Poetry and Slugs: The search continues


A banana slug nestles in the moss-covered nook of a fallen redwood tree. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Calif.

I still haven’t found the right “love” poem to read at my friends’ wedding. Last night I stayed up a bit too late attempting to mine one of Norton’s anthologies for potential candidates. Let me just say this: the modern poets weren’t high on love. I may end up giving in and buying one of those 100-Best-Love/Wedding-Poems books. But for now, the search continues, and I’ve been inspired. Here’s another great non-wedding-appropriate love poem by Margaret Atwood, whom I worship — nay, adore.

Variations on the Word Love

This is a word we use to plug
holes with. It’s the right size for those warm
blanks in speech, for those red heart-
shaped vacancies on the page that look nothing
like real hearts. Add lace
and you can sell
it. We insert it also in the one empty
space on the printed form
that comes with no instructions. There are whole
magazines with not much in them
but the word love, you can
rub it all over your body and you
can cook with it too. How do we know
it isn’t what goes on at the cool
debaucheries of slugs under damp pieces of cardboard? As for weed-
seedlings nosing their tough snouts up
among the lettuces, they shout it.
Love! Love! sing the soldiers, raising
their glittering knives in salute.

Then there’s the two
of us. This word
is far too short for us, it has only
four letters, too sparse
to fill those deep bare
vacuums between the stars
that press on us with their deafness.
It’s not love we don’t wish
to fall into, but that fear.
This word is not enough but it will
have to do. It’s a single
vowel in this metallic
silence, a mouth that says
O again and again in wonder
and pain, a breath, a finger
grip on a cliffside. You can
hold on or let go.

—Margaret Atwood