Put Your Hands On Me: Poetry's Erotic Art.
"Words are so erotic. They never tire of their coupling."
No one I had ever met exhibited such a spontaneous mastery of language as Stanley Kunitz did--dedicated gardener, teacher, and poet, who lived inside his love of the art form until his death at age 100. I interviewed him at Sarah Lawrence College my senior year and loved him instantly. "Words are so erotic. They never tire of their coupling."
This is an aphorism, illuminating as a sacred mantra. Words are erotic, physical, always alive; they are a hinge to bodily and intellectual desire. Even before they create formal perfections of image and idea, they make sounds that move, and, yes, that make us sway and swoon. This is my mind's motion, and this, my fealty.
During those college years I named my love "Cookamunga Wilderness," because the more I loved him, the more he was transformed into an onomatopoetic wilderness of desire. He did a "Hopkins" to me, "parted me leaf and leaf." I wanted to devour him. I wanted to "vowel" him to death. The poetry-brain finds its way through aural recognition, coupling sounds and words the way babies embody and mouth their first attempts at language as shaped vowels and consonants, engendering a new love on the page of the imagination. I can now say that I am grateful for those silly articulated endearments, those moments arisen out of the sweet, inarticulate, carnal unconscious. I love it when a word doesn't exist, the "invented" word---it provides all the more room for wild analogy, for intimate exchange. We know Shakespeare invented more than two thousand words and phrases, including lonely, barefaced, hurry, hint, leapfrog, fretful, radiance and, of course, obscene....Words are erotic. Imagine them, sometimes peculiar and ripe like Galway Kinnell's gorgeous blackberries, falling "almost unbidden on the tongue."
They want to surprise the mouth, the meaning; they want to copulate there, to procreate; they want to explore their own bodily pleasure and that of their partners. Language in poetry looks for an accomplice. Each word is a cannibal, always hungry, voracious. The muse, a moon-haired cannibal, is always painfully in love. Compelled, consumed, consummated. As Kunitz also said: "The thing that eats the heart is mostly heart." Language, like desire, like pleasure, with its animal appetite, endlessly feeds on itself. In his Language of Life interview with Bill Moyers, Robert Hass brings the concept to life by saying: "Even in the middle of wanting, we want it." For poet Safiya Sinclair in her stunning debut collection Cannibal, it is the "self and somehow the self still blooming like a mouth / torqued open in the rain, beloved and returning, / beloved and asking again to be filled, asking only / to be tended to be bodied ..." With a kind of semantic ecstasy for carnage, like consciousness, Sinclair moves with unexpected purpose. Language, in its erotic ability to bloom like this, is a returning vehicle of self and is bodied forth through us, especially in poetry.
Language is Eros. Always surprising, it concocts an alchemical range, never offering one answer. It changes the body, the face. It resides in the mouth, the ribcage, nests in the back of the neck, carries music and dream out to sea. It is a hummingbird that fits in the closed palm of the hand, ready to fly. It goes pearling into the muddy oyster-darkness where we "have our dreams awake." Henry David Thoreau's darkness is refuge for those primal instincts to be aroused like "inhabitants of the jungle, in search of those silent and brooding thoughts which are the natural prey to the intellect," and, for the poet's purpose, prey to the imagination's sensorial intellect.
Victor Hugo knew that the "darkness is nuptial," where we marry life and death, desire and fear, even the polygamous past, present, and future. Anne Carson declares that "Eros is a verb." It would stand then, it resides in the domain of desire and is always in motion, like language and like the mind. It is present tense, sometimes, when tamed, in a subjunctive mood. With the sound of words, language as a vehicle moves a poem forward, slows down and speeds up, providing the momentum of the mind as it pursues the "right" word-partner, chasing its beloved in a fertile process of possession. In this regard, Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the all-time great seducers. "That Nature Is A Heraclitean Fire" makes me weak in the knees every time I read it. Here, taste it with me again:
That Nature Is A Heraclitean Fire Cloud-puffhall, torn tufts, tossed pillows 'flaunt forth, then chevy on an air built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs' they throng; they glitter in marches. Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash,' wherever an elm arches, Shivelights and shadowtackle in long 'lashes lace, lance, and pair. Delightfully the bright wind boisterous 'ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare Of yestertempest's creases; in pool and rut peel parches Squandering ooze to squeezed 'dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches Squadroned masks and manmarks 'treadmire toil there Footfretted in it. Million-fueled,' natures bonfire burns on. But quench her bonniest, dearest' to her, her clearest-selved spark Man, how fast his firedint, 'his mark on mind, is gone! Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark Drowned. O pity and indig 'nation! Manshape, that shone Sheer off, disseveral, a star, 'death blots black out; nor mark Is any of him at all so stark But vastness blurs and time 'beats level. Enough! the Resurrection, A heart s-clarion! Away grief's gasping,' joyless days, dejection. Across my foundering deck shone A beacon, an eternal beam. 'Flesh fade, and mortal trash Fall to the residuary worm; 'world's wildfire, leave but ash: In a flash, at a trumpet crash, I am all at once what Christ is, 'since he was what I am, and This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, 'patch, matchwood, immortal diamond. Is immortal diamond.
The "bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare" in the great bed of the poem. The round vowels intend solace, roll us forward, and draw us in, intimately close; the strange rhythms and hard consonants change the involuntary pace of our breathing and create an excitement in their treason of everyday speech. If this diction were not so precise, the lines might feel unruly. Although forged in the wildfire of this poet's bewitching double-fisted music, the words actually begin to imply an ease, an accumulative reciprocity--like kissing. The physiology of the phrases represents his metaphysical love of God. Language, body, spirit and the beloved, all become one within a single revelatory moment of knowing. In poetry we want to "know" our partners--our lifelong partner, resonance. What Hopkins illuminates and illustrates is the sacred-inseparable, not unlike Rilke's "necessary inseparable, definitive utterance" of the self that causes us to feel we belong to the other, which makes us feel we are whole. Naturally, fresh language combinations and Eros-propelled sound serve to enhance the metaphorical argument in a poem; they create new intimate reverence, assist in denouement, and, with musical conviction, make the metaphor "belong."
Like sex, the sensuous coupling of words and the use of metaphor are primitive and privileged ways of being in the world. Sartre claimed the imagination was a privileged state of consciousness. I say it begins in a privileged state of unconsciousness where the erotic impulse sleeps and wakes, sleeps and wakes again. "Vibrantly incarnate" (H.D.), it woos and woos, then says a resounding "yes." After this affirmation, everything seems possible. Wallace Stevens reminds us: "After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends." Though poetry thrives in the erotic present tense yes-excitement of being alive, it also gives way to death. Psychology and philosophy alike won't let us ignore the sex and death mirror, where, when we get very close, our visible breath is also the invisible ghost we leave behind. In the most intense moments of the sexual act, one "loses oneself," nearly losing consciousness. Heather McHugh says, "acts of language too are acts of elegy" and like the love act "mean to mean some endlessness, and yet are throbbed through with ends, with a mortal metric." Something suddenly courses through our blood the way the sun coaxes forth a plant from within the soil. For that plunge into fertile darkness, we flower like Roethke's orchids, lean with his night-flowering, earth-fisted language, divided between death and the will to live moment to moment, to live in the fertile imagination. Here, like Theodore Roethke, "I'm awake all over." Molly Bendall's work always transposes sensuality with surprising elements of subject and linguistic invention. In her collection, Watchful, she allows "the sobbing / [to] take on a rhapsody" and the "big chrysanthemum flirt with death inside." There's a rhythmic course of action that coincides with provoking le petit mort, when thought and feeling work in concert. In "Spectacle"
A breeze draws a furrow in his hair, and strings' meat gets licked away. Twilight's pulse thrumming like so-bellowing near my own throat.
"Thrumming like so" our creature selves vibrate, bellow, bear witness to the physiology in language as part of our relationship to the endangered animal world that is also our world. We work inside poetry's thrumming beehive: We take wing, float, soar, and reel in a sweet tailspin through the compliant brothels of pollen, all in the process-occasion of making a poem. Eroticism becomes rebirth, a pilgrimage to the true primitive self. When words are aurally erotic, they ring true. On this long, eventful journey, we constandy reinvent ourselves. Call it kinetic creation from the body and the mind. I think of Man Ray's photograph Fixed-explosive where the dance, the woman, the dress, together inhabit one wild movement. Mary Jo Bang's poem "The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity" revels in its own linguistic passion-play between the mental and the physical:
We were going coward nothing all along. Honing the acoustics, heralding the instant shifts, horizontal to vertical, particle to plexus, morning to late, lunch to later yet, instant to over. Done to overdone. And all against a pet-shop cacophony, the roof withstanding its heavy snow load. So, winter. And still The spider speaking to the fly. Come in, come in.
This feels like an ars poetica, going ... honing ... withstanding and inviting us to "come in." Eros, the asteroid, was discovered in 1898 and is said to get closer to the earth than any other celestial body, except the moon. The deep dance pull of the poem (and music!) intones a primitive elegiac knell from the center of our planet and the center of our bodies. We are going toward nothing and everything at once, like the astrophysics of a binary star.
Consider Henry James: "Our passion is our task." This conviction amounts to our inspired, untamed self-making, something we need and love, and require. Allen Ginsberg offers another version: "Follow your inner moonlight. Don't hide the madness." Art has taught us that passion, as a form of madness that disassembles the senses, is not only good for the process, but for the intellectual soul. For many artists, eroticism plays an integral role in their work and in its madness-as-intuition, in its role-playing entanglements. When else do we feel such vitality? Magritte wrote about himself that "one pure and powerful sentiment, eroticism, kept [him] from falling at that time into a more traditional search for formal perfection." He concludes that what he really wanted was "to provoke emotional shock" for himself and for us, a diversion from how we perceive. Somehow looking at Magritte's images, I, too, am reminded that in the midst of poetry's heavy breathing, or co-breathing, a new emotional and visual provocation has been aroused. The unexpected result forces us to revise our expectation of the world around us in a way that our whole body is asked to be part of the experience. I know I think with my body, perhaps the way Stevens knew that "the tongue is an eye." I have felt this while reading Hart Crane! Here's some excerpted sections from the poem "Voyages ":
I ... The sun beats lightning on the waves, The waves fold thunder on the sand; And could they hear me I would tell them: O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog. Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached By time and the elements; but there is a line You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast. The bottom of the sea is cruel. II --And yet this great wink of eternity. Of rimless floods, unlettered leewardings. Samite sheeted and processioned where Her undinal vast belly moonward bends, Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love; Take this Sea, whose diapason knells On scrolls of silver snowy sentences, The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends As her demeanors motion well or ill, All but the pieties of lovers' hands. ... Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours, And hasten while her penniless rich palms Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,--Hasten, while they are true,--sleep, death, desire. Close round one instant in one floating flower. III Wide from your side, whereto this hour The sea lifts, also, reliquary hands. And so, admitted through black swollen gates That must arrest all distance otherwise,--Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments, Light wrestling there incessantly with light, Star kissing star through wave on wave unto Your body rocking! and where death, if shed, Presumes no carnage, but this single change.--Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn The silken skilled transmemberment of song;
Permit me voyage, love, into your hands....
Crane provides a new synesthetic color field with his sensual language. Permit us voyage, into the hands of each line, "through wave on wave unto/Your body rocking!" The poem's rhythmic force is faithful to its metaphysical yearning, the "secret oar" steering us through the thundering waves, on course with the blue "latitudes and levels" of the lover's eyes. We enter the imagination's ear-as-eye, sending the mind's body in motion with a truly corporeal set of sounds that become a collectively somatic, visceral experience. There's also a pleasant sense of danger, a possible treason of heart at hand. What we see strikes at the heart of what is known, to assign Magritte s delightful sense of treason, "transpiring as foreknown," to the mystery of Crane's poem. In The Human Condition, Magritte wrote, "but the main thing was to eliminate the difference between a view seen from outside and from inside ..." and so, too, we are brought back to the intent of the poet and the bright spectrum of language created from a new view. Crane surprises us with his formal density and informal desolate beauty born out of a language both internal and external. Dean Young's poem "Restoration Ode" also surprises, utilizes both formal perfection and informal image like the "undestroyed, knocked-down nest" in the second to last stanza. Isn't surprise a key element in the erotic exchange?
RESTORATION ODE What tends toward orbit and return, comets and melodies, robins and trash trucks restore us. What would be an arrow, a clove to pierce our hearts restore us. Restore us minutes clustered like nursing baby bars and minutes that are shards of glass. Mountains that are vapor, mice living in cathedrals, and the heft and lightness of snow restore us. One hope inside dread, "Oh what the hell' inside "I can't' like a pearl inside a cake of soap, love in lust in loss, and the tub filled with dirt in the backyard restore us. Sunflowers, let me wait, let me please see the bridge again from my smacked-up desk on Euclid, jog by the Black Angel without begging, dream without thrashing. Let us be quick and accurate with the knife and everything that dashes restore us, salmon, shadows buzzing in die wind, wren trapped in the atrium, and all that stills at last, my friends cat, a pile of leaves after much practice, and ash beneath die grate, last ember winked shut restore us. And the one who comes out from the back wiping his hands on a rag, saying, "Who knows, there might be a chance." And one more undestroyed, knocked-down nest stitched with cellophane and dental floss, one more gif t to gently shake and one more guess and one more chance.
Like "love in lust in loss," the poem's longing creates a tipping, a tangle (all cluster and shard and lightness of snow alike) toward revivifying the familiar, toward "more chance" and so, toward a de-territorialized new beginning. Young says it in The Art Of Recklessness: "The imagination in this formation is fundamentally erotic as it finds itself in perpetual and on-going mythos of orgasmic self-reformation through encounter with otherness."
Artist Robert Rauschenberg's silkscreened boxes Carnal Clocks (1969), electronic assemblages, depicting explicit sexualized body parts and an assortment of other disparate objects, such as drainpipes and flowers, were arranged and set in motion with timed light bulbs revealing random and continuous combinations of the faint images. Like poetry's intent toward "otherness," to begin again, to take risks, to advert the subject matter, and to try on new unexpected association-combinations, Rauschenberg's desire to move away from the boring image-predictability association of even something like pornography works on the body-psyche in the same way. It was the juxtaposing process of the clock telling time, not the flesh images themselves that revealed the erotic impulse. About his work, he commented, "no two people will see the same thing." If the poet is lucky, and "words ... [will] never tire of their coupling," then no two poems/readers will reveal/see the same thing either.
In E.E. Cummings' poem, "my father moved through dooms of love," the poet's father moves through "griefs of joy; / praising a forehead called the moon / singing desire into begin." There is a rendering of a new voice from which to sing. Singing a "desire into begin" makes the verb begin the new noun; now the noun, paradoxically a stopping place, withholds potential action, The lines work like a magnet for those tiny metal filings surrounding the heart's intellect. Breath for breath, he motions us into the poem's "octobering flame," so we are moving with the "theys of we, / singing each new leaf out of each tree." Despite, and
though dull were all we taste as bright, bitter all utterly things sweet, maggoty minus and dumb death all we inherit,
we are translated by "his song and joy so pure / a heart of star by him could steer" with the poem's own desire, metrically marching forward "through dooms of feel" back toward love. My own libidinous adventuring (Flaubert describes a sentence as only an adventure) into language materializes from poetry's erotic move away from the commonplace, its great inheritance where "[w]onder has no opposite and is the first of the passions" (Descartes) where trope negotiates a new sensory place for seeing. As with Shakespeare, whose original "hell-broth, boil and bubble" in our mouths drives us to cook up some of our own passion stew, here the hungry "bruised heart was pierced through the ear." Poetry's aural divine presence is "therefore desire" left inside and set endlessly in motion.
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|Author:||Byrne, Elena Karina|
|Publication:||Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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