The love I do to you (London: Eyewear Publishing, 2019) establishes a dialogue between both He & She —once lovers— through time and space. The structure of the sonnet adapted to the current language and topics becomes a vessel to transport meaning as long as it stresses the lively effectiveness of a classical form in the same way that occurs with the Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
So, the question is: why to write sonnets in the 21st century? A Sonnet is a classical form originally from Italy back in the 13th century, but later, when expanded to other parts of the world, it acquired its own national identity. Still, it became a synonym of the highest expression of the human spirit, including philosophical resonances of great depth.
In times of big chaos and turmoil, and huge changes in the structure of society, to write poetry in a sonnet format it’s a reminder that human feelings can be best expressed through a structure with a long tradition. Feelings are expressions of the ups and downs of our human lives in constant struggle with time and space —a dialectic fashion that will end in Death—.
The classic form of the Sonnet is also created by the time and space of poetry. Sonnets started being written to express love and despair in times of changes during the transition between the Middle Age and the Renaissance. The Italian Philosopher Antonio Gramsci once wrote, “The old world is dying. The new world is slow to emerge. And in this chiaroscuro, monsters are born.” Sonnets are not monsters like Frankenstein or werewolves, but their presence as a poetic structure, a vehicle of meaning, are a clear sign of a change of Paradigm in the human history.
The Sonnet, as an aesthetic artifact, mirrors the desirable search for spiritual perfection of the human soul; the words, signs, become content and they essentially illustrate our lives in the space-time continuum:
There had been more whisky. I’d cycled home with no shoes,
cruised past the salary-men sleeping it off in flower beds.
‘Make sure you eat a lot of oily fish,’ Kristen said, looking me up
and down. ‘Not having sex is super bad for your knees.’ (33)
Life, ideologies, and feelings have changed through the history of humankind. In addition, cities —places where humans dwell, find love and discover pain— have changed. Otherwise, the Sonnet, a classical structure of poetry, still carries a strong and subtle message: the biological power of Poetry and the joy of being humans. How can one feel humanity without a structure like poetry where feelings can be organized and dissected? Poetry is an organizer of feelings and of the experience of life. By doing so, Poetry introduces us to a process in which its readers and practitioners can understand feelings, but also learn and grow through feelings. And, precisely, this learning experience is intimately connected to the language structure chosen and crafted to explore and express those meanings. Poetry is a laboratory of feelings, and the Sonnet is its pharmakon:
Now, here I was: on my way to see you
despite the way you’d sighed and soon hung up,
desperate to prove Korea was okay, where you wanted to be
when I knew what you really wanted was me. (48)
Under a Sonnet format and divided into three parts, this book’s framework is organised paying attention to the most minimal details of the human organisation in this chaotic world. Maps, addresses and geographical names organise, create, and translate what is known as the reality to the human organism; likewise, feelings allow us to understand our existence. One might not forget that this is a love story of two human beings. Human societies and civilizations create a division line from the unknown, the unexpected, the chaotic world where chaos reigns; likewise, feelings are translated and crafted thru Poetry by humans since the dawn of times.
The reader of The love I do to you will feel transported through different places in the UK, Japan & Korea, but s(he) will experience that these lovers travel inside and outside. However, what remains is the experience of love, the knowledge of being loved once. That is what Mariah Whelan with these sonnets reveals and reminds us: to learn the depth meaning of our humanity by keeping us rowing in the rivers of life and despair, keeping us learning, keeping us knowing, keeping us failing, keeping us feeling and, undoubtedly, bringing to the table the need of structure in our postmodern lives:
But truthfully, we both prefer to meet in public.
Something about crowds, queuing for coffee or at the gate waiting
reminds me of that bible story, how Elizabeth
and the child inside her leapt when they felt Mary nearing. (67)
The reader feels transported up and down by the metaphors —being the dominant metaphors those of waters and rivers— which these sonnets recreate. This is not a journey through a peaceful and calm river but rafting in the rumbling rapids of the Colorado River instead.
This reading experience creates a circuit of knowledge with the past poetic tradition in which love and distress were key ingredients to recall the history of the poetic style, and the intimate need that humans have to communicate through the traditional styles of poetry, the ones that once inspired poets such as Milton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spencer, Donne, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, among many others:
It seemed so simple: book the flight, board the plane
and find you. I’d managed to hitch
my way to the city. I waited for the lights to change
then crossed, trying to figure out which block was yours. (64)
We, humans, are the rivers and the cities. The biggest lesson that this book teaches us is that the dialectic of meaning and feelings producing knowledge can be achieved through the poetic experience of the sublime. The love I do to you by Mariah Whelan is the love story of two people, and it evokes with its sonnets a path of meaning and feelings in which the search of love thru maps and geographies is, simultaneously, the exploration of ourselves.
Mariah Whelan (Oxford, UK) is a poet and writer based in Oxford. She is the author of The love i do to you which was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Prize, won the AM Heath Prize and was the Oxford Poetry Library’s Book of the Month in February 2020. She holds degrees from Queen’s University Belfast, The University of Oxford and a PhD from The University of Manchester where she completed a creative-critical thesis on trauma and representation in contemporary fiction. Mariah is the Jacqueline Bardsley Poet-in-Residence at The University of Cambridge and one of the founding editors of bath magg, a digital magazine of the best new UK and international poetry. Also, she collaborates at La Ninfa Eco UK.