The Amoebae and the Secret of Love: Nikki Giovanni’s Poetic Meditation on the Human Condition
By Maria Popova
“For one human being to love another,” Rilke wrote in contemplating what it really means to love, “that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” And yet we hardly know how to prepare, for we hardly understand what love is at all. We try to define it, we even try to calculate it, and yet it remains a mystery.
Both not so and very much so for writer, activist, educator, and queer icon Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943). From her altogether magnificent 1975 collection The Women and the Men (public library) comes a beautiful and unusual prose poem about the dualities with which we must live and the human conceits which we must relinquish in order to truly know love.
LOVE: IS A HUMAN CONDITION
An amoeba is lucky it’s so small … else its narcissism would lead to war … since self-love seems so frequently to lead to self-righteousness …
I suppose a case could be made … that there are more amoebas than people … that they comprise the physical majority … and therefore the moral right … But luckily amoebas rarely make television appeals to higher Gods … and baser instincts … so one must ask if the ability to reproduce oneself efficiently has anything to do with love …
The night loves the stars as they play about the Darkness … the day loves the light caressing the sun … We love … those who do … because we live in a world requiring light and Darkness … partnership and solitude … sameness and difference … the familiar and the unknown … We love because it’s the only true adventure …
I’m glad I’m not an amoeba … there must be more to all our lives than ourselves … and our ability to do more of the same …
I was particularly struck by the second verse: Four decades before marriage equality came to the forefront of cultural discourse and rose triumphant to the highest levels of legislature as a basic human right, Giovanni elegantly satirizes the absurd arguments with which bigots have historically tried to limit love. It makes one wonder how much faster we might have gotten to the golden age of “love is love” had we sent a poet, not a politician, to the Supreme Court.
The piece was later included in The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (public library), which assembles a lifetime of wonder and wisdom. Complement it with Giovanni’s marvelous poems about friendship and loneliness, then revisit the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love.
Published August 11, 2015