By Adelina Sarkisyan
I remember the one that started it all— the first poem that made me feel like a watercolor painting; all the parts of me beautifully dripping down into each other like my body was a canvas and my feelings; paint. “We spend our whole lives rewriting the first poem we’ve ever loved,” I once read, and I can’t help but agree. Every thought and word that flows out of my fingertips still compares itself to that one Jack Gilbert poem that brought me to my knees. Years have passed since the day I read that poem in college, yet every time I read it again I’m right back to dripping into that old watercolor painting.
It’s a gilded cage filled with gilded butterflies, that first poem— beautiful and utterly impossible. But maybe that is part of the human experience; basing future loves on past ones. That Gilbert poem metaphorically represents every first poem—every first love—in history; the one whole lives are spent trying to rewrite. It’s life imitating art. That first poem is no longer just a feeling but an object; a thing we try to possess again and again in new forms, new definitions, new loves; a petrified heart on display that we now pay a $15 admission to gaze at and yearn for.
“Saudade” is a Portuguese word, untranslatable in English, which means a feeling of nostalgic longing for something or someone you love, which is gone, but might return in the future. This is the chaos— the paradoxical crash of grief and utter joy defining a loss and forging a hope that it might be reborn. It is the love that lives on; the love wanting to be rewritten.
When we remember our first love, we remember that watercolor. Whether good or bad, we look through rose-colored glasses and see a work of art. We hang it up and stare at it, wondering why our next love only uses oil paints. Dismiss the next love. Who wants to feel like an oil painting anyway? Find a new love but the paint doesn’t seem to drip as well; the colors don’t quite exist in the chaos necessary to create ecstasy. Dismiss that love too. Sit and wonder why they don’t tell us they love us in the right way—because there is a right way. We felt it in that first watercolor painting. Wake up the next morning; stare at the watercolor. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite.
But we cannot keep composing requiems for lost poems. Although there is nothing wrong with feeling “saudade” for a first love, as time passes, “saudade” ages into a romanticized ideal— of being in love with love. It would appear to be created by the gods themselves in their image of immaculate perfection. And time does a lot more than romanticize; it makes gods of monsters, and love into art because life imitates art, doesn’t it? We can spend our whole lives trying to rewrite an original; trying to find the chaos of dripping paint inside a new person; trying to feel like that watercolor over and over again. There isn’t enough paint in the world. The one that started it all will always be that— the start. But that’s the grand scheme of things; no love is ever the same.
As beautiful as it sounds, spending a lifetime rewriting the first poem we’ve ever loved sounds a little like sabotage— like living in a constant purgatory, trapped between a yearning for the past and a hope for a future. But if it’s true that we do, whether consciously or unconsciously, I can’t help but wonder if our lives are but moments being reincarnated in time. Maybe that first poem is now the original of a million copies, a million feelings wanting to be just like the first. It is possible that the first poem we love is just the first rise of the tides— one that all others are measured against.
Sabotage or not, that Gilbert poem will always be my first poem— the first time I fell in love with love; of my heart melting down my chest and finding a home in every crevice of my body; every letter, every word, every sentence; every which way it made me feel; how it made me light up. I will hang it on my wall and read it every time I pass by because I can’t forget the chaos it created inside me. And we all have a first poem we can’t forget— a poem so idealized it feels like nothing else can quite compare— our own “saudade.”
But alas, nothing can compete with a ghost. Some days we will still carry that painting in our pockets; the paints will drip down our legs and lay like hued puddles at the soles of our feet. Melancholy and hope will ruminate and stay stagnant in the weaves and folds of our minds. And other days, we will learn to break free of our gilded wings; we will be free to become new paintings—an oil or acrylic—and let that watercolor just hang on the wall, ethereal in all its beauty and chaos.
“The Portuguese call it saudade: a longing for something so indefinite as to be indefinable. Love affairs, miseries of life, the way things were, people already dead, those who left and the ocean that tossed them on the shores of a different land – all things born of the soul that can only be felt.”― Anthony De Sa, “Barnacle Love”