Title: Ars Poetica
Author: Lirazel (penny_lane_42)
Timeline: “Becoming Part II” – post-“Not Fade Away.” Canon all through BtVS; ignores the comics and “The Girl in Question.”
Rating: PG-13 here, R overall
Installment: Part four of six.
Disclaimer: The world and characters of the Buffyverse do not belong to me. Neither do any of the poems.
Poetry: The poems featured in this chapter are “The Kill” by Carl Phillips and Sonnet XXXIX by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
A/N: The poetry book I mention in the first section is Helen Vendler’s Poems Poets Poetry. Most books about poetry either suck all of the joy and beauty out of the whole experience or don’t actually tell you anything useful. This is by far the best book of its kind I’ve ever seen, and I heartily recommend it for anyone who wants to further their own poetic education. Vendler, a Harvard professor, released the book in 1997, so I don’t feel like it’s a stretch that Buffy might have used it in her poetry class in college; it’s one of the most revered text for such classes.
Summary: The story of her life with Spike, Buffy realizes, is written in poetry, not prose.
No Little Sorrow
It’s an often-forgotten fact that Buffy Summers is not stupid, nor is she incapable of learning. Her SAT scores and the admittance letter to Northwestern that her mother kept safe in an envelope in her desk (Buffy found it during the bill-crazy days just after her resurrection and spent an hour or so crying over how much of a disappointment she was to her mother and how much more disappointed Mom would be if she could see her oldest daughter now) alone prove that. Even if her friends, her family, her boyfriends, her Watcher forget that, she still has those two emblems to cling to.
She knows it’s the way she speaks (and often deliberately mispronounces words of more than three syllables), not to mention her school grades, that make people think she’s dumb (well, that and the hair color, but then, she isn’t a natural blonde). Which isn’t exactly fair because even normal kids have problems keeping their grades up, and they don’t have the fate of the world resting on their shoulders and demanding their continual attention.
All of this is to say that Buffy actually did pay attention in class when she could (when she wasn’t worried about the monster-of-the-week or that her sometimes-good vampire boyfriend was going to slaughter all of her friends) and did learn some stuff. It’s just that most of that stuff has no relevance to her life (now if they’d had a class on how to fight hellgods or how to balance slaying with your life or how to know if your best friend is abusing magic, that would have been a different story) and so that knowledge lies dormant most of the time… until something jars it to life.
That jarring happens as she stands in the street in front of the Magic Box, watching Riley and his wife (he would have a wife, wouldn’t he? Just further proof that while Buffy-the-Slayer may leave quite an impression, Buffy-the-woman is completely forgettable) ascend into the heavens (well, into a lit-up helicopter, but whatever).
Deus ex machina. Look at that! She even remembers the Latin words! (Or are they Greek?) (Well, she doesn’t remember how to pronounce them; she just remembers what they looked like on the page of her English textbook junior year).
It means (she’s pretty sure) when something a little too tidy wraps things up. Things aren’t exactly wrapped up in her life (though, God, she wishes they were), but Riley’s wifebot had just a few too many convenient answers. Xander and Anya’s wedding photographer problem? Solved. Willow’s mysterious addiction to magic, though none of the Scoobies had ever even heard that such a thing was possible? Confirmed by Sam, or at least that’s what Willow whispered in her ear on the way to meeting up at the Magic Box.
Despite her protestations, Buffy hates Mrs. Finn. She hates her for having the answers to Buffy’s friends’ problems. She hates her even more for not having the answers to Buffy’s own issues.
She falters mid-step, remembering something, then walks even faster. When they made a quick stop by Revello after blowing up Spike’s crypt (she doesn’t want to remember all the Persian rugs and aromatic candles that are gone now; she really doesn’t want to remember the way the gloating in his eyes turned to shocked betrayal and finally bitter resignation), Sam had picked up one of the books left over from Buffy’s poetry class in college.
“Buffy? Do you like poetry?” Sam had sounded pleased but even more surprised, and that surprise had made Buffy want to punch her even as she replied sweetly that she did.
“This is a great book—I think it has one of my favorite poems in it.” Sam flipped through the heavy white and blue paperback till she found what she was looking for. “Yeah. Here it is. I think you’d really like it—you being the Slayer and all, you’d probably understand it even more than I do. I’ll mark it: you should check it out when you have the chance.”
Of course Riley’s perfect wife likes poetry, too. Probably has great taste. Before Buffy could say anything to her, Riley got the call that says the chopper’s on its way, and they all headed out to meet up at the Magic Box, and Buffy forgot all about the poem. Till now.
It can’t be… can it? Sam with all her perfect answers can’t have left the answer to the Slayer’s problem in the form of a poem. That would be just too much of a stretch.
Oh, wait. It’s Tuesday.
Leaving her friends behind, Buffy races home, tears up the steps and inside. She grabs the book and rushes up to her room, locking the door before opening the book to the place Sam marked.
“The Kill,” it’s called, by Carl Phillips. Of course. It’s about killing, the one thing Buffy doesn’t need help with: she’s plenty good enough at that on her own. No answers here.
Sighing in disappointment, she sinks onto her bed and begins to read idly. Within just a few words, the poem has her attention entirely.
The last time I gave my body up,
to you, I was minded
briefly what it is made of,
what yours is, that
I’d forgotten, the flesh
I hold in plenty no
little sorrow for because—oh, do
but think on its predicament,
We cleave most entirely
to what most we fear
losing. We fear loss
because we understand
the fact of it, its largeness, its
utter indifference to whether
we do, or don’t,
ignore it. But then, you
were upon me, and then
in me, soon the tokens
I almost never can let go of, I’d
again begin to, and would not
miss them: the swan
upward less on trust than
because, simply, that’s
what it does; and the leaves,
leaving; a single arrow held
back in the merciless
patience which, in taking,
aim, is everything; and last,
as from a grove in
flame toward any air
more clear, the stag, but
this time its bent
head a chandelier, rushing
for me, like some
distraction. I looked back,
and instead of you, saw
that you’d become. I tensed
one animal at attack,
the other—the other one
suffering, and love would
out all suffering—
She’s feeling kind of shaky, kind of scared, kind of sick by the time she reaches the too-abrupt ending, and now she hates Sam even more. Because this poem makes her feel like she should run—just run and keeping on running forever. It makes her feel like she should confess (Tara’s absolution is the last thing that she wants—she wants penance). It makes her feel like she should take shower after shower after shower till she washes away forever even the memory of Spike’s body against hers.
Because she understands it, this strange, strange poem. Oh, she can’t explain what half the phrases mean, the bits of sentences jumbled together, the lists of images, the abrupt starts and stops. But the meaning, the feeling behind it, the experiences that would make someone write such a poem? Oh, yeah. She gets that, and all too well.
Giving her body up, holding no little sorrow for flesh, loss’s largeness and its pitiless indifference. Love as a hunt. But the fear comes from not knowing whether she’s hunter or whether Spike is. Is he hunting her or is she hunting him? Does it even matter at this point?
And then there’s the bit about the soul. Spike doesn’t have a soul, and who knows if she brought her own back with her? But she knows the feeling of the soul trying to break free, knows it in ways no one else possibly could.
Yes, it’s the part about the soul, and the part about love outing suffering, and the ending (one thing she remembers from high school English is that a dash is not an appropriate way to end a sentence) that terrify her. But they also give her a strange, bone-deep sort of certainty, a kind she hasn’t felt in a long, long time. A kind she thought had been lost to her forever after her resurrection.
She has to end it with Spike. Really, really end it. Not just say no and mean yes. Not just walk away while swearing never to return—and then doing just that. But really, really ending it (giving up his perfect body, his tender demon, his endless words).
What they have is not love—it’s a hunt, the thing they both do better than anyone else. And that hunt isn’t going to rid either one of them of suffering. Not when he doesn’t have a soul at all. It can’t.
She repeats those words (itcan’titcan’titcan’t) as she showers and changes into a soft purple blouse instead of the harsh black she wore when she went to him earlier. He may not be able to love without his soul, but she has to admit that he does feel things deeply, and she should do this as kindly as she can.
As she walks slowly toward his crypt, planning the words she’ll say to him, she realizes deus ex machina-Sam did indeed leave behind a poem that gave her an answer.
Behold My Soul’s True Face
She knows she has to go.
She wakes up with the sun tickling her eyes, and for once she’s holding him. Strange that last night was about her comfort, that she asked him to hold her, and that she wakes up this way, cradling her to him in a way she never has before. He held her before, those times during their affair when she pretended to be asleep; he’d poured his comfort into her then, as though his love could move from his body to hers in some sort of osmosis. But she’s never been the one to comfort him.
It feels right. It’s what she wanted to do when she found him in the First’s cave, tortured and tied to the wall. It was during that time when the First had him, when she wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to get him back, that she had recognized how much he meant to her. She knew then that he was important to her, one of the most important people in her life, and she was never going to let him go again. Seeing him there, beautiful even in his brokenness, the awe and love in his eyes had made her want to lead him to her bed once they arrived home, hold him against her all night. She’d been too scared to allow herself to do so then, but she’s lost the last of that fear.
After all, Spike is all she has left.
Yesterday, every single person she cared about, every single person she trusted (well, the ones who hadn’t already left her) turned their backs on her. They threw back her hard-won judgment in her face, and then, worse still, they took even her home—the only thing her mother had left her besides a charge to care for her sister—from her. She knows she’s stood alone, distancing herself from everyone (everyone but Spike) for a long time now. But she trusted that they understood why: so that she would be able to make the choices without a softening of her heart, so that if she has to sacrifice herself again, they won’t go through what they did last time. She trusted them to understand that, and now she finds they don’t return that trust at all.
Didn’t they know her at all? Even if they thought she was making the wrong decision, how could that justify throwing her out altogether?
She shoves the thought away; despite the softness she’s found in Spike’s arms, the pain of those memories are still too sharp, too exquisite.
Don’t think about the past, Buffy, she chastises herself. Think about the future.
Caleb. He’s protecting something, and last night Spike confirmed her theory that it was at the orchard. That’s why she has to go. She has to find out what it is and figure out if she can use it against the First. But the others were right about one thing: the last time she ventured such a mission, it ended in disaster. She’s not willing to risk anyone else again (when she closes her eyes, she sees girls’ sightless gazes, the gaping hole where Xander’s eye used to smile at her). She’s not willing to risk Spike.
So she has to go without him. Slip away as quietly as she can so that she can head out before he insists on coming along (which he will. His loyalty is one of the things she most treasures about him, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t often inconvenient). She has to leave him to his rest.
But she knows what it’s like to wake up alone. Knows how the pain of it warped something inside her till she thought it would never grow straight again. She cannot do that to him. She has to find a way to let him know that she’s going to something and not away from him. And that she’ll return (if she can. She doesn’t take anything for granted anymore).
But how can she possibly tell him what last night meant to her?
She wracks her brain for words; they all fall hopelessly short. And then she remembers the book.
After she’d laid down on the bed last night, before Spike arrived, she replayed the scene back at the home that was no longer hers again and again till she thought she would go as insane as Drusilla ever was (her only comfort was knowing that Spike would still love her anyways, sane or not). In an attempt to distract herself, she’d grabbed a book of the nightstand and started reading.
It was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, and she’d skimmed her way through several of the poems. She recognized the more famous ones—“How do I love thee?” and “The face of all the world is changed”—but it was one of the collection she’d never read before that captured her imagination before another wave of despair was over her and she tossed the book aside, curling up under her jacket and waiting (she knew Spike would come. He always comes).
The words seem even more fitting now, and suddenly she’s buzzing with excitement. She may not be able to find the words to tell him, but she can borrow someone else’s. Besides, after all the times Spike tossed poetry her way, maybe it’s her turn to give some to him.
She slides his arms away from her slowly, regretting the loss of his weight wrapped around her. It only takes a few moments of rummaging in drawers to find paper and a pen, and then she flips open the book till she finds the poem she’s looking for. Then, she begins to copy the words.
She writes quickly but carefully, wanting him to know that she means each word, wanting him to know that she didn’t just rise from his arms and go skipping out to forget about him entirely. She hopeshopeshopes that the care with which she writes these will let him know that he fills nearly her every thought, that he’s in her heart and she can’t imagine him leaving it, that he has seen her when no one else has—seen who she really is, all the secret places in herself that even she tries to ignore—and that he has blessed her by accepting each one.
Because thou hast the power and own’st the grace
To look through and behind this mask of me
(Against which years have beat thus blanchingly
With their rains), and behold my soul’s true face,
The dim and weary witness of life’s race,—
Because thou hast the faith and love to see,
Through that same soul’s distracting lethargy,
The patient angel waiting for a place
In the new Heavens,—because nor sin nor woe,
Nor God’s infliction, nor death’s neighborhood,
Nor all which others viewing, turn to go,
Nor all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed,—
Nothing repels thee, . . . Dearest, teach me so
To pour out gratitude, as thou dost, good!
She rereads them again, making sure she hasn’t misspelled anything or misplaced a comma, making sure there’s nothing here that he could misconstrue into some sort of rejection.
The words are beautiful, but still lacking. Still, they’re all she has. He’s given her everything. She wants to give a little back.
She places the sheet on the pillow next to his head, and with one longing glance back at him (it would be so easy to crawl back onto the bed, curl up once again in his arms, and never, ever leave), she steps out into the rising sunshine.
Originally posted at http://seasonal-spuffy.livejournal.com/341593.html