January 21, 2012

Making Poems and Love

The Mother Tongue contains a middle section of erotic love poems.  Most of these are ekphrastic poems created in response to a traveling exhibit of black and white photographs of lesbian erotica by a Canadian collective Kiss and Tell. A postcard book was issued at the time, called Drawing the Line. 

The photographs are created by women for women, and the images are a sequence from sweet flirtation to sex to role-playing sex, gender-bending, then to nudes in outdoor settings on through images of sadomasochism. The exhibit posed the question: where do you draw the line?  The galleries and exhibit spaces placed writing utensils and paper on the wall for viewers to respond. The responses varied from pleasure to outrage.

If there is a connection between love and good writing, then it's the body.  Many poets write the erotic. This poem by Donald Hall (see the New Yorker January 23, 2012 for his wonderful essay about aging) creates a couple making love, and his focus on the color gold fascinates me.  It's as if he has set this moment in amber to keep for all eternity. The sense of enclosure is palpable, the walls of the room echoed by the sides of the clear bowl that holds the yellow roses.  The other focus is centers of daisies, the couple centered in the room, and the light.


Pale gold of the walls, gold
of the centers of daisies, yellow roses
pressing from a clear bowl. All day
we lay on the bed, my hand
stroking the deep
gold of your thighs and your back.
We slept and woke
entering the golden room together,
lay down in it breathing
quickly, then
slowly again,
caressing and dozing, your hand sleepily
touching my hair now.

We made in those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years,
shining and whole.

The stanza break in this poem travels forward in time, beyond the deaths of these two lovers in a fascinating and satisfying figurative leap, the "tiny identical rooms inside our bodies"
where gold light will remain.  The "o" sound resonates through this poem, solemn, orchestral, and extraordinary.  It is as if the poet were spinning honey. 

If there is one mantra spoken by writing teachers, it might be this: write with the five senses. If writers forget physicality, we forget the source of pleasure. This poem by "Little Lion Face" by May Swenson uses all the sensual and erotic possibilities of the body.  Here is an excerpt:
Little lion face
I stopped to pick
among the mass of thick
succulent blooms, the twice

streaked flanges of your silk
sunwheel relaxed in wide
dilation, I brought inside,
placed in a vase.  Milk

of your shaggy stem
sticky on my fingers, and
your barbs hooked to my hand,
sudden stings from them 

were sweet.  Now I'm bold
to touch your swollen neck,
put careful lips to slick
petals, snuff up gold

pollen in your navel cup.

There are two bodies connecting, interacting, in this poem. The narrator feels "barbs hooked to my hand, sudden stings," and the dandelion she has described with "swollen neck" and a "navel cup."  The entire poem delivers this level of intense connection. The sibilance, the s sounds, abound and the vowel sounds, or assonance, lends more richness. Later in the poem, echoing the succulent, the poet twice repeats the word, suck. And the erotic energy amazes, considering the topic is a dandelion.  She makes love with her words. The reader is transported. 

Transport is a very apt word. The use of figurative language, associational leaps of time and space, and ecstatic moments of being are the realm of poetry.  In another poem by Mark Doty, "A Display of Mackerel," we find a juxtaposition of mackerel at a fish market with a Tiffany stained glass window and jewels displayed in a shop.  The "iridescent, watery, prismatics" can transport us between the body of a fish, to a soap bubble, to gems in a glass case.

They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity

barred with black bands,
which divide the scales’
radiant sections

like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window. 

It's a meditation on love and death, this meditation on mackerel.  Doty heightens the effect by
the use of high contrast. The fish are displayed on crushed ice, quickly followed by an image 
of sun on gasoline. The particular is considered along with the multitude. He puts no boundary
between the natural and the created, fish scale and jeweler's enamels, dead and alive. All is 
beauty.  "They're all exact expressions/ of the one soul..."  and 

Suppose we could iridesce, 

like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer--would you want

to be yourself only
unduplicatable, doomed
to be lost?  They'd prefer,

plainly, to be flashing participants,
multitudinous. Even now
they seem to be bolting

With mackerel, no less, Doty strikes at the fundamental questions of the individual and
communal. What is it for, he seems to ask, except for what he calls in The Art of Description,

Love, love, love. That's what all these poems are about. They demonstrate how poets enter 
writing through the body, explore with the senses, and leap into the figurative, reaching the 
metaphysical, all the while remaining connected to the physical body. 

Doty has a new book about writing, The Art of Description: World Into Word (Graywolf Press,
2010) that I recommend.  From a poets perspective, he examines splendid descriptive work
by various poets, Elizabeth Bishop, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Swenson, and that of many
others beside an abecedarian guide. 


Kiss & Tell Collective. (1991). Drawing the line: Lesbian sexual politics on the wall. Vancouver,
BC: Press Gang Publishers.

n.a. "Erotic and Pornographic Art: Lesbian," GLBTQ. An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture.  2002.  Retrieved 08 August 2007. http://www.glbtq.com/arts/erotic_art_lesbian.html

"Gold" by Donald Hall

"Little Lion Face" by May Swenson

"A Display of Mackerel by Mark Doty

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