Love, Eroticism, Grief, and Time in Marilyn Chin’s Hard Love Province

by Catherine Cucinella

The poems in Marilyn Chin’s most recent book of poetry, Hard Love Province (2014), explore, among other things, love and grief.  Love is hard precisely because, as Chin illustrates, it continually circulates within overlapping registers of longing, desire, grief, absence, and presence.  The love that emerges throughout Hard Love is fierce and gentle, generative and destructive, fleeting and eternal, personal and cultural. 

Chin’s exploration of love’s terrain necessarily takes her to the boundary between life and death and love’s place at that boundary.  At this limit and in a desire to transgress this limit, Chin writes an erotics of grief.  In this paper, I focus on the elegies in Hard Love Province specifically addressing “Formosan Elegy,” “Beautiful Boyfriend,” and “Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony.”  Working within and against the elegy, Chin’s poetic longing and unabashed eroticism mourns the dead, and the elegiac voice also sounds outrage as it mourns the loss of “brown bodies,” of men changed forever by war, for all lives lost and shattered by wars, politics, and injustice.    

Her eroticism also depends on reconfiguring our notions of time as Chin conflates absence and presence.  She often merges absent lovers with present ones, allows sexual longing to cross limits of space and time, and collapses generational and historical timeframes.  Finally, these elegies may, indeed, illustrate what Andy Amato describes as “poetic time”:  “a subjective phenomenon experienced in our moment-to-moment acceptance of our mutuality with others, our recognition that we, in an elemental sense are already ever sharing a middle world—a liminally conjoined world—with others” (61).  Chin seems to accept this mutuality, and her poetry seems always to operate in a “liminally conjoined world,” fused by multiple poetic and cultural voices; however, I suggest that the poetic time that she offers us in Hard Love Province filters through an erotics of grief which demands we reconsider notions of love and time, and, ultimately, what it means to be in time.   

As Octavio Paz ruminates on love and eroticism, he makes the following statements about time: “There is no remedy for time.  Or, at least we do not know what it is.  But we must trust in the flow of time, we must live” (Double Flame 263).  He names time “the greatest catastrophe” which “no love can avoid.”  Ultimately, the beloved succumbs to time’s assaults—“age, infirmity, and death” (262).  Yet, he offers hope.  Although we cannot deny nor destroy time, we can transfigure it, which according to Paz, “the great artists, poets, philosophers, scientists, and certain men of action have done” (264).  He also offers love as an “answer” because he sees “love as time and made of it, a consciousness of death and an attempt to make of the instant an eternity” (264).  If love, as Paz suggests, is conscious of death and attempts to make its instant an eternity, then, the elegy, specifically one overwritten with eroticism and sexual longing, proves a particularly apt poetic form for this undertaking.  The elegy, as Angela Leighton reminds us, “plays with tropes of distance, difficulty, even of unreclaimable absence, but it does not simply forget” (127).  Chin insists on remembrance throughout Hard Love Provence. She dedicates eight of the twenty-three poems in the volume to poets who have died or to her dead lovers; one of the twenty-two stanzas or “fables” comprising “Two Inch Fables” is for Denise Levertov, one pays homage to Gwen Brooks, June Jordan, and Sylvia Plath, and another to Emily Dickinson, and yet another stanza pays tribute to Don Lonewolf, Chin’s deceased lover.  The elegiac soundings that reverberate throughout the pages of this volume mourn endless and continuous death while simultaneously wrapping the keening in an erotics of grief and anguish for the lost physicality of eroticism.  The sexual yearnings pulse with both a felt bodily presence and the body’s “unreclaimable absence.”

The elegies that memorialize Chin’s lovers represent presence and absence simultaneously, refusing to do the work of mourning as presented by Freud or by contemporary standards.  There is no “working through.”  Certainly not the first poet to violate the “traditional elegiac model [which presents] the [mourning] process as a set of conventional tasks with preordained beginning, middle, and end” as described by Michael Moon (235) or to refuse consolation, renewal, recovery, or transcendence, also associated with the traditional form, Chin does grieve the loss of the very things that traditional elegy and the Freudian model of mourning promise.  Therefore, these poems offer fleeting moments of resolution, of recompenses, and of peace.  They do not, however, offer lasting solace, like the “beautiful boyfriends,” in the poem with the same name, the comfort is “transitory.” 

Paz locates eroticism in “the realm of the imaginary, like celebration, representation, rites, and because it is ritual . . . [eroticism] intersects in places with violence and transgression” (An Erotic 69-70).  Grieving, too occupies this same realm, imaginary and ritualistic.  Chin’s elegiac eroticism often manifests as violent and transgressive.  The comforting images in the first stanza of “Beautiful Boyfriend” give way to horrific images of these dead boys: Soulless, their “shiny brown flesh // turn[s] into purple festering corpses” (74).  Chin offers us little in the way of solace.  Later in this poem, as I will discuss, this grieving is one of sexual longing.

Although Chin, like most contemporary poets working with the elegy, rejects the Freudian paradigm of painfully confronting the loss, accepting it, and returning the ego to a “free and uninhibited” state (244-45), she does, paradoxically, offer an element of permanence—a thread that connects living to dead.  This permanence lies in the erotics of grief that permeates the most clearly marked elegies, those for Chin’s dead lovers—in the speakers’ sexual desires and in the refusal to relinquish sexual yearning for these lovers.    

Many have recognized the erotic aspects of the elegy, most notably, gay and lesbian scholars who have, as Moon points out, “written evocatively on mourning and sexuality” (235).  These scholars argue that this poetic form of mourning provides expressions of desire that “begin to defy the limits placed on male-male desire,” according to George Haggerty in “Love and Loss: An Elegy” (388), and that sexual desire expressed in elegies reconfigure the cultural messages about lesbian/gay bodies, lesbian/gay sexualities and relationships as Moon argues in “Memorial Rags” 236.  Much is at stake for these scholars in their arguments, and I do not wish to co-opt the eroticism that they identify in the elegy and overwrite it with notions of heteronormativity.  However, I also believe that much is at stake for Chin as she traverses the geography of loss in Hard Love Province.  She grieves from the margins, mourning the lives of those on the margins: brown boys sold into slavery, female ancestors brutalized by their Chinese husbands, women poets scarred by their feminist and poetic battles, women killed in order to allow younger women to speak truth to power.  Her elegiac eroticism is fierce—excessive—and, at times, terrifying, even when it is most quiet.  It often defies both cultural and patriarchal dictates regarding “acceptable” femininity, female desire, and perhaps, poetic decorum. 

In “Formosan Elegy,” dedicated to Charles, Chin’s lover killed in a plane crash, Chin uses the caesurae to foreground the bleakness of the fundamental yin and yang of the poem: unbearable presence and unreclaimable absence.  These gaps, while providing unity to the poem, underscore the existential nothingness that the images of a fragmented body raise. 

Sitting near her lover’s body bag, the poet/speaker regains her voice. She “sing[s him] a last song” and “chant[s his] final sutra” (20). In “Formosan Elegy,” grief, felt in the body, corporeal presence and absence, and eroticism become tightly bound.  Haggerty suggests that “[t]he dying form of one so loved does not resist . . . eroticization . . . rather, death itself becomes a scene of unspeakable intimacy” (387).  Referring here specifically, to the body of a lover dying from AIDS, Haggerty, nonetheless presents a framework through which to consider the moment in “Formosan Elegy” when the poet/speaker can finally utter her song of grief.  She does so once she is near her lover’s body.  This physicality suggests the erotic attachment that Haggerty describes.  For Chin, it allows her simultaneously to reconnect with her lover, to share the intimacy of his death, and to ask and answer the age old questions: “What’s our place on earth?” “What’s our destiny?”  Her answers: “nada” // “war     grief    maggots    nada”—answers that resonate with paradox (20).  How can one fill a place with nothingness?  Perhaps, one fills it with eroticism, which according to Paz, “evaporates, and evaporates, and all that remains in our hands . . . is a shadow, a gesture of pleasure or of death” (An Erotic 14). 

In Chin’s poetic rendering, the vapors of eroticism mingle with the bodies torn asunder by death—thrust into the nothing that is death in this poem.  By stanza eight, both body and poetic line fragment.  Spaces appear between every word, causing us to linger over each separate image, most related to the body—each severed from it: 

                        Arms    cheeks    cock     femur    eyelids    nada

                        Cowl    ox     lamb        vellum     marrow   nada

                        Vulva   nada     semen      nada    ovum    nada

                        Eternity    nada     heaven       nada     void    nada (20)

No longer the body of the speaker’s lover, the body, in this stanza, is both male and female, animal and human.  The loss is personal and social, confined and all encompassing, everything and nothing. 

Whereas the love mourned in “Formosan Elegy” seems specific, the loss in “Beautiful Boyfriend,” dedicated to Don Lonewolf, Chin’s lover who died in 2011, takes on a more generalized form of mourning, grieving for all the lost beautiful boyfriends, and more overtly proclaims the speaker’s sexual desires for her dead lover.  This poem, which opens with images of the speaker drifting in a skiff “made of spicewood,” surrounded by sounds of “early Mozart,” Coltrane, “and miles and miles of Miles, with [her] new boyfriend,” moves, at times swiftly and at times slowly, through geographies of space and time (73).  In these spaces, Chin articulates a longing for forgetfulness as she insists on remembrance while sounding an elegiac eroticism, collapsing space/time/death/life/absence/presence.

Although the speaker attempts to identify the conditions that will allow her to love the ambiguous “you” of the poem “like no other” and “to float [her] mind toward the other side of hate,” she is seemingly unsuccessful (73).  Either she cannot meet these conditions, or they prove inadequate: she can neither master “the nine doors of [her] body” nor “close [her] heart to the cries of suffering” (73).  She clearly remains among the living, and she cannot forsake her bodily desires.  The elegiac voice grieves not for one lost love but for many, and the mourning spans place and time:

                        The shantytowns of Tijuana    sing for you

                        The slums of Little Sudan       hold evening prayer

                        One dead brown boy is a tragedy

                                     Ten thousand is a statistic

                        So let’s fuck    my love           until the dogs pass (74)

The ambiguity of the “you” leads us to ask, “Whom does the speaker mourn?  Whom does she wish to fuck?”  Does she mourn her dead lover and seek forgetfulness in her new one, or does she mourn her dead lover and express her sexual desire for him?  “What if the terms of the communion [she] seeks can be realized only by touch, rather than by a thought?” (Haggerty 388).  Then, I suggest, Chin’s only recourse is to write these elegiac love poems through an erotics of grief.

In stanza nine, we are the Irrawaddy, the River of Spirits, in Myanmar.  Here the “you” of the poem floats away among the spirits, and, in Chin’s rendering, we are also once again in the “nada,” a space devoid of “sun,” “moon,” “coming,” “going,” “causality,” “personality,” “hunger,” thirst” (74-75).  Chin shatters the calm with stanzas depicting violence—images of both war and “calamity,” events resulting in overwhelming numbers of death: “ten thousand corpses,” “Malarial deltas typhoidal cays” (75).  Like the ten thousand dead brown boys who become a statistic or the ten thousand corpses in stanza eight, the number in these stanzas seem too many to mourn. 

Unable to mourn the many and needing to mourn the one, the speaker returns to her lover’s body: “You push down my hand        with your bony hand // The fox-hair brush          lifts and bends” (75).  The “you” remains ambiguous.  Is this coupling that of the speaker and her new boyfriend or a remembered encounter between her and her dead lover?  Perhaps one between her present, but absent, lover?  Is this moment full of time or devoid of it? 

I suggest that in Chin’s erotics of grief time becomes overwhelmingly apparent and frustratingly illusive.  Chin’s elegiac eroticism represents the “ruptures, nicks, cuts . . . instances of dislocation” necessary to consider time because time itself “contains no moments or ruptures and has no being or presences, functions only as continuous becoming,” according to Elizabeth Grosz (5).  Eroticism when linked to grieving in Chin’s poetry is that continuous becoming.  In these poems, mourning overwritten with sexual desire for the dead both “stops” time—making us keenly aware of it—and collapses past, present, and future—disorienting us in time.  Thus, this elegiac eroticism makes living bearable, yet the eroticism is excessive as past desires are continuously written onto present and future ones.  Desire becomes endless, perhaps unbearably so, and ending in a place of oblivion, of nothingness—that gesture of pleasure or death—that Paz says is eroticism—perhaps desire is both pleasurable and deadly.

“Beautiful Boyfriend” ends in a place of irresolve: “Surrender           you must         to one love one nation” (76).  Again we ask: Who is this “you”?  The dead lover?  All lovers?  Must we all surrender, and what is the result of surrender?  The end of grief, desire, life or the beginning?

I do not believe that Chin provides an answer, but she closes Hard Love Province with the achingly beautiful, “Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony,” whose title comes from lines in Yeats’s “Long-Legged Fly.”  Chin’s poem circulates within the realm of unceasing desire, an endless erotics of grief, continual being, and a liminally conjoined world.  The first line directs our “gaze beyond the vermilion door”—a reference to a 1965 Chinese film about a complicated love triangle, spanning decades and involving power and dead lovers (78).  As the stanza progresses, we must look far in time and space at the “road’s interminable end,” which, of course, is oxymoronic because interminable means endless, everlasting, ceaseless, a place we cannot see.

The poem is full of movement; the speaker is restless, looking past her present time, her immediate place.  She leads us up “cold cold mountains” and down long valleys, across “broad waters.”  “Twilights become endless,” as she climbs up the steep hill to the monastery of “ten thousand Buddhas” (78).  With the speaker we, too, are restless, searching—for what?  the lover?  Solace?  Nothing suffices.  The journey ends “in the land of missing pronouns” (78).  If these placeholders for persons, places, and things are missing, and we have no evidence that the things themselves populate “the land,” Chin seems to suggest a double absence and to place us in a void.  However, in this void, “[s]un is a continuous performance” (78).  There is no night, no rest, no respite, no turning away from the glare.  The glare, Chin suggests, is unremitting, “and we my love are nothing” (78).  Unlike “Beautiful Boyfriend,” in “Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony,” the you is not ambiguous.  The you is the speaker’s lover.  The you and I do not exist separately; rather, they are a continual being in nothing—in the fullness and emptiness of death.  I suggest that nothing is both the moment of orgasm and death that has pulsed through these elegies in the sexual longing that delineates Chin’s erotics of grief and certainly that Paz implies in his ideas about the erotic evaporating into pleasure or death.   


Works Cited

Amato, Andy, “A Daring Hospitality: Towards a Poetics of Time.” KronoScope 10.1-2 (2010): 49-63.  MLA. Web.

Chin, Marilyn.  Hard Love Province.  New York: Norton, 2015.  Print.

Freud, Sigmund.  “Mourning and Melancholia.”  Trans. James Strachey. The Standard Edition of the Complete  Works of Sigmund Freud.  Volume XIV.  London: The Hogarth Press,     1957. 243-58.

Gosz, Elizabeth. The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely.  Durham: Duke University, 2004.  Print.

Haggerty, George.  “Love and Loss: An Elegy.” GLQ 10:3 (2004): 385-405.  MLA. Web.

Leighton, Angela.  On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.  Print.

Moon, Michael.  “Memorial Rags.”  Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature.  Eds. George Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman.  New York: MLA, 1995. 233-50. Print.

Paz, Octavio.  An Erotic Beyond: Sade.  Trans. Eliot Weinberger.  New York: Harcourt Brace,1998. Print.

---. The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism.  Trans. Helen Lane. Orlando: Harvest Books, 1995. Print.