“Love Is an Intransitive Verb” by Sarah Etlinger

Sarah Etlinger


Martin says he’s been thinking about the flag
and how he’s come to understand it is not
just the empty symbol. What he loves about it,
he says, is that it can represent all of us, what
the promise of America could be—
he wears it on his sleeve like the badge
of the patron saint of lost causes. We all want
to help one another. I’ve been thinking about him
thinking about the flag. I’ve been thinking I want
to be a person who loves the flag and loves thinking
about America. I want to love so much of this misshapen
and misbegotten abundance, the tattered bug-ridden
underbelly: Rats in the subway. Garbage dumps
and rivers swollen with bacteria. The plastic and refuse
that washes up on beaches as dunnage, shell-hash.
The bacteria that invaded my grandfather’s blood,
turning it septic; my mother’s uterine metastasis,
threatening my own genes like a covenant.
I want to love the politicians, the people who want
to vacuum carbon emissions out of the air.
The billionaires and celebrities who jet off to space
instead of solving world hunger or poverty.
It is easy to love when everything is beautiful.
I want to be a person who can love others
without putting myself into it: the way the sun
embraces the world and highlights its imperfections.
Here’s a cracked abandoned cement wall. Here’s
the withered ancient ivy snaking up its shabby back.
Here’s where the thick vines ruin the view of the window, outline
the jagged stained glass so you can’t see the world
outside anymore. Here’s where ivy grew.

from Poets Respond
May 1, 2022


Sarah Etlinger: “This poem originates from a conversation I had with a friend about the problematic assumptions about the American flag, and how it has become co-opted for certain movements or certain groups of people. When I thought about it, I was also thinking about the story I listened to on NPR about solutions to climate change; one of the many solutions proposed is to vacuum the carbon emissions from the air. The sheer ridiculousness (in my view) of this, and the capaciousness of my friend’s understanding of the promise of America, came together in a wistful onslaught of what I hope we can achieve.” (web)

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