How Love Turns You Into a God
Elaine Kahn's poetry encourages us to think of love not as a loss of control, but as a source of power
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Most of what I learned in college was useful. Not practical, often, but socially or existentially helpful. The glaring exception is an idea I picked up God knows where, and clung to for five bleak years: that love meant losing control. True romance, I thought, should feel abject. It should be a descent.
Unsurprisingly, this concept of romance led me away from a very kind boyfriend, and toward a very bad one. It exerted an evil hold over me. I am sure I was not helped by the abundance of movies, books, and television shows in which love appears to be a form of voluntary torture, though, to be fair, I refused the wise counsel of books like Michelle Huneven’s Off Course, which should have served as a warning. I doubt, though, that even I could have denied the force of the poet Elaine Kahn’s audacious second collection Romance or The End, whose speaker starts out believing that romantic “suffering brings women to god” and ends up declaring that she is a god herself. The paired ideas of romance and godliness drive the collection forward. In eight fast-paced sections, Kahn guides her speaker toward a bold new understanding of love not as a loss of control, but as a stepping stone on the way to divine power.
Kahn is not the only contemporary writer to emphasize control and authority as strategies for overcoming restrictive or harmful ideas about romance. Romance or The End falls on a spectrum between sexual-intellectual power stories like Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise and Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Carmen Maria Machado’s shape-shifting memoir of abuse, In the Dream House. Like Kahn, Machado is interested in redefinition, but where she retells the story of her abusive relationship from a dizzying multitude of angles, Kahn moves through time linearly, reorienting not her story but her definition of romance, which changes over the course of the collection from sex to surrender, surrender to dishonesty, and dishonesty to control. At the book’s start, the speaker can’t imagine anything more romantic than being what her partner likes. At the end, her idea of romance is the ability to tell other people, and herself, the truth.
Romance or The End also bears a very light similarity, or else owes a small debt, to the novelist Akwaeke Emezi’s debut Freshwater, whose protagonist, Ada, is ogbanje—a spirit child who returns repeatedly to Earth in different human incarnations. Emezi, too, is ogbanje, and has written nonfiction about their divinity as a source of power. Where Emezi’s fiction and essays are rooted in Igbo ontology, though, Kahn steers away from religious specificity, almost never invoking any one faith or tradition. She always puts the word “god” in lowercase, and, though her speaker claims repeatedly to be a god by the book’s end, she never seems to get any divine powers. Unlike Emezi’s Ada, she can’t talk to gods or spirits, and Kahn gives no indication that her speaker might be immortal or omniscient. She is, however, in control.
In Romance or The End, divinity lies in autonomy. For Kahn, a god is less a deity than a kind of powerful person, which means that just about anyone can become one. The path to divinity is difficult, but that does not make it special or rare. In fact, the opposite is true: divinity is the closest available solution to the problems of conventional romance. This does not mean that Kahn is espousing some kind of self-help-ish goddess-within-you argument. She seems uninterested in the predictable virtues of inner peace and strength. The path she creates for her speaker—and, perhaps, for her reader—leads not to resilience but to ruthlessness. She’s not advocating for romance, ultimately. She’s advocating for lovers to be unafraid of love’s end.
This lack of fear is the core, for Kahn, of godliness. It’s also a major departure from the ideas about romance the speaker has at the collection’s start. When she first falls in love, she understands godliness as a mysterious inner quality that serves mostly for attracting a man. In the book’s opener, “Romeo & Juliet & Elaine,” the speaker watches “Love’s Commercial,” which opens with a woman named Maria saying “hello to Paul / hello,” then “turn[ing] on / like a wide band” when he replies. Paul “wants to fuck / the god inside her,” which seems promising for them both, but the commercial ends dismally: “Maria serves Paul’s emotional and sexual needs / in exchange for pizza.”
The ad prefigures the speaker’s own arc. In the first few sections, she engages little with the idea of divinity, barring one poem in which she grumbles, “Tomorrow I will be as tired as a god.” For the most part, though, she seems focused on building and protecting her relationship, striving first toward “the impossible art of touch” and then, once the relationship’s early sexual heat starts cooling, toward an equally impossible state of contentment. The sourest, most bracing poems in Romance or The End come in the third and fourth sections, in which the speaker grows restless and dissatisfied with her partner. In “A Wish to be Poisoned / What I Want to Touch I Click On,” the speaker, watching television with her partner, thinks irritably, “god / your mind is boring.” In “Alarm,” which beautifully alternates spoken dialogue with the speaker’s parenthetical inner monologue, she resists “(the temptation to flee) / (to freedom),” contenting herself with the thought that “(limitation invokes invincibility).”
The speaker, it seems, believes in this part of the collection that limitation is romantic, or is inherent to romance. She seeks value in the “sacrament of being / held without affection,” which positions her as a worshipper, not a god. She bristles when thinking about marriage, and yet, at the end of “A Wish to be Poisoned / What I Want to Touch I Click On,” declares to her partner, “I decided / I decide / You can do pretty much anything to me.” The next poem, as I interpret it, seems to depict a rape—the dense, repetitive scene that begins “All I Have Ever Wanted Is to Be Sweet” conveys terror and paralysis, or perhaps even an inability to escape. In the following poem, the speaker refers obliquely to an “it” that “happened / so many times,” her evasiveness serving to underscore her earlier fear.
The section of Romance and The End that, to me, evoked sexual assault is brief and stark. Its first poem, “All I Have Ever Wanted Was to Be Sweet,” is both the collection’s most moving and its most formally thrilling. Kahn splits the poem into two parts, perhaps mirroring the speaker’s dissociation from her body or from her fear. In the first half, the speaker repeats herself over and over, rearranging the same sequence of words until the mounting pressure seems to raise issues of consent. Then she shifts into precise, measured couplets, announcing coolly, “to you who say my fall was justly wrought / know this: I paid for more than what I bought.”
Arguably, this line starts the speaker’s transformation into a god. Kahn seems to figure her as either Eve fallen from Eden or a Milton-style Satan fallen from heaven. The former would render her more human, the latter more divine—which, of course, is Kahn’s pick. By the section’s last poem, “Romance,” which reads in full, “Love has turned on me / and now I am its liar,” it seems clear that the speaker intends to become a silver-tongued fallen angel, not a victim of snakes or men. By the next section, which ends with the speaker declaring, “Love turned me into a liar / Lies turned me into a god,” it seems clear that she will succeed.
In Romance and The End’s last three sections, the speaker sets out to free herself from expectations, both social and personal. She shakes away the idea that suffering is good for women, and that invincibility should come with limitation. She accepts her ongoing search for sex and love, but points out that “I can’t transcend a thing / if I’m unable to desire it.” Her goal, then is, to transcend romance, but she remains fallible. She may be a god now, but, like Satan in Paradise Lost, her proximity to divinity doesn’t mean she gets to be happy, or that she gets what she wants. It means, mostly, that she has taken control of her own narrative arc. She gets to determine her own truths, to no longer “consent to destiny,” and to assert, “When I tell myself a story / I decide the end.”
Kahn’s speaker’s new fearlessness in the face of endings indicates that she has shaken off her earlier desire for permanence, which is the ultimate myth of romance. Any marriage, or marriage plot, contains the promise or threat of till death do us part. For a real, immortal god, this would be irrelevant. For Kahn’s speaker, in her minor and earthly divinity, rejecting her old aspiration to a relationship that lasts forever brings her fully into her own power. It teaches her to be truthful with herself, and to “want to be more / than anything I want.”
The double meaning in this line, which comes in the collection’s epilogue, is key to understanding the ways in which the speaker has changed. She could mean simply that she wants to be, meaning to survive, more than she wants anything else. She could also mean that she wants to be more—to exceed expectations, to keep accruing power, to be as godly as a human woman can. Likely, of course, she means both. Romance and The End is a portrait of survival through grandiosity. All its bold claims of divinity coalesce around a very simple idea: no one should have to rely on fate or “providence / who is unqualified.” True power, romantic and otherwise, lies in relying, like a god, on oneself.
Editor’s note: At the publisher’s request, this essay has been edited to clarify that Lily Meyer’s description of the events in “All I Have Ever Wanted Is to Be Sweet” are Meyer’s interpretation alone, and not a reflection of the author’s intent.