Kim Addonizio’s “First Poem for You” is a poem about the permanence of love and how a speaker finds intimacy as a means to explore her partner’s internal world. How does intimacy feel with a loved one whom the body wants to embrace badly? What are the thoughts hovering in a lover’s mind after having some romantic hours with her partner? This poem explores all the answers to these questions. Addonizio delves deeper into her world of love and intimacy to nudge the theme of the impermanence of the body in contrast to the permanence of love. This poem was published in Addonizio’s poetry collection, The Philosopher’s Club in 1994.
- Read the full text of “First Poem for You” below:
First Poem for You by Kim Addonizio I like to touch your tattoos in complete darkness, when I can’t see them. I’m sure of where they are, know by heart the neat lines of lightning pulsing just above your nipple, can find, as if by instinct, the blue swirls of water on your shoulder where a serpent twists, facing a dragon. When I pull you to me, taking you until we’re spent and quiet on the sheets, I love to kiss the pictures in your skin. They’ll last until you’re seared to ashes; whatever persists or turns to pain between us, they will still be there. Such permanence is terrifying. So I touch them in the dark; but touch them, trying. - from The Philosopher's Club (1994)
The poetic persona of “First Poem for You” begins this poem by saying what she likes to do with her lover. She touches on the tattoos imprinted on her partner’s body in darkness. But why does she touch the tattoos in darkness? This question is answered in-depth in the analysis section. In short, this darkness intensifies the mood of intimacy. The lover is confident about their location on his body. There is a tattoo of lightning drawn just above his nipple. Another tattoo of blue swirls of water is there on his shoulders. A serpent twists nearby and faces a tattoo of a dragon.
When she pulls him closer to her and drinks him to the lees, they lay quietly on the sheets. The romance does not end here. How can it be? If two lovers are so close their intimacy does not end after reaching the climax. At that moment, she kisses the pictures.
The imagery helps the speaker to create the mood of this piece. She also uses the device to come to an important question that deals with the longevity of love. But, the question of oblivion haunts her and pains her deeply. The thought associated with the persistent lingering of death makes her thoughtful. However, at the end of the poem, she discloses that she tries to touch them. It means either they are separate or the thought of impermanence has destabilized her confidence.
The title of the poem, “First Poem for You” is easy to decode. There is nothing beneath the layers hiding to astonish readers. What does the poet trying to say in the title? It is crystal clear. She is informing readers that it is the first offering to her love. The “you” present in the poem is none other than the speaker’s partner whom she loves badly. There is another ironic side of the title. It is the “first” poetic gift that she is offering. As per the subject matter of the text, their love story is not a new one. It possibly began long before Addonizio penned down this piece. If this is the first piece she writes for her partner, why has she abstained from writing a poem before? There might be something that the speaker is hiding in the guise of her stirring verse of love.
Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme
Kim Addonizio wrote this poem “First Poem for You” using the sonnet form. She does not imitate the form as it is. There are a total of fourteen lines that are packed in a specific poetic structure. They are separated into two stanzas having seven lines each. In Petrarchan sonnets, there is an octave and a sestet. Whereas, Shakespearean sonnets contain three quatrains and a rhyming couplet at the end. Addonizio’s poem does follow the Petrarchan model. It can be compared to an English or Shakespearean sonnet.
The reason for making this comparison lies in the rhyme scheme of this piece. If readers look at the rhyming words at the end of each line, they can find that the poem is written using alternative rhyming lines. Every four lines form a quatrain. There are three such quatrains and the last two lines form a rhyming couplet.
After metrically scanning “First Poem for You,” it looks like:
I like/ to touch/ your tat-/toos in/ com-plete
dark-ness,/ when I/ can’t see/ them. I’m/ sure of
where they/ are, know/ by heart/ the neat
lines of/ light-ning/ puls-ing/ just a-/bove
your nip-/ple, can/ find, as/ if by/ in-stinct,/ the blue
swirls/ of wa-/ter on/ your shoul-/der where/ a ser-/pent
twists, fac-/ing a/ dra-gon./ When I/ pull you
to me,/ tak-ing/ you un-/til we’/re spent
and quiet/ on the sheets,/ I love/ to kiss
the pic-/tures in/ your skin./ They’ll last/ un-til
you’re seared/ to ash-/es; what-/e-ver/ per-sists
or turns/ to pain/ bet-ween/ us, they/ will still
be there./ Such per-/ma-nence/ is ter-/rify-ing.
So I/ touch them/ in the/ dark; but/ touch them,/ try-ing.
Metrically, “First Poem for You” is not written in conventional iambic pentameter. Though the overall poem is in iambic pentameter, there are some variations. For example, the 3rd, 4th, and 9th lines are in iambic tetrameter. The 5th, 6th, and 14th lines are composed in the iambic hexameter.
The rhyme scheme of this poem is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. It means that Addonizio uses the quatrain-couplet scheme of Shakespeare’s sonnets. But, some lines do not contain perfect rhymes. For example, “kiss” is not the perfect rhyming word for “persists”. However, the overall poem follows the rhyme scheme mentioned above.
Poetic Devices & Figurative Language
The important literary devices used in “First Poem for You” are discussed below:
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout this piece. For example, the first two lines are enjambed for referring to a single idea. The last part of the second line is enjambed with the third for maintaining the flow and establishing an internal connection.
- Alliteration: It occurs in the following phrases: “touch your tattoos,” “line of lightning,” “touch them,” etc.
- Metaphor: Addonizio uses several metaphors in the text. The phrase “neat lines of lightning pulsing” contains a reference to the heart that pulses beneath the skin.
- Innuendo: “taking you until we’re spent/ and quiet on the sheets” contains sexual innuendo.
- Paradox: The line “Such permanence is terrifying” contrasts with the idea of transience already mentioned in the previous lines.
- Epigram: The last line of the poem contains an epigram. Here, the speaker clarifies why she touches on her lover’s body in “complete darkness”.
Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation
I like to touch your tattoos in complete
darkness, when I can’t see them.
Kim Addonizio chooses the first-person point of view in “First Poem for You”. The speaker or the poetic persona narrates what she feels like doing with her partner in an individualistic tone. She begins, “I like…” It means that the poem is going to be about her preference. The voice resonates with the poet. She speaks of touching the tattoos. Readers can find the alliteration of the “t” sound that creates an internal rhyming in between the line.
According to her, she prefers darkness while touching her lover’s body or his tattoos. Addonizio provides the explanation for this stance in the couplet. When one encounters the word “darkness”, it showcases a variety of ideas. It can be a reference to the intimate hours between two lovers. This particular word adds the essence of sensuous pleasure into the line. Besides, the padding of “I can’t see them” reveals how adventurous the speaker is. She likes to explore her lover’s skin with the sense of touch. It heightens the mood as a lover explores with her body, not with her eyes.
Eyes imprint a permanent image of a person as he is. But the sense of touch creates a shape in the mind. That shape is permanent in comparison to the visual image of the person. It can be felt even in times of separation or detachment.
… I’m sure of
where they are, know by heart the neat
lines of lightning pulsing just above
your nipple, can find, as if by instinct,
The speaker is not an amateur in this exploration. She has done so a number of times. That’s why she can with conviction that the locations of each tattoo are known to her. She tries to locate those bodily pictures at each encounter with her lover. And when she is able to locate their position as per her assumption, she feels complete. This satisfaction has made her confident.
She uses the hyperbolic expression “know by heart” not to exaggerate her feelings but to emphasize how close they are to each other. She imagines the neat “lines of lightning”. Again, Addonizio uses a repetition of the “l” sound to create an alliterating effect.
She can feel the pulse of her lover whenever she roams her hands on the lightning tattoo on her partner’s chest. The tattoo is exactly ending above his nipple.
In these lines, her tone is strong and confident. She proclaims as if she has the mental map of her lover’s body. The clarification is not meant for making one realize how much she loves him. But, she says these things for self-satisfaction. Each time they come closer, she can find those tattoos by instinct. It seems as if the tattoos her lover bears are not only his, it is also of the speaker. In this way, Addonizio reveals their oneness.
… the blue
swirls of water on your shoulder where a serpent
twists, facing a dragon.
There is a tattoo of waves on his shoulder. The ripples of the blue tattoo have similar near finishing that the speaker can feel even if she is not close to her lover. There is a serpent twisting in front of a dragon. Both of these creatures have a symbolic significance in the poem.
We can compare the tattoo of water to the space in which the lovers exist during intimacy. The “dragon” can be a symbol of her partner and the “serpent” can be compared to the speaker herself. It can be said so because a snake also senses its surrounding by the sense of touch.
These lines also contain alliteration. For example, “swirls of water” contain a repetition of the “w” sound. Readers can also find other neighboring words also contain a repetition of similar sounds.
… When I pull you
to me, taking you until we’re spent
and quiet on the sheets, I love to kiss
the pictures in your skin.
The stanza division between the seventh and eighth lines is important to note. In the previous stanza, Addonizio describes how they come close to each other. The speaker’s conviction regarding the location of the tattoos also mentioned there. While this stanza takes another stance. In the first few lines, the poet describes the climax of the scene.
The speaker talks about pulling her lover into her. This line contains a sexual innuendo that readers can easily understand. Here, the speaker is talking about how she takes her in, with all her amorous energy, till they both are spent. So this sexual intercourse is not one-sided. Both of them are participating in this process simultaneously. When two persons love each other truly, both at the physical and mental levels, their sexual intercourse begins in mutual foreplay and ends in synchronized ejaculation.
In the speaker’s case, it is the same. When they both drink each other to the lees, they lay quietly on the sheets. The lovemaking does not end here. She says she loves to kiss the pictures. It means she does so to compose a nice conclusion to each copulation episode.
The line also contains another idea. In the first line, she says how she loves to touch (with hands) the tattoos. In this line, she is saying how she touches those pictures with her lips. Tactile imagery is in function here!
… They’ll last until
you’re seared to ashes; whatever persists
or turns to pain between us, they will still
From this section, readers have to be cautious with each line as here she starts to explain why she touches her lover in darkness. Readers have to focus on the phrase “They’ll last”. What will last, the pictures or the tactile impression of those tattoos? The tattoos cannot even last as her lover is a mortal being. That’s why she says it will last until his body is seared to ashes.
Sear means to burn or scorch the surface of the skin with intense heat. The image is disturbing yet it is a fact that happens to every human being (whose funeral happens by burning the mortal remnants).
Moving on to the next part of the line, there is another important term to note. The colloquial diction is in work here. The term “whatever”, no matter how carelessly it is used, is not an insignificant piece in this beautiful piece of art. The term is used to refer to the idea of love.
According to the speaker, the feeling of togetherness or some bitter memories will exist between them. It will exist even if they are not physically close. The permanence of the emotion will be there, not their bodies.
… Such permanence is terrifying.
So I touch them in the dark; but touch them, trying.
According to her, “such permanence is terrifying.” The thoughts of death actually haunt the speaker. When she thinks of the eternal quality of love, harrowing death comes with its icy hands to lay on her confident mind. That’s why the “permanence” terrifies the heart. It is important to mention here that this line contains a paradox.
The last line of “First Poem for You” contains the answer to the question asked previously: Why does the speaker like to touch her partner in darkness? The answer is already mentioned in the penultimate lines. So, what is the answer?
She touches her lover’s body in darkness because she does not see them. All she wants to create a mental shape of her lover’s body. A visual image is meant for seeing. For lovers, a simple touch can do wonders! For this reason, the speaker emphasizes the sensation of touch in this poem.
The last section of this line “but touch them, trying” is open-ended. Here, the speaker is saying that she tries to touch her lover mentally. Another interpretation of this part is that the speaker is referring to her inability to touch her lover after separation or her lover’s death. She assumes how she will try to imagine her beloved’s body when he is no longer with her.
The major themes of “First Poem for You” include sensual love and the impermanence of the body.
Addonizio nudges the theme of sensual/physical love by using vivid imagery of a couple in their amorous hours. They are making love in order to get access to the keys of their hearts. For them, lovemaking is all about knowing each other, sensing the internal impulse, and sharing a common thread of togetherness. For the poetic persona, it supplies her confidence. When she touches on her lover’s body, by instinct, she can find the location of each tattoo even in darkness. This gives her completion as a lover, true to her partner.
Impermanence of the Body
The theme of the impermanence of the body is another important theme that is highlighted in the second stanza of the poem. In the first stanza, the speaker creates the mood and heightened the value of closeness. While in the following stanza, she takes a different stance. Rather than talking about how close they are, she portrays the distance, created by time, and most importantly the law of the universe. The law is that no single living entity can achieve immortality. Their love can, but they can’t! This thought of impermanence terrifies her and shakes her confidence.
“First Poem for You” contains the following types of imagery:
- Tactile Imagery: This imagery deals with the sense of touch. It can be found in the following lines: “I like to touch your tattoos in complete” and “I love to kiss the pictures in your skin”.
- Visual Imagery: The line “swirls of water on your shoulder where a serpent…” contains visual imagery.
- Auditory Imagery: “lines of lightning pulsing just above” contains a reference to the sound of the heartbeat.
- Kinesthetic Imagery: The imagery of lovemaking is present in “… taking you until we’re spent/ and quiet on the sheets”.
“First Poem for You” appears in the American poet Kim Addonizio’s book of poetry, The Philosopher’s Club; it was published in 1994. In the same year, she got the San Francisco Commonwealth Club Poetry Medal. This poem was published in the postmodern era. Still, it is written using a conventional sonnet form. Sonnets were typically written for a lady whom a poet loved. This poem is a poetic offering to a loved one (specifically, a male partner). Addonizio does not conform to the thematic boundaries of the sonnet form and writes in colloquial diction. Her informal tone makes this poem sound more personal and intimate.
Questions & Answers
In the first stanza, the tattoo of lightning on the chest of the speaker’s beloved symbolizes a sensation of spark. Whenever the speaker kisses there, she feels this spark. The “swirls of water” are a symbolic reference to their intimate world. Moreover, the “serpent” and “dragon” act as symbols for the speaker and his partner alternatively.
The permanence of love and the emotions associated with it are terrifying for the speaker. For the speaker’s inability to overcome death it becomes more terrifying.
This poem is written using the English or Shakespearean sonnet form. It contains four quatrains and a rhyming couplet. But they are not separated into specific stanzas.
Kim Addonizio’s “First Poem for You” was published in 1994 in the poetry collection, The Philosopher’s Club.
The tone of “First Poem for You” is passionate, sensual, amorous, and introspective.
Explore More Kim Addonizio Poems
- About Kim Addonizio — Read this biographical information of Kim Addonizio and explore her other poems.
- Kim Addonizio’s Poet Profile & Poems — Learn more about the poet and her poetry.
- Kim Addonizio Official — Explore the poet’s website to get update of her recent works.
- An Interview with Kim Addonizio — Read Kim Addonizio’s interview on creativity and the creative process.