“Love Recidivus” by Lisa Barnett (Also published in the September 2003 issue of Poetry) seems to suggest images of adultery, of passion pushed beyond reason, of the failure of constancy, and inevitability. It succeeds admirably in this through the use of careful images, and the slow buildup of tension through the quatrains, leading to a sudden and truly unexpected release in the closing couplet. It is couched in the form of the sonnet, and adheres fairly strictly to the Shakespearean standard.
The quatrains and couplet are separated by whitespace rather than by the use of indention as is more common, but this may be the fault of the copy editor or print setter rather than the poet. Either way I think the sonnet too short and the ‘stanzas’ too integrated to suffer this amount of whitespace. The only other problem that I noted with the form itself was the use of sight rhyme between tries and fidelities. Although the British pronunciation of fidelities allows for the rhyme, nothing else in the poem indicates a British diction, and the poet is distinctly American, so I think this is a failure of craft. While it is not a formal problem, I also dislike the title. The use of recidivus (a word that does not exist in the English language as per the OED) seems blatantly obtuse. Why not simply use the correct word, recidivate?
However, despite all these flaws, some of which seem to me to be glaring, I did enjoy this poem, and can understand why it was included in a magazine as prestigious as Poetry. Perhaps I simply have a bias, but again I find the twist at the end to be the most satisfying part of the poem. The poem has been building a picture of faithfulness and virtue, and then introduces the spark that “tries resolve past all resisting.” We would expect the closing couplet to return to virtue, to offer a solution to the dilemma, but the solution seems to be to accept the inevitable–sometimes passion overrides reason and there’s nothing we can do about it. I don’t like it from a moral or philosophical standpoint. I don’t agree with it. But somehow in those final lines, I identify with it, and that is the transformative power of poetry.