On "Morocco" by Kendra Grant Malone and Matthew Savoca

Love is a tricky subject to write about, because it makes you feel totally unique while in fact making you extremely common. It tempts you towards self-indulgence and private reference, diverts you with the goals of lovemaking rather than making art, and invests everything it touches a with sentimental value that can blind you to those very flaws. In short, unless your name is Yeats or Akhmatova, you might think twice about writing a whole book of love poems.

In Morocco, Kendra Grant Malone and Matthew Savoca deal with all those potential pitfalls by—true to form—running right at them. As a kind of shared diary of their troubled, abortive relationship, the book was explicitly written by each for the other, so any limitations of the individual poems—and none of them touch the best in Malone’s debut, Everything Is Quiet—seems less a failure of the poets and more the fault of our own (openly invited) voyeurism. More important, the book’s call-and-response structure allows the poems collectively to function on a second level, more like a work of fiction, in which each poet becomes like a character whose limited POV is contextualized by the other, and by the third voice of the narrative they create together.

That narrative could be filed under horror as easily as romance. It’s strange that that the strongest feeling conveyed by a book written by two people ostensibly in love should be overwhelming loneliness and alienation, but that’s what it is. Separated by space, by the fact that both are already in relationships, by fundamental differences of outlook, and by oceans of self-loathing and guilt, Malone and Savoca relentlessly fire and miss in a duel of self-revelation, producing ever more shuddering confessions without, it seems, getting much closer to understanding each other or themselves.

Malone comes out as the better poet—it’s hard to compete with her slashing, halting sense of line, her breaks so counterintuitive yet never wrong, so that you can tell which poems are hers before you even read them (“there was a woman / agonizing that night / she was dying and i am / so cruel / because i loved that black / ocean”). But—maybe not by coincidence—Savoca makes the more vulnerable and thus the more interesting character, trembling with a uniquely masculine kind of abjection that mixes masochistic pleading (“i wish you would tell me / i am not a real man / i want to hear you say / that i could never satisfy you”) with scarily violent clinginess (“your legs like baby trunks / and didn’t i already tell you how / i want to hang them on my wall?”).

For her part, Malone answers such threats and invitations with a more-than-sexual aggression, revealing a very different side from the infinitely compassionate martyr of Everything Is Quiet:

     i still want to see you masturbate
     i want you out lying on the ground
     pawing at my bedroom door
     humping the floor and
     every night

By the time she’s is threatening to “teach / you about your body” and demanding to be called “King Kendra,” it’s clear that BDSM for this couple is less a sexual fetish and more a form of mutual revenge. Since this is really real life, and not fiction, things never spiral to the horrific, bloody conclusion that might be implied. Instead, they just fizzle out under the burden of their own dysfunctionality, in a pair of poems with the suitably pathetic titles “just a little sad” and “ruined.”

But, in a way, that fizzle is scarier than the alternative, because it means this isn’t a story about madness or obsession, it’s just a love story. After literally millennia of poets hopelessly apostrophizing their absent, irremediably silent muses (see the aforementioned Yeats and Akhmatova), a book of love poems written by two poets in dialogue ought to feel refreshing. Instead, Morocco seems to suggest that the only thing more lonely and terrible than one person in love, is two.