The Shape (and Choice) of Love

© Tanaya Winder

An essay by performance poet, writer, and educator Tanaya Winder on coping with loss, and how poetic form, song, and Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love” helped her to “greet herself at the door.”

I’d like to think my story is always beginning, that I am always becoming. Each day I learn something new, a soul lesson. These lessons are often about the world around me, the people I interact with, new realizations about myself and the people I love(d).

Some lessons unwrap beautifully like poetry, like light reflecting off water, acting as a much-needed mirror to reflect back all the light we cannot always see on our own. Others roll in like thunder and storm their way into your heart until it floods, washing away everything you thought you knew about life and love. Your heartscape is forever changed.

* * *

As an Indigenous womxn writer who also struggles balancing living in two cultural worlds and confronts colonialism daily, I found hope in Derek Walcott’s poetry.

My ruminations on love came to the forefront again this month, particularly after hearing about the passing of Derek Walcott. I first became introduced to Walcott’s work during my sophomore year at Stanford. My professor was teaching a class on epic poems and we read Walcott’s Omeros. At the time I was obsessed with metaphysical poetry, losing myself in the words of Wallace Stevens, John Donne, and for me, Walcott’s work was magic. As an Indigenous womxn writer who also struggles balancing living in two cultural worlds and confronts colonialism daily, I found hope in Derek Walcott’s poetry. I still strive to be the versatile writer Walcott is acknowledged as. Walcott was a poet who played with form and my young-Indigenous-writer-self loved that his work didn’t always follow a linear path. Love exists outside of time and space and so any work that interrogates, plays with, and expands our knowing of its universal force pulls me in by my heartstrings.

As a poet, I am pulled into moments. Whenever I feel lost in orbit, I gravitate to memory, the timeline of lessons learned in rupture. If you zoomed-in on my last heart rupture near end of summer 2016 you’d find me driving home in tears, barely able to see the road in front of me. On the radio, James Blunt’s Goodbye My Lover came over the speakers. It’d been years since I heard that song, a song that held so many of my memories of a loved one I lost in 2007. After he died, I used to play it on repeat contemplating his suicide, the why’s, the how’s, and I drowned in my grief, the guilt that I could have done something to stop that storm from happening.

***

As an artist I give form to my poetry each time I organize lines into their rooms, stanzas of understanding. I consciously think about where I break a line, because in life I don’t always get to choose my breaking points (these are often discovered along the way).

This was the point on my timeline where metaphysical poetry saved me. In 2007, at 22 years of age, I’d taken an independent study on John Donne and Wallace Stevens. I became obsessed with “The Snow Man” and contemplated my own coldness, “one must have a mind of winter / to regard the frost and the boughs.” Everything was connected and you could feel it, see it, even hear it if you became “…the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Trying to understand loss, death, grieving felt like an abyss, like whitespace, like holding everything and nothing all at once.

So I turned to Donne and his Holy Sonnets, particularly “Death, be not proud,” with the famous lines we all know too well “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” I first learned form from Eavan Boland during my Introduction to Poetics class. I often return to “The Making of a Poem,” edited by Boland and Mark Strand, whenever I need to feel form again (if that makes sense). In the history of a sonnet’s form, the book describes its shape:

“One strong opening statement of eight lines is followed by a resolution to the emotional or intellectual question of the first part of the poem. This shape made the sonnet a self-sufficient form, open to shades of mood and tone…The powerful and enriching development of the sonnet in the English language certainly owes something to the fact that it presented poets with this choice. On the one hand, there was the Shakespearean sonnet, with its three quatrains and final couplet, which allowed a fairly free association of images to develop lyrically toward a conclusion. Or there was the Petrarchan sonnet as Milton used it in ‘On His Blindness,’ with all the dignity of proposal and response.”

As human beings we are all self-sufficient forms. We live, we learn, we lose, and eventually we move on from this world. But, I wonder what are the shapes of grief, loss, and love? As an artist I give form to my poetry each time I organize lines into their rooms, stanzas of understanding. I consciously think about where I break a line, because in life I don’t always get to choose my breaking points (these are often discovered along the way). We don’t always get to choose what happens to us, but we can choose the way we see or perceive it.

* * *

But now, the poet and writer in me ever conscious of language and the words “chose,” “choose,” and “choice.” I choose me. I choose happiness. I choose it see it as the end of me settling for less than I deserve and the strong opening to me knowing my worth.

9 years later I was at another position of choice and a question: would this break me? Or would it become a strong opening statement to whatever came after? Hearing Goodbye My Lover on a warm summer night freshly wounded post-breakup with someone I thought I loved, all of those memories flooded back to me as I drove home on roads I was all too familiar with. I thought, how fucking poetic, this song of all songs to come on the radio. I thought “it must be a sign,” this song is associated with my heart/breaking and I wondered if that song would now always remind me of this man instead of my friend who I’d lost years before.

“I’d been ‘here’ before,” my mantra on repeat as he stood beside the car telling me he was choosing to be with someone else. “I’ve been here before,” I told him. In so many senses of the word “here” I had been in a similar situation years ago with another ‘he’ who chose another partner over me. That’s how I saw it, then. But now, the poet and writer in me ever conscious of language and the words “chose,” “choose,” and “choice.” I choose me. I choose happiness. I choose it see it as the end of me settling for less than I deserve and the strong opening to me knowing my worth.

Time. I have such a complicated relationship with time. Often we feel like there isn’t enough of it. Time to sleep, exercise, work, breathe, laugh, and love. But, time also gifts. In its passage, time provides perspective…

***

Recently, Goodbye My Lover came up on a playlist I rarely listen to anymore. Then time hit me with the weight of wisdom. Hearing the song back then during the breakup wasn’t a sign about the person breaking up with me. In fact, it had nothing to do with him (not at all.) But, it had everything to do with me. The song was a sign for me, a subliminal message from my friend who died and still watches over me. It was a reminder of everything I’ve survived, a message to let me know — everything was going to be all right. I was going to be all right. My heart would survive him.

Six months after the heartbreak, I visited the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota to do an artist residency working with 6th and 7th graders. During our last morning there the teacher shared daily facts.
 
 “Did You Know?
The heart has four chambers, the left and right atrium and the left and right ventricles. ‘Atrium’ is the Latin word for entrance hall and ‘ventricle’ is the Latin word for belly.

There is no way I could have stopped this storm from happening; so I’m grateful for the rupture; it reminded me about what I am most passionate about — poetry, running, working with youth, collaborating with artists, uplifting other people, and always returning to heartwork.

He and his love went straight through my once hardened hallways to make me (and my heart) softer. My belly full of love and light finally satiated its hunger and now I know what I am looking for. Now, my heartscape forever changed, I know what I deserve.

Even though it didn’t work out and part of me still longs for the love he and I shared, deep down I know in my gut it was for the best. It was the kind of all-consuming love that would have taken everything I had. I would have given so much of myself to him that I would’ve lost myself there. I would have made his dreams more important than mine and I would have died in his love (the artist in me anyway). 
 
 There is no way I could have stopped this storm from happening; so I’m grateful for the rupture; it reminded me about what I am most passionate about — poetry, running, working with youth, collaborating with artists, uplifting other people, and always returning to heartwork. Most of all, I am still (and always will be) passionate about love and its unstoppable force to bring about revolutionary, radical light.

***

Walcott’s poetry and his legacy will live on and I am grateful for the reminder in the power of poetry. “Love after love” came right when I needed it.

10 years ago my friend committed suicide and 1 year ago I started to fall in love with someone I didn’t know would break my heart. Maybe each loss comes with its own lesson. Each loss affects each of us differently. Walcott’s poetry and his legacy will live on and I am grateful for the reminder in the power of poetry. “Love after love” came right when I needed it.

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

The time will come
 when, with elation,
 you will greet yourself arriving
 at your own door, in your own mirror,
 and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
 You will love again the stranger who was your self.
 Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
 to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
 for another, who knows you by heart.
 Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
 peel your own image from the mirror.
 Sit. Feast on your life.

And so, here I sit, greeting myself at the door, with the words and poetry that have always been the familiar stranger at my heart of hearts, reminding me that some lessons come softly, others burn like wild fire and these are often the most important lessons because they come so intensely and quickly, but they always present you with a choice. Become engulfed by the flames and burn, then wait to rise born anew from the ashes. Or, transform into flame, becoming the fire itself. You can choose to be a fire burning brightly, igniting healing and passion into other hearts because you survived the very elements that tried to defeat you.

My story is about practicing love (for self, the journey, the path) and acceptance. You learn from the past and you let go of what doesn’t serve you because there is never a reason to keep something or someone who is incapable of holding all the wonderful, overflowing light you are.

My story is about practicing love (for self, the journey, the path) and acceptance. You learn from the past and you let go of what doesn’t serve you because there is never a reason to keep something or someone who is incapable of holding all the wonderful, overflowing light you are. I am grateful for the path and the lessons of the past, but I know now (and I am learning more and more each day) that I’m not meant to live there, not even in memory especially when there is so much wonder and beauty in front of me.

Tanaya Winder is a writer, educator, motivational speaker, and performance poet from the Southern Ute, Duckwater Shoshone, and Pyramid Lake Paiute Nations. She grew up on the Southern Ute Indian reservation and attended college at Stanford University where she earned a BA in English and the University of New Mexico where she received an MFA in creative writing. Since then she has co-founded As/Us: A Space for Women of the World and founded Dream Warriors, an Indigenous artist management company. She guest lectures, teaches creative writing workshops, and speaks at high schools, universities, and communities internationally. Tanaya writes and teaches about different expressions of love (self love, intimate love, social love, community love, and universal love); she is an advocate of heartwork and believes everyone has a gift they’ve been placed on this earth to share.