What Is Love? A Tender and Poetic Illustrated Celebration of the Elemental Human Quest

The garden of life is a posy for subtle illumination.

What Is Love? A Tender and Poetic Illustrated Celebration of the Elemental Human Quest

“Gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being,” wrote Rumi. “Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.”

Eight centuries later, we go on spending our lives trying to win something we don’t fully understand but are constantly defining, and we go on betting on all the wrong things: We mistake admiration, visibility, and the trappings of success for love, we mistake being powerful for being loved, we mistake needing for loving.

Real maturity comes down to learning from all those mistakes we made as adults. So it is that only the very young and the very old seem to remember the elemental truth about love — love not as a bargaining chip but as the living prize, both vulnerable and wildly tenacious, radiant with Iris Murdoch’s timeless definition of it as “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”

This reality-broaching understanding is found in the pages of What Is Love? Author. (Public library). Mac BarnettArtist Carson Ellis — a poetic modern fable reimagining with uncommon tenderness and originality the oldest quest narrative: that ancient hero’s journey of discovery and homecoming.

The young boy asks his grandmother to help him find love.

In a gesture that is itself the deepest solution to the riddle of life and love, she enfolds him in an embrace and tells him that she does not have an answer — but that he might find it if he goes out into the world. This is Barnett’s subtle summation of what it means to be human — we long for love, we long to understand how the world works, and spend our lives foraging for understanding as we make our uncharted way through the wilderness of being.

And so the boy goes, meeting all kinds of people with all kinds of answers — a living reminder that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, each with its own understanding of beauty and love.

The answers he encounters bewilder him — each strange and suspect if taken literally, each shimmering with the intimation of some larger abstract truth, each almost absurdly particular yet shining a sidewise gleam on some spect of the universal. Along the way, love emerges as a sculpture of understanding — the stone of all it is not, carved away to reveal the essence that is, a form delicate yet robust.

The fisherman says that love is a fish.

It shimmers and splashes.
Just out of reach.
It will be your lucky day.
if you know what you’re doing,
You give it a kiss
Throw it in the ocean.

When the boy grimaces and pronounces his disgust at fish, with their sliminess and their alien eyes, the fisherman sighs, “You do not understand,” and we are instantly reminded that while the human imagination began in the metaphor-machine of children’s minds, metaphors are, in poet Jane Hirshfield’s lovely phrase, “handles on the door of what we can know and of what we can imagine” — and, sometimes, we must first know to imagine.

The boy continues to travel the globe, learning about its many aspects and the ways its animals seek love. “Love is applause,” the actor tells him. A farmer will not let go of love. The night is for the cat.

Love is the barking of the dog as it chases the cat. This.

The boy goes on, holding onto his loves, which include a chessboard and a tree as well as a bear and the Moon.

With her bandaged thumbs and competent smile, the carpenter speaks about love as a house.

Love is a house…

Hammer and saw are used.
Arrange all planks.
It creaks and wobbles.
And you can change your plans.
The thing is still there in the end.
It is your home.

The last is the poet. He looks like a mixture of Rumi and God, filling an inexhaustible scroll with his quest for the answers.

As the long poem of life unspools into the setting sun, we suddenly see the boy-pilgrim grown — now a young man, making his way back to the little house where his gardener-grandmother is now a very old woman, still tending to her sunflowers.

She wanted to know:
“Did you answer your question?”

She was in my arms when I carried her.
I laughed.

Ich sagte,

How do you define love? — a fine time-shifted addition to the year’s loveliest children’s books — with poet David Whyte’s lyrical reflection on the measure of true love, then revisit a kindred celebration of the world’s variousness in Carson Ellis’s illustrated meditation on the many things “home” can mean and her painted veneration of time.

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