Be Held (Burning Eye Books, 2018) is a manifesto to tenderness. At 25, they have performed poetry at The Sydney Opera House, The Royal Albert Hall, St Paul’s Cathedral and Glastonbury Festival. They are the recipient of the 2020 Kat Muscat Fellowship, the 2021 Tom Collins Poetry Prize and the 2021 WA Youth Award for ‘Creative Contributions’. Currently Maddie is completing a PhD on prose poetry. www.maddiegodfrey.com