For the asexually curious and the curiously asexual

…save where some sepultured Caesura bled.”
A letter to a living poet, Rupert Brooke

So I found an ancient (given as a gift in 1944) copy of the complete works of Rupert Brooke in a charity shop for 50 pence. And oh my god.

Because up until now, I’ve only read one poem of Brooke’s. I think it was his last, before he died in his early twenties, in World War 1. “If I should die, think only this of me…” (watch as I completely disobey that instruction). The poem is pompous, patriotist, and famous. In my opinion, it’s one of his worst works. The poetry of Brooke seethes with passion and life, even as the things he agonises about are melodramatic, teen poetry.

Here’s the one I’d like to discuss today:

Thoughts on the shape of the human body:
How can we find? how can we rest? how can
We, being gods, win joy, or peace, being man?
We, the gaunt zanies of a witless Fate,
Who love the unloving and lover hate,
Forget the moment ere the moment slips,
Kiss with blind lips that seek beyond the lips,
Who want, and know not what we want, and cry
With crooked mouths for Heaven, and throw it by.
Love’s for completeness! No perfection grows
‘Twixt leg, and arm, elbow, and ear, and nose,
And joint, and socket; but unsatisfied
Sprawling desires, shapeless, perverse, denied.
Finger with finger wreathes; we love, and gape,
Fantastic shape to mazed fantastic shape,
Straggling, irregular, perplexed, embossed,
Grotesquely twined, extravagantly lost
By crescive paths and strange protuberant ways
From sanity and from wholeness and from grace.
How can love triumph, how can solace be,
Where fever turns toward fever, knee toward knee?
Could we but fill to harmony, and dwell
Simple as our thought and as perfectible,
Rise disentangled from humanity
Strange whole and new into simplicity,
Grow to a radiant round love, and bear
Unfluctuant passion for some perfect sphere,
Love moon to moon unquestioning, and be
Like the star Lunisequa, steadfastly
Following the round clear orb of her delight,
Patiently ever, through the eternal night!

I think it might have been the second poem I read. I loved it from the moment I read “who love the unloving and the lover hate.” Such a simple illustration of the cruelty of human relationships.
To briefly explain where I think Brooke is coming from, he was part of a movement which abandoned chaperones, went on long, mixed-sex walks, slept naked under the stars (he went skinny-dipping with Virginia Woolf), but never had sex before marriage. You can kinda see it in his poetry, it’s all about attraction and kissing and mystery- part of what I like about Brooke is that the beautiful, classical language flows from a guy who is seriously horny quite a lot of the time, and willing to talk about it using a form often reserved for true love.
Brooke was also incredibly pretty. Half his friends, by most reports, were friends with him not because of his amazing wordcraft but because he was devilishly handsome. I want to know what would happen if Brooke took up modern day feminism, because a lot of his poems contain, between the lines, this cry of the objectified male. The objectified male who is so, so scared of growing old because all he has are his looks, because he refuses to validate desire when it doesn’t come from someone classically good-looking.

And so we get back to this poem. “Kiss with blind lips that seek beyond the lips.” We try to know people through sex, through intimacy, the act is never the act but some frustrated attempt to connect, to feel like you really, truly know someone when it is truly impossible to. The body is a clumsy metaphor, its own isolation unit.
“Who want, and know not what we want, and cry,
With crooked mouths for heaven, and throw it by.”
Don’t tell me you’ve seriously never felt like this? Me and Brooke can’t be the only ones.

“we love, and gape,
Fantastic shape to mazed fantastic shape,
Straggling, irregular, perplexed, embossed,
Grotesquely twined, extravagantly lost
By crescive paths and strange protuberant ways
From sanity and from wholeness and from grace.”
Here, he’s describing the body as imperfect, monstrous, an illusion of what we truly are. And it’s so fucking queer. “Grotesquely twined, extravagantly lost.” Since reading this poem, I’ve genuinely considered replacing my ‘questioning’ label with that phrase. There is something I find so beautiful, so human, in imperfection.
The imagery here is astounding. Last year, I was doing art (as I think I mentioned), and for his final piece, one of the guys took close-ups of people’s faces and then zoomed in so much on the corner of a nose, the fold of a brow, that they became abstract, hauntingly beautiful patterns of sumptuous flesh. Reading this poem, those photographs are what burn themselves into my mind.
“By crescive paths and strange protuberant ways,” the human body, coming to terms with it, loving it, is a journey. You can literally lose yourself.

And then he goes a bit crap and wusses out and says that it would be better if there were no such things as bodies, these perfectly imperfect forms of wonder and delight, because it would be better if we all connected spiritually, throw in a random classical reference, bob’s your uncle, another Romantic poem churned out.

Which is where I get annoyed with Brooke, because he always has such great potential. He definitely wasn’t afraid of breaking the rules of his day, and his poetry seems, when it’s really flowing from him, so transgressive, so full of fire and change, that even a century after he lived, the world still trembles from his vision.

And then something pulls him back. Whether it’s the fact that he’s essentially writing emo poetry about the latest girl to dump him, moping around in his room at the age of 16, or the fact that he’s stuck in the Romantic framework, where there are easy answers and you have to prescribe to them, or because it was Edwardian times, and there simply weren’t the words, or because he was so young that he never got to realise that he could be more than an object, that desire isn’t something you have to justify.

Poetry changed, months after he died. Possibly the most poetry has ever changed. It became about raw power, emotion that could cut through the heart, mockery of those in command, it became a tool for radical critique of society. Brooke died in the old system, and is remembered by it. He is remembered by silly poems about the honour of death and the romance of war, couched in pretentions. Had he lived even three years longer? I think the world could be very different today.

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