The subject of Rebecca Lindenberg’s debut book of poetry, Love, An Index, is her boyfriend, Craig Arnold, who went missing while hiking a Japanese volcano in 2009, and is now presumed dead. Arnold was a highly acclaimed poet, earning numerous fellowships and accolades from early on in his career, which began with the book Shells, and ended with the fateful trip. He was 41 when he disappeared. He left behind a son, Robin, whom he had with his ex-wife. The relationship between Arnold and Lindenberg lasted six years.
I admit freely that I bought Love, An Index because of the tragic and sensational story behind it. I was feeling melancholy, and it was a beautiful day, so I figured that a story of tender love coupled with unspeakable tragedy would either relieve or validate my mood. What I found was a book far more rewarding and far less melodramatic than I expected.
Lindenberg writes about love, but only sparingly broaches “love” the idea, and instead focuses on the debris that serves as its evidence. The poems are mainly set in Rome and the East Village, and on road trips through the American West. She describes these landscapes precisely, with details such as “luminous emerald /grass around the fortress” (19) “in the shadow of a massive trunk of basalt” (21) and “morning filled/ wine bottles in the kitchen” (84). She writes forebodingly about burying Robin in the sand on a beach vacation to Greece. Through Lindenberg’s details, the reader gets to sense not only the places they inhabit, but also Arnold as a person – his physical traits, his literary and philosophical preferences, and his quirks and flaws. For example, in the poem, “Which, If I Never Thought to Mention It Before, I Now Feel Compelled to Address,” Lindenberg mentions Arnold’s tallness repeatedly, but also his “strident devotion to the real as knowable” (4). In this way, Lindenberg creates a double loss, of both the physical and intangible presences of her beloved.
Not every poem is an elegy or tribute. Lindenberg often experiments with form. For example, two poems are written in the form of Facebook status updates, in which she quotes movies and requests to add someone as a “loyal assassin” (82). Most poems seem to be taking place in the immediate now, even though Lindenberg was writing at different times. She began working on the bookin 2005, when she, Arnold, and Robin lived in Rome together. Arnold disappeared in April, 2009, and that fall, Lindenberg received a seven-month residential fellowship at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where she says, in an interview with her publishers at McSweeney’s, that she wrote “most of the book” (McSweeney’s Books). The lack of temporal distance between events and writing gives some poems a patchy, yet powerfully unprocessed quality.
I did not find any of the poems sentimental, which seems miraculous when the subject matter is love and grief. Lindenberg writes an entry on sentimentality in the title poem, saying:
I don’t know what this word means. Sometimes it means maudlin, sometimes kitsch. What is the opposite of sentimentality? Is it restraint? Is it silence?
(52). From the way she structured this entry in her “Index,” Lindenberg undermines the negative connotations of sentimentality, and compares restraint to silence. In her interview with McSweeney’s, she says that she feels “hemmed in” by the techniques of restraint and reduction that are valued in contemporary poetry workshops, and that she calls herself a “maximalist” poet. She defines maximalism as “a kind of idiosyncratic exuberance, a kind of unapologetic bigness” (McSweeney’s Books). “Maximal” was hardly the first word that came to mind while reading this slender volume, but I did get a sense of Lindenberg’s openness and generosity of emotion, and the sense that to her, this was an all-encompassing, eternal love. It was at least vast, intricate, and dense enough to merit an Index.
One maximalist quality of the book is the history of poetry it covers through literary allusion. Throughout Love, An Index, Lindenberg makes many references to poets that she read, or Arnold read, or that they shared with each other. The references are not pedantic, but rather, necessary to understanding what a relationship between two poets might be like. The allusions span the course of Western literature, from Plato, to Sappho, to Milton, to Coleridge, to Frank O’Hara, to Arnold himself. My favorite use of these references was in “Love, N1.” in which Lindenberg classifies collections of lines and verses from other poets by her own definitions of love. Lindenberg’s last definition is “7. that which indescribable grief is evidence of; the wound and its balm” (76). In this section, she quotes Wordsworth: “Though nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; /We will grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind” (77).
The index of love inevitably leads to the loss of love, and the Wordsworth verse highlights the coming-to-terms aspect of the elegy that Lindenberg mentions. The poems in Love, An Index are varied in form, content, and scope, but inevitably the entire book serves as an en elegy. Lindenberg’s poems rarely focus on grief, but in composing a book of poems that focus on the richness of her life with Arnold, the central event is, of course, Arnold’s death. Love, An Index offers no prescription for how to cope, however. There is no sense of wholeness or redemption or completion. The index provides footnotes and definitions, context and allusions, but it does not attempt to fill the hole caused by loss. Therein lies its restraint.