“You must sit down and taste my meat,” says Love to his guest in the penultimate line of the final poem of seventeenth-century British poet George Herbert’s collection, The Temple. “I don’t think there could be a less polite way of saying that,” writes Aaron Kunin in his little brick of a book concerning this poem, titled, after its subject, Love Three (Wave 2019). “What Love says could be written in a toilet stall,” Kunin notes, yet because of Herbert’s consistency of style, it strikes many readers as sweet. Sweetness “overpowers every other suggestion” (5). It was just about here, five pages in, that I began to feel a desire to write about this extraordinary book. Something about Kunin’s framing of the poem’s underlying aggression got to me. That’s the magic of Love Three. It sneaks up on you, then overpowers you. The relentless, titillating, intellectual pleasure of it. Of candor, of clear, unfashionable, insight, Kunin’s Love Three is a masterpiece.
The title, Love Three, refers to Herbert’s poem, “Love (3).” The parenthetically caged Arabic numeral in the poem’s title distinguishes it from Herbert’s “Love I” and “Love II,” which come earlier in The Temple. In addition to Herbert’s poem, Kunin’s title also refers to a “third kind of love.” The kind Kunin likes best: neither nice nor nasty, but “nice because it’s nasty” (1). More on that to follow. He opens with a short preface outlining the book’s methodology, which though meant to be helpful I didn’t find particularly descriptive of my reading experience. And it’s kind of bossy.
A 322-page prose book about an 18-line poem, Love Three moves with a circular logic and strategically uses repetition. Like a lyric poem. Like desire. In patterned echoes earlier quadrants are illuminated in sections to come. Catlike, Love Three worries and toys with its topic. It makes you feel lost and located at once. For this and for so much else, I love it.
According to Love Three, love is a calculation of domination and submission. Master and servant. These are not social categories but unstable and relational positions between persons (or persons and their personified gods). Or persons and literature (Kunin might say “rhetoric”). Because Herbert’s poem knows this, it becomes for Kunin a key (his word) to understanding his own sexual history. It also illuminates what was misleading in his education about power. “No one ever showed me a way to talk about what was attractive in power,” he writes. “My teachers and friends, who made power seem unsexy, I assume were not into it” (115). Herbert’s “Love (3)” teaches Kunin a truth about power, which is often mystified by being mixed up with ideology. Kunin eroticizes power. Especially, but not only, rhetorical power. Yet, as he states in one of the many assertions that punctuate Love Three: “No human being eroticizes ideology” (115). True. Yet ideologically circumscribed figures most certainly can be and are eroticized. A person may metonymically stand in for power; a person, or a personified emotion, like Love in Herbert’s poem.
Herbert’s poem helps Kunin think about power. Yet “Herbert’s thing with power is not exactly the same as my thing,” he writes, rejecting, rather unconvincingly, any simple identification with his subject matter. What is this “thing” that is his? Kunin clarifies, “when I put my thing, my human possibility, alongside Herbert’s, I can see a little better. Standing next to each other, we disclose our interests clearly” (308). Not a mirror, but corrective lenses: “[M]y human possibility.” Not what is, but what might be. Not what I know, but what I don’t yet know. Not what I thought I was doing, but what I was actually doing.
Thinking about the eroticization of power is a central project of Love Three, fulfilled in great measure by an examination of servitude. Upon my second reading I started to count the instances of the word “serve” or “service,” but not being of a systematic character I forgot I was doing this and eventually lost track. I am nevertheless confident in asserting that service comes up a lot. Kunin sees servitude as a kind of power (a Hegelian shadow here, never alluded to). The servant in Herbert’s “Love (3)” doggedly clings to the power of his servitude, his unworthiness, and his degradation, which Kunin interprets this way: “My inferiority is more powerful than your superiority” (57). The disingenuous innocence of the poem’s speaker combines with his final humiliation by Love (denying him his servitude) to rhetorically mirror a catalog of Buster Keatonesque sexual experiments with various forms of humiliation (bondage, pain, golden showers, etc.) in Kunin’s own life. The most satisfying are those that deny Kunin what he most desires: rhetorical power.The powerful erotic experience of being shut up, of having his voice taken away. Given the centrality of the voice to the poet, this is indeed a high order cruelty.Herbert’s poem also fetishizes the denial of other senses: sight in particular: “I cannot look on thee,” or, in Kunin’s critical rephrasing: “my most perverse, inexplicable desire, to be forbidden the sight of your face, the face I most want to see” (271). The face of Love, the face of your Lord and Master.
Kunin constrasts Herbert’s devotion to serving with John Donne’s competitiveness. Herbert’s speaker wishes to be “as skilled at submitting as [Love] is at dominating,” while Donne “tops from the bottom” (13; 16). He is a “do-me princess” who “tells God how to dominate him” (16). Herbert is content, even pleased, to serve and wait for orders from his master, Love. In several sections of Love Three, Kunin translates the servant’s experience of Love’s mastery as one of being relieved of the responsibility of desire: “You express desire but allow me to remain untainted by desire. You indulge my fear of rejection. You express desire so that I don’t have to” (24). I have no voice, therefore I cannot express anything. “The only one who talks about enjoying this scene is you. Thus you leave me the protection of not wanting you” (43). I keep my distance, both from you and from my own desire. Love takes the rap. The servant gets off.
T. S. Eliot writes that at “university Herbert was . . . sober and staid in his conduct and diligent in his studies, he was given particular attention by the Master. It was said of him, however, that he was careful to be well, even expensively dressed; and that his attitude toward his fellow undergraduates of a lower social position was distant, if not supercilious” (56). Slight adjective changes could make this a portrait of the Aaron Kunin I met in the 1990s, when he was an undergraduate at Brown University. Herbert’s sense of superiority, according to Eliot, came from his noble family, whereas Kunin’s source was confidence in his intellect as well as a passionate dedication to his own peculiarities. In Love Three he tells a story about how half the kids in his fourth-grade class, when asked to write an essay about “the most interesting person you know,” wrote about him. He attributes this not to his superiority, but to his eccentricity, describing himself as “[a] strange kid who wears a bowler hat and other old-fashioned clothes, isn’t interested in computers, and likes to read out loud and sing” (264). He “recognized no peer” and therefore felt no pressure, nor apparently was he ever bullied, despite being a fine-boned kinky-haired redhead, the weakling-type boy bullies like. I believe him.
Both George Herbert and Aaron Kunin resemble their mothers. “In George,” Eliot writes, contrasting the poet to his older brother, “of frailer constitution and contemplative mind we seem to find more Magdalen [Herbert].” “We look very much alike,” Kunin tells us of his mother. We are “close in temperament.” And though in his reading of Elias Canetti Kunin writes that “Maternity is the closest thing to absolute power in human experience,” his relationship with his own mother “does not appear to be one of domination and submission” (122; 98). Not like the one between Love and the guest in “Love (3).”
Kunin’s literary critical voice in Love Three wears the mask of the speaker in Herbert’s poem. A doubling. This first happens when Kunin asks, eleven pages in, “What am I like?” Answer: “I am brutally honest. / I think I am brutally honest. / I think I know what I deserve.” This query is a confession, but also a critical observation: what is the “I” of Herbert’s poem like? What is Aaron Kunin like? At the end of the book this same pronominal doppëlganger tells the reader, “You shouldn’t trust me.” Who is this me? Why shouldn’t we trust him? Well, because he admits that he is “given to complaining about folks called Love.” That sounds like Herbert, a poet who wrote several poems about right and wrong kinds of love, including two early sonnets. And it sounds like Kunin, who uses colloquialisms like “folks,” or “[g]et it while it’s hot,” or “is there a fucking problem,” in exploring the tonal range of Herbert’s poem (3; 31). Caught in this clever conflation I, as reader, feel rhetorically dominated, though I probably would never have used the word “domination” to describe this experience before reading this book. I would have spoken of interest, curiosity, mystery. I might have even spoken of love.
In this effect, I recognize that Kunin has done something remarkable: he has written a critical work that acts a lot like a lyric poem. Kunin puzzles over who Herbert imagines as the audience for the conversation reported in “Love (3).” “To whom am I telling my story?” he asks in the voice of the poem’s speaker (85). He speculates it could be Herbert’s mother. But why can’t it just be the reader of the poem? Lyric’s triangulated address performs this magic: we read an intimate conversation between an “I” and a “you” and though we are neither the poem allows us to be both. No need for names. The sense that what’s being spoken is happening in real time is another lyric effect. “Sometimes Love speaks in the present,” Kunin asserts, immediately following “Today I seem to be writing ‘Love’ rather than ‘you’” (59; 58). This “I” who is writing “Love” could be Herbert, but reads more compellingly as Kunin. Though we are reading a printed book, the writing is happening “today.” Right now. In the present.
Another of the delights of Love Three is Kunin’s respectful disagreement with the established critical canon regarding the interpretation of “Love (3).” T. S. Eliot describes the poem as a document of “serenity finally attained” by a “proud and humble man” (82). Ann Pasternak Slater says “Love (3)” is Herbert’s “best poem” at which “Christ serves and man is the undeserving, beloved guest” at the “mystical repast” which is Heaven (xv-vi). Helen Vendler calls it “the most exquisite poem in English expressing the time when faith and hope . . . are dissolved, and pure sweetness returns forever” (24). Stanley Fish says it’s about God and Man being of a single substance (Kunin, 211). It is difficult to accept the deep-breath, I’ve-finally-made-it-to-heaven, ambiance of “Love (3)” implied in these readings after journeying through Kunin’s book. In his hands the poem reveals itself as an erotically-charged intricate calculus of rhetorical domination and submission. The experience described in “Love (3)” bears more resemblance to a very tense first date between two figures who have up to this point only known each other virtually than to a gentle (or gentile) welcoming of a humble servant to the house of his Lord.
“We don’t need a lot of equipment. Only your body, my body, your imagination, and my fantasy,” Kunin writes, contrasting the economy of Herbert’s poem with the more typical props associated with sexualized power play: “A throne, a crown, collars, cuffs, gags, hoods, frames, cages, devices, pieces of furniture, costumes, leather, metal” (45). Such an exhausting catalog! But in Herbert’s poem, “You and I make power together.” With words.
There’s also an elegant simplicity to Kunin’s critical method, no need for a fancy theoretical framework: “my secret is that what the poem says is what it’s about,” he writes, dismissing the critics who look for what isn’t there: such as a dormant pun on the word “host” (Stephen Booth) or historically coded sexual meanings (Schoenfeldt). But wait, isn’t Kunin’s reading participating in an “excavation of codes of sex”—in this case contemporary codes—in “Love (3)”? Maybe. But Kunin makes no claims about secondary or hidden meanings to support his interpretation. He never writes: “Love (3)” is a poem about BDSM sex. Because that would be ridiculous. What the poem says is what it’s about: love. And love, according to Kunin, is about domination and submission. But then how does Kunin get from love to sex (the latter of which he excludes from Herbert’s meaning)? “Mainly Love dominates me verbally,” he notes, ventriloquizing Herbert’s speaker. The verbal mastery of the figure of Love in Herbert’s poem equates to Kunin’s sexual triggers. “I find rhetorical power interesting, and even sexually exciting, no matter where it appears,” he admits.
That love, at least in the tradition of lyric poetry, is about domination and submission, is hard to refute. It’s there in Sappho: for if she flees, soon she will follow . . . even unwilling. “Maybe if critics were honest they would say that they don’t like love; they like equality,” writes Kunin. He wonders whether our culture, and its literary tradition, hates women, and therefore “no matter how the poet feels, the tradition has only tools of hate.” I hear in these words echoes of Audre Lorde: The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Should we, therefore, torch the library? If “love is to be salvaged,” Kunin wonders, then perhaps “its tradition might have to be cut loose” (100-101). That might be a solution. Though poems about equality may serve utopian visions, they will not be an honest account of desire. I like Kunin’s approach better: let’s quit lying to ourselves about love.
Though Herbert’s “Love (3)” is a seventeenth-century poem, the kind of love it describes was invented in eleventh-century Provence. An erotic love modelled on the economic relationship between a vassal and his lord: “A lover is obedient; when he is completely in love, he performs his beloved’s pleasure eagerly and promptly,” says the narrator in Chrétien de Troyes’s the Knight of the Cart, a twelfth-century tale which stars the tradition’s greatest adherent to this, as C. S. Lewis called it, “religion” of love: Lancelot of the Lake. In the Knight of the Cart he slices his hands and feet to bits crossing the sword bridge to reach an imprisoned queen Guinevere, after which she upbraids him for having hesitated for two seconds before humiliating himself for her sake by climbing into a cart used to transport the lowest scum of the town. When the queen orders Lancelot to “halt” in the midst of a sword fight, even when his opponent strikes him with “all his force,” “Lancelot [does] not stir” (216). At the behest of the queen he becomes an object, a piece of furniture. The young Kunin displayed something like Lancelot’s indifference to his physical well-being in an invented game: lying under a pile of bean bags “so that I couldn’t see, breathe, or move,” while his sisters “tried to balance on top, until they slid off” (52). A game which he finds “disturbingly close to fantasies about human furniture that [he] entertained later in life” (53).
This Medieval love tradition is filled with blood-letting and humiliation. The feminization of the male body. It was so powerful a cultural force that the author of the thirteen-century Queste del Saint Graal transferred this secular love into a sacred quest. That book recounts many acts of extreme male masochism in the search for God’s grace and forgiveness. The feudalization of love turned what had been in the classical world a “madness” into an intricate game of domination and submission. This is what is often sanitized into the mannerly rituals of what we call “courtly love,” which has been critiqued for putting women on a pedestal. It may also have been a highly elaborate and erotically compelling way to experiment with desecrating the male body. At least in books.
Power play is usually represented as humorless, but the absurd extremes in these medieval tales can often be quite funny. That may be the historical distance. In Love Three Kunin creates a similar paradox. Even when he’s writing about deadly sexual experiments, there’s humor. It’s the deadpan humor of socially inappropriate honesty. Kunin’s trial-and-error quest to enact his sexual fantasies can serve to illustrate, by analogy, the refinements of non-erotic aesthetic taste. If there is such a thing. He tells us that his first experiences with masturbation, for example, were not “as the literature described” (referring to a book on sexual development his parent’s owned). He shares with us his unique pornography: personal ads, a French magazine, the Marquis de Sade. “The parts about bondage and torture were interesting to me but I was indifferent to the vanilla sex acts, disturbed by the mutilation, confused by the emphasis on blasphemy, and turned off by the scenes with shit” (145). This frank catalog illustrates the dangers of unedited aesthetic terrain. De Sade’s catholic inclusion of every perversion, while intended to leave no reader unoffended, is tedious and flattening in extremis. Such are the dangers of porn: in those woods you are as likely to stumble upon scenes that destroy your excitement as those that serve it. The same may be said of anthologies of poems.
Elsewhere Kunin calls himself “intuitive, uncontrolled, confused” (74). A childhood memory about unthinkingly stripping off his bathing suit in view of “other kids” after swimming in a creek at day camp seems to affirm this self-characterization. The natural thing to do, to remove the wet suit, was socially inappropriate. He exposed himself. It was humiliating. But Kunin is grateful that, as an adult, he has “learned to eroticize humiliation.” This ability, he writes, “has enriched [his] life” (200). This “intuitive, uncontrolled, confused” writer complains that he’s “never learned to achieve” a consistency of style (273). Perhaps he doesn’t want to, liking the “effects made possible by inconsistency” (5). A consistency of style such as Herbert’s “can accommodate basically any material,” Kunin claims. Given the breadth of material Kunin accommodates in Love Three, I cannot take this plaint too seriously.
Kunin’s book has led me to realize how extraordinarily ill-served George Herbert has been by poetry anthologies. “Easter Wings” and “The Altar.” That is usually it. To my delight, Kunin includes readings of several Herbert poems in addition to “Love (3),” including “The Quidditie,” “The Agonie,” “The Flower,” “Superliminare,” “Longing,” “Dialogue,” “Rest,” “The Forerunners,” “The Sacrifice,” “The Glance,” “Thanksgiving,” “The Quip,” and “Vertue.” Many of his readings, such as that of “The Flower,” provide evidence that Herbert viewed love and power as one and the same, supporting Kunin’s central thesis about “Love (3).” But some are used to make other points. For example, Kunin shows how “The Quidditie” uses a series of negations to define poetry. It is not “the world,” but rather, “makes a hole in the world through which you go somewhere else” (275). For Herbert, that “somewhere else” is with his God (277). This concept of a “hole in the world” is one of the finest descriptions I’ve read of what great poems do. Though I might describe the “somewhere else” differently than Herbert, I recognize the experience of going there in both the writing and reading of poems.
In Herbert as a devotional Christian poet, Love Three isn’t particularly interested. Though a Christian reading of “Love (3)” is hard to ignore, Kunin manages it, and even pushes against it. “You know, it just occurred to me,” he tells us in another fine instance of lyric presentness, “what’s great about calling Herbert’s book The Temple is that the temple in question could be a place of worship for practically any religion,” he writes. “If anything, ‘temple’ has a slightly Jewish flavor” (188). Kunin asserts that in “Love (3)” Herbert’s language “doesn’t tend to make biblical or ecclesiastical allusions” (189). “[D]oesn’t tend” is very hedgy. As Kunin well knows, because Vendler points it out, a passage from Luke 13:37 is the biblical source: “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching . . . he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them” (Invisible 86n11). But Kunin insists, as if defending the honor of his subject, that Herbert didn’t want to make his poem “too Christian.” Not even the obvious equation, God is Love, is at work here according to Kunin, who facetiously asks, “But where is god in this poem?” No matter. There are plenty of strictly Christian readings of “Love (3)” out there for those who need them. Kunin is doing something else.
Love Three is a book that only he could have written. It is the book he was born to write. A book about a seventeenth-century poem in which the personification of Love commands a poet who feels “guiltie of dust and sinne” to “taste” his meat. A book about a poem in which Kunin sees a list of his own “sexual preferences, interests, fantasies, and limits,” as if Herbert had “plagiarized by anticipation” Kunin’s “defense of desiring humiliation.” A poem which aids Kunin in making the argument that his particular sexual preference is not only a choice, but the “best choice” (158). A poem in which, Kunin finishes by pointing out, somewhat cagily, “No one says love . . .” and “No one says, ‘I love you’” (166). Kunin also uses the occasion of writing about “Love (3)” to insert piquant micro essays on other topics: such as the humanities (a treasure no one wants), politics (not interesting), Canetti (swaps sex for food), and courtesy manuals (wrong but better than nothing).
George Herbert’s poem is for Kunin what Roland Barthes called a texte d’appui. One of those “texts we always seem to be in conversation with, whether directly or indirectly; the texts that enable us to say or write anything at all” (Briggs, This Little Art 38). As my thoughts were provoked and my desires coaxed from what I read in Love Three, Kunin’s book started to become such a text for me. I’ve been reading Kunin’s writing with admiration for a long time now, but this is the first book of his that’s done that to me.
Briggs, Kate. This Little Art. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017.
Eliot, T. S. George Herbert. In British Writers and Their Work No. 4. Eds. Dobrée and Robinson. U of Nebraska P, 1964.
Herbert, George. The Complete English Works. Ed. Ann Pasternak Slater. Knopf, 1995.
Kunin, Aaron: Love Three. Wave, 2019.
The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes.Translated by David Stains. Indiana UP, 1990.
Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford Up, 1958.
Vendler, Helen. Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman and Ashbery. Princeton UP, 2005.
Vendler, Helen. The Poetry of George Herbert. Harvard UP, 1975.