La Ninfa’s Book of the day: ‘The Love I Do To You’ by Mariah Whelan

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The Love I do to You

In her debut poetry collection, ‘The Love I Do to You’, Mariah Whelan (UK) tells the love story of ‘He’ and ‘She’. This story occurs in three places: UK, Europe, Japan and South Korea.

The first thing that caught my attention was the title, ‘the love i do to you’. From the title, the author is taking us into a world of twisted perceptions. It is from the very beginning that we find ourselves, as readers, getting into this misleading, but sophisticated approach to emotions. 

Right after my initial thoughts, I looked at the cover’s colours: the background is mostly pink with darker pink lines, and it has white & black letters on it. One could say that these are the typical colours used for love stories, but if we look closely there are routes and a map as well, and if we look even closer, there are Japanese letters too. After looking at it for a while, I had the feeling that this love story is not a classical love story, and what seems simple, is just a mechanism to hide a greater complexity.  

Not only the story, but genre and structure also seem simpler than they actually are; it is not just a collection of poems. It’s not naked poetry: the structure is similar to most Shakespeare’s plays. It is divided into 3 parts, and these parts have around 60 interlocked sonnets.


Regarding the process of writing it, the author said, during an interview with Niall Munro for a podcast by Oxford Brookes University, ‘I needed structure, and constraints can be enormously productive sometimes’.

Mariah Whelan at Oxford Brookes University podcast, Episode 13: Mariah Whelan talks to Niall Munro

From the first pages we find a map of Newcastle upon Tyne –a place very well known by the author as she used to live there–, and the story is also placed in a context of economic crisis. 

Next to it, the first poem of this collection. It is worth mentioning that every poem of this collection is a name of a place:

“The coach station, St. James Boulevard, Newcastle Upon Tyne”.  

From the first poem, we have a sense of chaos materialised in the tense sounds of words like ‘crunch’, ‘concourse’, ‘ricochet’. From those uncomfortable sounds, as rigid as the sound of broken chips in a mouth, showing us an unbearable past, we move with the poetic narrative or the poetry tale, to the relaxing words of the following stanzas, ‘bloom’, ‘away’, ‘boat’, ‘loops’, representing a smooth and enjoyable utopia of an unknown future. 

‘The Love I do to You’ Mariah Whelan, p. 10

However, this ‘better’ world is just a fantasy, not a reality; and the author controls, in an extraordinary way, each movement of every sound, word, stanza, verse and sonnet. I mentioned each of them because that’s how much attention every detail has, and under how many constraints the story was created.  

By the end of the first poem, we are aware that someone is leaving, ‘I was getting away from you/ the river below breathing as all rivers do’. There is an opposition between staying/leaving, being ‘leaving’, as mentioned before, a door to a better world than the one left behind. 

These maps, the description of nature, the architectural details: they all get together at some point during this genre-bending novel. Characters, styles, voices… everything is a piece in a puzzle that will eventually create the whole picture.   

Nature is so lively in Mariah’s poems that it is almost a character by itself. In a way, rivers have a leading role in the book, both in a passive, but essential way, ‘I remember the rhythms of water’. Rivers go through every city of the book, and they are part of the skeleton of the narrative, breathing behind the poems.   

This book explores emotions through a palette of voices from the characters, and their weak and strong human attempts to love. Also, it has a female and male perspective of sex and relationships, and transactions of emotions thoughout family history and culture. 

These intents acquire different forms from tough and unengaging ways to love, ‘Until you kissed me, ‘Just to shut you up’, to moments of raw honesty, ‘I wasn’t the first person to break a heart/I know people do it all the time and it costs them nothing,’ and also, leading to moments of seeking to resolve a puzzle, ‘At the airport you asked me, ‘Do you love her?’/ I answered, ‘Not yet.’’    

This is a love story of he and she, but it could be of you, them or me, ‘something about her eyes/the intimacy crowds afford us’. By travelling throughout the lives of these unsilenced voices, taking up space to give us these messy pieces of their inability to get close, these series of poems can offer us a glimpse of conflict which is able to break us and make us rethink our own lives by using distress and misery as a strategy.

Mariah Whelan (UK) is a poet, teacher and interdisciplinary researcher from Oxford. She has degrees from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Oxford. Her debut collection is a novel-in-sonnets called the love i do to you (Eyewear, UK, 2019). Poems from the novel were shortlisted for The Bridport Prize, The Melita Hume Prize and the manuscript won the AM Heath Prize. She is currently finishing a PhD in The Centre for New Writing at The University of Manchester where she researches trauma and representation in contemporary Irish fiction and teaches Creative Writing. Also, she is a co-Creative Director of ‘Truth Tellers’ an interdisciplinary research project funded by King’s College London. She was the former director at the Oxford Writers’ House in Oxford, and she currently co-edits bath magg, an online magazine of new poetry.

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