Love Three: A Study of a Poem by George Herbert, by Aaron Kunin
Wave Books, 2019. 360 pages. 
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid

There’s a reason “close reading” isn’t really done anymore in academic journals. It’s boring. I remember Wayne Booth, age 1000, talking in a seminar at Chicago about the Golden Age of close reading. He said something like “There’s only so much you can take.”

The book I’m reviewing isn’t really a close reading, though. It’s similar but it’s more like riffing. Three hundred twenty-two pages of riffing on a single fairly transparent poem, George Herbert’s “Love (3).” 

The poem is easily summarized. It’s an allegory. “I” came into the house of a great lord (= Jesus). I’m all: “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!” But my host consoles me, says it’s OK, reminds me of the crucifixion and its significance. Tells me to grab a chair: “You must taste my meat.”

That last line sounds a little louche to us, for obvious reasons. And if you wanted to pursue the louche aspect (acknowledging of course that it’s more in your head than in the poem), you could make some hay out of the penitential spectacle, wherein the Christian soul abases itself like a male client groveling at the spiked heel of a dominatrix. 

OK. But how many pages are you going to get out of that line of reasoning? And more importantly, once you’ve got all those pages, and put a white space after almost every single blessèd sentence, what’s in it for your reader? Why should she watch you coin 7000 inconclusive rhetorical questions?

What if I don’t?

What if someone else made the eyes?

I’m not looking at you, so how do I recognize you? How do I know that you have the right credentials?

Do I worship absolutely anyone who claims to be my creator?

By page 200, this reader was thoroughly fed up. This, despite the fact that Kunin really does have substantial knowledge of Herbert and his 17th-century milieu. Moreover, when Kunin goes all-out memoirist and recounts scenes related to his own enjoyment of being bottomed and humiliated, he does not fail to be interesting. 

In fact, now that I’m writing this, it occurs to me I would have much preferred that he dispense with the Herbert 100% and just handle his deal with sex ’n’ power directly. In my opinion, his sexuality doesn’t illuminate the poem, or only very trivially, and the poem barely merits a mention, if we’re explaining the politics of Kunin’s wanting to be tied-up and scolded and all the rest of it. So why not just talk about what we really wanna talk about.

If Kunin were my friend and had shown me the first sixty pages of this manuscript while he was composing it, I would have said: “People are gonna see right through this, babe. And moreover, I don’t like how you maintain this clinical aloofness in discussing your kinks. There’s this pretense of harmlessness; it’s not convincing….”


ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). www.anthonymadrid.net