Tuesday, November 06, 2007

I'm always bowled over by a good sex poem. If a poet seeks to unbind herself from the conventional ways of speaking—and of seeing—the sex poem is very dangerous terrain. On the “new ways of speaking” front, writing must find ways to negotiate the topics of love and sex, with all the snares set by cliché, pat phrase and meaningless idiom. And on the other front—the “new ways of seeing” approach—there are only a very few sex acts that get any play whatsoever in verse and by writing outside those, it's easy to find yourself entirely without vocabulary, toolless and very much alone.

So poetry often looks at things from strange angles and sex is no exception. And sex is something badly in need of discussion in all its unspoken iterations. If I follow my fake dichotomy (“new ways of speaking” versus “new ways of seeing”), I want to divide up my favourite sex poems along that axis—while of course recognizing its limited usefulness. At the one end is, say, bill bissett, the Canadian avant garde grenade, and at the other end is the salacious, conversational poetry of Sky Gilbert and billeh nickerson. Somewhere in the middle is Elizabeth Bachinsky's frenetic “She is blonde sin” (reproduced here). Bachinsky's syntactically adventurous manner of writing and the poem's formal constraint (it's an anagram of “On His Blindness” isn't it?) prove she's a word-nerd first, but its content is so glorious one friend of mine carries a copy of “She is blonde sin” in her wallet. Delightful.

I feel like I'm being a bit defensive here, because the poem I want to talk about is likely to surprise some.

The Connoisseuse of Slugs
Sharon Olds

When I was a connoisseuse of slugs
I would part the ivy leaves, and look for the
naked jelly of those gold bodies,
translucent strangers glistening along the
stones, slowly, their gelatinous bodies
at my mercy. Made mostly of water, they would shrivel
to nothing if they were sprinkled with salt,
but I was not interested in that. What I liked
was to draw aside the ivy, breathe the
odor of the wall, and stand there in silence
until the slug forgot I was there
and sent its antennae up out of its
head, the glimmering umber horns
rising like telescopes, until finally the
sensitive knobs would pop out the
ends, delicate and intimate. Years later,
when I first saw a naked man,
I gasped with pleasure to see that quiet
mystery reenacted, the slow
elegant being coming out of hiding and
gleaming in the dark air, eager and so
trusting you could weep.

(from The Dead and the Living, 1984, Alfred Knopf)

The Connoisseuse of Slugs does what I want any good poem to do: confound my expectations. The first sixteen lines quietly explain the premise. Then the final sextet turns the poem on its head (so to speak), revealing the poem's subject: human intimacy. Like the slug that slowly reveals itself, the poem puts out its antennae into human relationships only in the final quarter of the poem.

Think of a date. Often, the bulk of the evening is spent sharing anecdotes of varying degrees of intimacy. Sex is not the stated subject, yet both partners are judging desirability and availability based on those early cues. The naked man in any explicit sense only appears later, although his appearance realligns the previous conversation. And here, the gentleness of the narrator's final assertion—“eager and so / trusting you could weep”—is magnified by the slowness of the piece's build-up. A lovely and surprising poem.