What Is This Thing Called Love, aptly titled after one of Cole Porter’s jazz compositions, is a deeply personal collection of poems that are at times witty and lighthearted, at times brutally honest and self-deprecating, and always full of interesting observations concerning life’s most enduring subjects: love and death. Divided into five sections, Addonizio’s poems traverse the physical landscapes of famous parks, tiny hotel rooms, dimly lit bars as well as the spiritual arenas of human existence. Often, she mines the depths of romance, as quick to point out the melancholic nostalgia produced by memories of a past lover as she is to cradle the frenetic energy found in a new relationship.
The first section of Addonizio’s collection certainly varies in setting but each poem resolutely concerns love. She moves quickly over the course of thirteen poems, covering half a lifetime with vivid detail of her first kiss “in front of a burned-out church,” sensual observations during her quest to soak up the youth of her thirty-one year-old lover and finally biting sarcasm when, as the possibility of a woman cloning herself in order to provide an opportunity for every man she has ever been involved with is acerbically considered, she remarks “won’t you be happy then.” This first section also stresses the range of Addonizio’s skill as it includes a paradelle, a sonnenizio, and two of the collection’s five blues-inspired poems.
The second section deals in large part with death. The section opens with the line “[d]o I have to bring it up again, isn’t there another subject?” Instantly, the sense of a beleaguered, world-weary life is apparent and Addonizio again makes her way over a remarkable and unforgettable amount of territory. As she recounts her experiences, be it with “a scrap of flattened squirrel fur,” “[her] father left in some town behind [her]/in his blue suit, with his folded hands,” or “[a] dog dragging its crippled hips,” Addonizio ponders “I can lighten up, can’t I, Christ, can’t I?” She implores the reader to “[r]emind me why I’m here,” illustrating just how immersed in death her own life as well as the lives around her are by taking her sights off her surroundings and surrendering her plea to the written word.
The third section is the first of three successive sections in which Addonizio addresses death and love jointly and, at times, simultaneously. Whereas the previous two sections had a focal point and swore by vivid, concrete details, this section finds Addonizio moving from the raw power of child birth into a more philosophical realm combating issues surrounding human nature, knowledge, God, and the repercussions felt by Americans as well as everyone around the globe. Unlike the sections to follow, the lack of thematic cohesion in this section results in Addonizio coming off more scatterbrained than diverse, opinionated than concerned, and ambitious than successful.
Section four is without a doubt the highlight of this collection. Opening with “Lush Life,” one of four poems in the section sharing their titles with that of a jazz composition, Addonizio’s sultry, cut-the-shit disposition comes roaring through. Her sharp, original wordplay is also on display, producing a variety of rich, often harrowing images such as “listening to the jazz of ice,” “a car wreck in a silk dress,” and “that guy with the knife convinced we were insects from outer space.” These type of colorful characters and bizarre interactions not only play to the brute strength of Addonizio’s matter of fact, streetwise diction but also come across as completely natural and commonplace rather than merely one woman’s observations nearing the middle of her life.
The fifth and final section of What Is This Thing Called Love finds Addonizio at her most tranquil and reflective. The first poem, “Dear Reader,” is a direct ode to her audience as she considers all that is occurring outside her quiet isolation. Later on there is an ode appropriately titled “Fuck,” within which Addonizio makes a convincing argument for the academic use of the word. Ending where she began some fifty poems earlier, Addonizio adheres to her wistful, romantic and melancholic muse. In “Kisses,” she remembers with awe all the men who “lower[ed] their beautiful heads like horses drinking from a river [to] taste [her].” She recalls the various types of kisses she has received, from the “fatherly ones on [her] forehead” to the “ravishing ones.” She concludes by stating the poem itself needs to be kissed because “it needs you to know it goes on.” After recapping so many events, people and places, Addonizio brings her readers back to where they’ve physically been all along: in front of her book, with knowledge of an ample amount of experiences that feel more shared than separate.
Below is one of my favorite poems from What Is This Thing Called Love:
In this bottle a searing headache,
in that one a car angling off the road
to meet a tree in your neighbor’s yard,
in the next one a man who removes
your clothes while you spin
down into the whirlpool of the bed’s black sheets.
At the bottom of another: locked metal box
you can’t pry open, though you can hear
someone in there, muttering and crying
and saying how sorry she is.
And don’t forget the worm of shame
that uncurls in your throat sometimes,
and the bathrooms where you crouched
shaking before a toilet, your hair limp,
the sour evening rising up inside you.
So what are you doing, sitting there
holding a half-full highball glass,
listening to the jazz of ice, the slow blues
of a just-lit cigarette? Some low voice
is crooning your name, and in the double
being poured behind the bar
the tenor sax is starting its solo, taking you
out over the changes, sounding
just like love, just like it won’t ever stop.