Hemphills poem makes it clear that these two desires can sometimes be one. Essex died on AIDS that he has caught during sexual intercourses in a black gay community. He was perhaps aware of his prompt death when writing Baby Can You Love Me? , and thus one can ask what is the rationality of asking to kill oneself and killing a loved one who would certainly die soon? From the rational point of view, the poem is senseless. However, what Hemphills poetry surely lacks is rationality. This is not a classical verse with a tone, voice, rhythm and metre.
In fact, I am not sure whether Hemphill knew something at all of these formal aspects of poetry. Baby Can You Love Me? has no plot and even no visible characters. It is a poetic question, and it is hardly important whether it is a man asking a man or a man asking a woman, or a woman asking a man, or a woman asking a woman. It would be better to say that this is one personality asking another personality, and this asking personality experiences deep inner crisis that makes him or her turn to the most hidden and most unconscious motivations of own I that Hemphill was not afraid to articulate, reveal and analyze in his poem.
This is a deeply psychological intuitive poem that can not be understood by analysis. In order to understand Hemphill one needs a kind of mystical insight, one needs to feel what he has felt and try to feel what he has felt when writing Baby Can You Love Me? The poem opens with a classical question of all enamoured humans asked ever since men learned what is love, although this question is asked in a horribly informal manner usual for marginalized communities of black youth. This question is immediately contrasted with another one:
Are you willing to kill me if I ask you to? What makes Hemphill ask this question immediately after confessing love? Perhaps it is the word willing that might help to understand that. This is a kind of examination, a test of love that can be true only if the wills of the loved ones are combined in one will. For most people losing the truly loved one is a tragedy. So the question can be reformulated in a following manner: are you ready to subject me and you to terrible suffering in the name of love?
Classical literature from Shakespeare to modernity provides examples of killing loved ones out of painful passion, and Hemphill puts feeling to test by this passion. There are many reasons for which one individual can resolve to put a violent end to the life of another individual, but killing out of love always means killing out of passion. I can hardly imagine killing out of tempered love. So the question is as follows: is your love so strong, have you lost your head so much that you can kill me?
This passionate plea for death can be nothing but an up-to-minute whim, yet in order to instigate someone to commit murder even this up-to-minute whim of a lover has to become a law for another lover. Love makes people stronger, although this strength sometimes borders on insanity. It is unusual and unnatural for most people to kill someone else or commit suicide. And Hemphill hesitates whether he can kill himself, thus asking his lover for help in fulfilling this last will: If Im unable to do so Are you willing to kill me? Once more we come across this formal aspect of will.
Hemphill asserts that his will may be not enough to consciously die, so he needs a combination of two wills to fulfill his wish. Perhaps he already knows what is love, so now he is willing to know what is loves eternal opponent death like, but he has not enough will, so he needs an another will, an another I that would not be tied with natural instinctive will of life and whose will would be purer and stronger. In the concluding lines of the poem Hemphill does indirectly confess what his problem is about. It is in fact fear that keeps him alive.
He thus needs bravery, and can there be a greater bravery than the one of an enamoured individual in a moment when he or she confesses his or her feelings. So Hemphill asks: Can you be as brave and clearheaded as you are now, professing that you would love to love me? Clearheaded is perhaps one of the worst characteristics that can be applied to passions, for clear head is an antipode of passion. On the other hand. murdering the loved one with clear head is a certain demonstration of the place that love occupied in the consciousness of an individual.
Hemphill speaks of such high stage of passionate love when it becomes a part of a personality, and when the head becomes cleared and heart becomes brave because of and due to this passion. A lover is clearheaded professing love to love, yet the poem eventually revolves around death. Does this mean that love to love implicates love to death and are lve and death interchangeable in the sense of Hemphills Baby Can You Love Me? Hemphill himself answers this question positively in the last lines of the poem: But could you kill me If I asked you to?
This passage echoes the first lines of the poem. Baby can you love me and Baby can you kill me are indeed interchangeable questions. The ending resembles the medieval style of rondos poems that started and ended with the same lines, symbolizing perfection and circularity of the verse. Whether consciously of not, Hemphill applied this method in his poem and interconnected the two contrasting oppositions into a unity. Love is measured by death and death is measured by love for Hemphill. He does not say that directly, but he makes us feel that.