C. E. Chaffin


In the summer of 1999 I was touring the States via Greyhound, trying to connect with poet friends I'd met online as well as give a few readings back east. One of the last friends I met was the winner of our magazine's first poetry competition, Kathleen Carbone. We had been corresponding for a year during her husband's illness and death. As a friend I had tried to support her, as a doctor I tried to keep reality in the forefront regarding his terminal illness. I arrived just in time for the wake, which I helped her set up.

After a couple of days it was clear some form of magic was going on. I had never been in love, was no romantic, believing that love should be the result and not the reason for marriage. All of that changed overnight upon meeting Kathleen. And during the first week I stayed there, my wife sent me an e-mail stating that she was leaving, which left me free. Yes, I wept over that (six years of marriage), but as it turned out, I wept in Kathleen's arms. I never felt such emotional freedom before, such a soft landing, soft as her face. I had also managed to get drunk over it, and she put up with that, too.

I remember first learning she was deaf fairly deep into our correspondence, and how it floored me. I grieved for her for three days, but as she was born deaf she could never share the same grief, not knowing what she was missing. Thus I wrote one poem for her before we'd even met, “To One Who Has Never Heard Birdsong.” The poem ends with the call of a loon, and strangely, with the help of a hearing aid, that is the one bird sound that Kathleen could hear readily. She hears, in one ear, about 5% of the very lowest base component of hearing, things like motors and buses and foghorns. I also wrote a poem whose theme was to comfort her over her husband's death, describing a future of suffering for him until his release from this mortal coil. It was called “On Her Dying Husband.” Heavy stuff, I know, but death is heavy and the thought of a deaf widow in upstate New York alone did not sit well with me at all.

It was after that first drunken comfort in her arms that I began writing love poems, the first in fact about that very experience. I couldn't help myself: I was a poet in love for the first time at 45! Nearly ten years have passed and we are still passionately in love despite our disabilities. Besides being deaf, she, too, suffers from recurrent depression while I suffer manic-depression and chronic pain. But when I look into her soft face none of this matters. I like to say to her, “You are my home.” And truly she is. Wherever she is is my home, no matter what geography may currently serve us.

Love poems are difficult because so much has been written on the subject and it is hard to top the Elizabethans. Nevertheless I ventured gamely on. I think the fact that Kathleen is deaf has actually been an advantage in my compositions, as I often acknowledge her deafness and try to imagine what her world of relative silence must be like.

Some of my love poems, like “Easier,” just flowed as gifts from my pen. Others required a great deal of work. It is hard to strike just the right note in a love poem, to avoid maudlin affection and include some substance, some angle of love perhaps not previously explored, or at least given a new form. If there is a love poet I prize it is John Donne, but I didn't want the complication of his enduring intellect to intrude on my own work, which is more impressionistic.

Here is an example of a love poem falling short that needed revision to past muster. The first stanza of "Apart" went like this:

You read me Eliot on your veranda
in New York, your heels on my hips,
silver-haired you,
sexy in Ann Margaret leotards,
your hearing aid and glasses
but superficial disincentives
to stupefy the callow.

The second stanza proceeds:

Here on the west coast
twenty floors above the traffic,
distant pier lights are luminous pillars
wavering in the harbor's black mirror,
looking as if they rose from the sea floor.

After deleting an unnecessary phrase from the second stanza (“on the west coast”) I realized that the the second stanza as a whole was stronger for the beginning of a poem, which led me to eliminate the entire first stanza as too much extraneous telling. Also the switch in diction from Ann Margaret comparisons to these somewhat stilted lines (perhaps influenced by Eliot), I found a jarring transition:

your hearing aid and glasses
but superficial disincentives
to stupefy the callow.

Notice how the last two lines lose emotion in the reification of language, language too pedantic to truly capture the portrait of the lover. If there is any dictum in poetry, it must be “When in doubt / throw it out.” If poetry is language distilled into its most powerful form, any detour that takes away from the whole must be tossed outright and can only rarely be redeemed by a re-write. This is how I, in a piecemeal fashion, polish drafts. Most of it is done by plain deletion. Then there are often breaches of diction to repair, breaches of style, continuity, and lastly one wants to make the substance as clear as possible without obscurantism. The poem must make its experience plain for the common reader. There is too much self-indulgence among poets today where the reader is left guessing what the poem was all about. I try to avoid this like the plague it is.

My love for Kathleen will always be tinged with a little regret for her deafness, not for my sake but for hers. As she has said, “My deafness made me.” And as I have said, being manic-depressive is the single most powerful fact in the formulation of my life. Managing my chronic illness must come first or I'm no good to anybody.

Some of my poems for Kathleen have been encomiums to her nature, others describe her beauty when asleep, and others recount our interactions together, but it is clear that the narrator is smitten in each example. There is no greater muse than Eros, I suppose, though our relationship also extends to Agape. Every day I marvel at Kathleen's beauty, grace and intelligence, and I can be inspired by her at any time. Still, likely only a third of my love poems pass muster for publication, as I am picky and unwilling to release the lesser poems. Some of the best have been gathered in the book Unexpected Light: Selected Poems and Love Poems 1998-2008, recently reviewed in Wordgathering.

In my discipline for National Poetry Month I've been writing a poem a day. Today's was the first love poem I'd written in the month. I offer the draft because it shows how in Kathleen I have a constant inspiration for poetry, a subject I can always return to with passion.

Now You Have

On the porch with the Mendocino-blue ocean
before us, Icelandic poppies and apricot twist
and lavender striving towards summer,
I long for you. Beside you in the car
I long for you, even as I hold you in your sleep.
When you must be away I busy myself
while your magnet draws the iron filings of my adoration.

It's not like you were queen—no, that's partly it—
you are my worry stone, my Celtic rose,
my dolmen and my Grail.

Again I notice your legs, creamy and muscular,
your breasts beneath the halter top,
your ass wrapped in black canvas shorts,
but above all your soft face telling me,
“You don't have to do the laundry today, let's spend it together.”
That's where I'd rather be than anywhere,
whether your coronation or me reading
these few lines at Carnegie Hall. I know the same
obtains for you. Each morning we repeat,
“Have I told you today that I love you?”
And the refrain, “Now you have.”


C. E. Chaffin, M.D. FAAFP, lives in Northern California with his wife and true love, fellow poet Kathleen Chaffin. He suffers from manic-depression and chronic spinal pain and has been on disability since 1995, but finds time to volunteer with the homeless, mentally ill, and as a "Master Gardener" through the University of California. Widely published, he edited The Melic Review for eight years. Shoe size: same as mouth.