Luther Hughes’ You Smell Like Outside: Love

“You Smell Like Outside” is Luther Hughes’ wonderful column for Frontier where he seeks to answer the question every month: can poetry help us with our real, day-to-day life? For January, Lue’s after some insight into love from the work by Carl Phillips and Donika Kelly.



“I always know when you’re drunk because you say things like, ‘I can’t see myself without you, babe’,” my boyfriend says while we eat breakfast—eggs and hash browns—the morning after a long night of drinking.

“Oh, relax,” I say with a half-smile.

And we laugh.


In a poem, I pose the question: “[A]bout love, who owns the right, really?”


There was a time when I thought I was devoid of love. I couldn’t, wouldn’t allow myself to love someone romantically. I first fell in love when I was fifteen and again when I was twenty-one.

When I was twenty-one, the man I loved moved in with me and my mom because his mom kicked him out. It was tough to say the least. I had just come out to my mom (again)—I came out before when I was sixteen—and still wasn’t sure how to be open with my mom. So I hid the fact that we were dating. But, she obviously felt the sexual tension between us because she asked a shit ton of questions: “Do you like him?” “Are y’all sleeping around?” “Do you think I’m stupid?”

A roaring “yes” rung in my head.

Let me be clear, we were never officially together. For lack of a better term, we were in a situationship. (Today, if you would ask either of us, we’d say we were boyfriends to keep it clean.)

The minute he moved in with us, he began flirting with all the Seattle gay boys—he was from Tacoma, an entirely different world. Looking back on it now, I totally understand. He was a fresh face. A fresh fine face, at that. And so, Seattle being Seattle, they were all over him. In his DMs, in his face, in his ear—flirting, making sexual jokes, questioning our relationship and saying it won’t last. I got the same things occasionally.

Once, in my garage with friends, the four of us played a game that, as my friend put it, “Might cause an argument between couples,” and looked at us. We felt secure, so we said we’d play.

I don’t remember how the game went, only that it involved questions, playing cards, and drinking. At one point in the game, my friend, who gave the warning, asked, “If you and Luther weren’t together, would you fuck me?”


About love, who owns the right, really?


I’m supposed to be posing an actual question in these posts. So here it is: is love a type of freedom?

In “White Dog” by Carl Phillips, the question rears its head:

I love her.
Released, she seems for a moment as if
some part of me that, almost,

I wouldn’t mind
understanding better, is that
not love? She seems a part of me,

and then she seems entirely like what she is:
a white dog,
less white suddenly, against the snow,

who wouldn’t come back. I know that; and, knowing it,
I release her. It’s as if I release her
because I know.

In the passage above, “release” and “love” are pitched against each other, or, better yet, interrogate each other: “Do you really mean what you say you mean?” I think the interrogation is beautiful. As the old saying goes, “If you truly love someone, you have to let them go,” and this poem challenges that saying. I don’t know how much of the cliché I believe, or how much of that question is more about the person doing the releasing than about love itself. What does freedom and power have to do with love? The speaker’s question—

she seems for a moment as if
some part of me that, almost,

I wouldn’t mind
understanding better, is that
not love?

—is where I stand. Isn’t loving someone more about wanting to—desperately—get to know someone who has taken up space inside your body?

I started off with zero questions about love and now I have many. I think these tercets offer this progression, because the structure lends itself to a sort of restlessness—the odd number of lines representing instability, as well as the jagged stanzas.

Still, is love a type of freedom? And if it is, if the freedom is denied, does the denier deserve love?


The night after Twenty-One cheated on me (with a different friend than the ones mentioned above), we were at a kickback, turned sleepover. As we all watched Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, I realized he was crying. “Let’s go outside,” I told him in a low hum.

Outside, through heavy—and honestly annoying—sobs, he says, “I just don’t want to end up like them.” He was referring to the characters in the movie. Noah and Wade, who were broken up.

Later that night, he told me I was weighing him down and that’s why he did what he did. He needed some freedom.

We didn’t break up.

Over time, I grew lonely and because of that loneliness, I began questioning if he really did love me. We grew to hate each other. At first, he would get up for work and sneak into my room to kiss my good morning. Then, as the months slothed by, he would text. After a while, nothing.

It was possible that he was lonely, too. Two lonely birds…


What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

—Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”


I question love and freedom not because I feel trapped or lonely in my current relationship, but for the opposite. I feel free, freer than I have ever felt—single and in a relationship.

When we first told each other “I love you,” it was a conversation. There wasn’t a big moment or a romantic dinner. I think one of us asked the other: Do you think you love me because I think I love you? Okay, weird and possibly manipulative, right? Either could feel pressured to say, “Yes, I love you.” The conversation was casual. We both expressed strong feelings that were possibly love and fear that we might be moving too fast. We met only one month before.

By the end of the conversation, I knew I loved him and didn’t want anybody else. In this way, love is almost an anchor.

Or is love an unearthing? I take the shovel to the ground.

Or is love a field of lavender, tussled by the wind’s embrace?

Or possibly, is it so simple, it is the batting of a wing?


Donika Kelly, in her poem, “Love Poem: Centaur,” writes:

I would make a burnishing
of you, by which I mean a field in flower,
by which I mean, a breaching—my hands
making an arrow of themselves, rooting
the loosened dirt. I would make for you
the barest of sounds, wing against wing,
there, at the point of articulation. Love,
I pound the earth for you. I pound the earth.


Love, let us pound the earth together.



Luther Hughes

Luther Hughes is a Seattle native and author of Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the Founding Editor in Chief of The Shade Journal and Executive Editor for The Offing. A Cave Canem fellow and a columnist for Frontier Poetry, his work has been published or is forthcoming in various journals including, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, TriQuartlery, Four Way Review, and others.  Luther received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @lutherxhughes. He thinks you are beautiful.

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