Some time ago, I mentioned to Theric during his series on the erotic in LDS literature and to MoJo shortly thereafter that I was on the verge of tackling something similar. I finally teetered over that edge and this essay—this rhetorical attempt—in which I grapple with the moral/spiritual uses of eroticism (of reading erotic texts, of reading with an erotic bend, etc.), is the result. I read it at the Intermountain Graduate Conference held last Saturday (April 11) at Idaho State and it was well received by the seven others who were in the room.
In view of the fact that part of this textual performance centers on a reading of Javen Tanner’s poem, “Eden” (scroll down) and that my Mormonness serves as a backdrop to my words, I’m posting it here as part of the Mormon Poetry Project I’ve been chasing all month.
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“I Took It To Mean”: An Ethics of Textual Intimacy
Recently I’ve become conscious that an erotic critical persona has been looking over my shoulder, whispering seductive suggestions in my ear as I read and write. He’s a logophilic character, at once playful with words (if at times adolescent) and deeply concerned and intimate with language, even one deeply concerned because he’s been intimate with language for so long and he’s got a family he doesn’t intend to destroy with the affair. He’s broken the news to his wife, who has graciously agreed to stay and not to out him in front of their three little girls because, frankly, she believes he can change and thinks the girls are still young enough not to catch on.
But he thinks the older two know. They’ve seen him sneaking around, carrying on with this book or that essay, story, or poem, always with pen and journal in hand. They’ve even taken to carrying around their own books (and sometimes his), their own papers, pens, and pencils, though he’s not worried just yet. Their passion, like their handwriting and the scribbled notes they leave laying around the house—in the kitchen, the hallway, the bedrooms—is still embryonic, unrefined, indiscriminate. They’re still quite young and haven’t yet developed the good sense or the guile to cover their tracks, to conceal the pulsions of sensual and nascent intellectual desire beneath the gauzy film of words. Still, he’s sure they wonder what he’s up to when they catch him staring off into space, fantasizing about how best to undress each text, to seduce his way into the gaps between textual bodies, to slip beneath the cover of language where he can explore the flesh behind words, can trace skin ripe with intention and passion and vulnerability to his textual delight.
It’s not necessarily that he finds it easy to be exposed every time and before every text he reads, though there is a certain pleasure that comes of letting down one’s psycho-emotional guard, of submitting to a writer’s rhetorical caress. And it’s not that he hops into bed with every pretty or witty text he picks up online or at the library. He needs to know there’s more going on than just linguistic chemistry, that there’s more beneath the words than just a well-proportioned textual body or the free flow of passion and consciousness or the desire to connect, to commune, to procreate—to know and be known by the world. He needs more than rhetorical foreplay to encourage him to bare his secret parts to another textual body, to connect with a text in the most human sense, simply because he knows there’s more to language than mere erotics. He does, after all, subscribe to a certain ethics of textual intimacy. He does have some moral standards.
And while his erotic morality might seem somewhat paradoxical, especially in light of his virginal, ultra-chaste Mormon upbringing, his textual ethics (he assures me) can’t really be separated from this Mormonness and from his conviction that sensual experience, as the still waters of the twenty-third Psalm, can be sacramental to the soul.
I take up this rhetorical performance from the beginning in “Eden,” the opening poem of Javen Tanner’s chapbook Curses For Your Sake. Here I meet the poet at a dinner party where, not satiated by the “proxies” (line 2) of “satisfaction” (1) available there—“guests, food, chatter” (3)—he longs for something more, something that can take him beyond temporary and superficial human companionship, beyond gastronomic appetite and delight, beyond the idle and incessant flow of meaningless conversation. “And then,” he says, just as this incarnate psycho-emotional yearning surfaces in a string of disjointed words, “she was at my side” (4; italics added). Reflective of the Biblical moment when Adam awoke from his God-induced sleep to find Eve at his side—his rib, his bosom companion, “bone of [his] […] bones, and flesh of [his] […] flesh” (Gen. 2:23)—the language of this sudden awakening points to a revisionary reading of Eden, a version in which the poet’s use of allusion and imagery anchors us to the essentials of Edenic mythology even as he self-consciously employs the interpretive dynamics of language to reveal redemptively regenerative variations of that mythology.
This process of textual regeneration begins as the woman speaks: “Meet me in the garden,” she says (line 5). I read her appeal on two levels, one figurative, the other more literal, though, in terms of this poem, neither can really be separated from the other. On a more literal level (or at least to be taken literally within the realm of literature), I expect any reenactment of Eden to take place in a garden, a space separate from the chaos of civilization, and to engage representatives of Adam and Eve in a struggle to understand relationships between, among other things, material and spiritual bodies, male and female, human and divine. Tanner’s depiction is no different: shortly after his presence is requested outside, we find the poet anxiously “wait[ing]” in the garden, though, in the beginning, he is “distracted” by “the laughter from the house, / the ruinous clatter of dishes, // the air sick with warm sugar” (10-13) as it settles around him, drifting outside through an open door or window.
Adding the figurative to this reading of the woman’s request, however, heightens the dramatic effect of the poem’s paradisiacal setting, lending its Edenic mythology a greater sense of immediacy. The poet models such a revisionary personal figuration when he interprets the invitation in this way: says he,
I took it to mean,
Come with me
and we will be buried in water,
fire, nomenclature, earth (6-9).
The double entendre implied in the phrase “Come with me” suggests, not only that the poet understands the woman’s desire to meet, but that desire is the reason for the meeting and that the mutual coming of sexual desire will ultimately consummate the pair’s union. To be “buried” in this sensuous pleasure; to be immersed in the rush of fluids, the passion, the organizational construct of sexual intercourse, the most earthy mortal craving; is to pass into a ritually enacted relationship between the sexes that essentially serves as the source and metaphor for the broader connection between material and immaterial bodies across time and space. For what is sex but the primal (re)generative ritual meant to unite physical bodies in the propagation of the species and the shared invigoration of the flesh?
In other words, as Alicia Ostriker observes in speaking about the intersection of poetic language and human passion, this “impulse to connect” bodies—whether those entities be words, lovers, or generations; flesh, psyche, and spirit; subject and object, artist and viewer, poet and reader—and thereby “to perceive unities across the conventional boundaries of separation” is “always implicitly erotic, always a form a making love.”1 As Tanner seems to suggest in his interpretation of the woman’s words, it’s this impulse and the myriad reflections of it that, in effect, motivate the ritual processes bound up in the relationship between man and woman, in religious ceremonies (as baptism by “water” and by “fire”), in human entrance into language (that arbitrarily organized system of signs through which we name our experience with the world), and in our approach to death—or in the terms of this poem, our “buri[al] in […] / [… the] earth.”
With this metonymic impulse subtly marked in mind and with the lyric voice of the poem—its union of word, sound, rhythm, and sense—pulsing through my body as I verbalize the poet’s unique combination of words, when the woman says, “You’ve come” (17) after “appear[ing in the garden] / under the heavy shadow // of a peach tree” (14-16), I read her words as an assertion of my scopophilic presence in the poem, one felt more keenly as I engage the accent placed on “come” and then pause at the period’s full stop. Even more specifically, however, I read her statement as a recognition of the psycho-emotional climax I experience as my voice engages with hers and with the poet’s and we consummate the image of a “heav[ily] shadow[ed] / […] peach tree” as a pregnant “shadow” or type for the woman’s sexually ripe body.
Following the poet’s lead, I take this recognition “to mean” that Woman, as representative of Eve, in his interpretation of her words, “will multiply [my][…] sorrow, / spread serpents at [my] […] heels, / spit curses for [my] […] sake” (19-21). The destructive, yet paradoxically redemptive, implications of this sentence—that the seed of woman, which is ultimately the Word, is essentially the motivating and mitigating factor behind human suffering and joy—are contained in its final phrase. Extracted from the decree God directed towards Adam and Eve at the moment he expelled them from the Garden of Eden, “curses for your sake” suggests that moral paradox and ambiguity form the developmental crux of mortality. In other words, the pain, suffering, and even, as the poet calls them, the “proxies” of satisfaction that arise from our experiences in and with a fallen world (the objects or relationships that point us toward or prepare us for the ultimate satisfaction of spiritual and physical salvation) all work toward our ultimate advantage and enhancement as human beings and human communities. Tanner’s lyrical performance thus proposes that temporary physical and psychical discomforts and losses can prepare us for more lasting psychological, rhetorical, and spiritual connections and consolations.
But how much, really, can I trust my reading? How intimate have I actually been with the text? And, more importantly, why does that matter?
During the first day of an undergraduate sculpture class, the professor mentioned that the next week we’d be working from a live model. As a fairly new husband, I took the proposition home to my wife, who guessed, with a not so subtle look at my jeans, that every male in the class got excited when we heard we’d be sculpting a naked woman. That I’d continue with the class was never a question: neither of us thought I should stage a personal demonstration on moral or religious grounds. (I am, after all, a Mormon, and naked bodies generally don’t jibe with the public lifestyle). Besides, we considered, if I was going to finish a degree in art (something I never did), this would just be the first of many forays with an unclothed, non-spousal, flesh and blood human figure. The real question, then, as my wife put it, was whether or not my first nude model would be young and hot or old and not. (She held with the latter.) Either way, she reminded me, adultery would end in a quick and ignominious death, followed by divorce.
With that in mind the next week, I gathered my drawing materials and went to class, resolved to walk away with my virtue—and my life and marriage—intact. Then the inevitable happened: Sitting in a chair against the classroom’s back wall, I watched as a sixtyish, pear-shaped woman walked in with her arthritic Golden Retriever. After setting her things on a table and telling the dog to lie down, she asked the professor where she could undress. A few minutes later she returned, covered in a thin, utterly unflattering robe, which she then untied and let fall into a heap on the dusty floor. Reaching for my bag, I sighed at my wife’s prescience, grabbed my sketchpad and a graphite stick, and turned to outline the woman who had posed herself upright on a low pedestal, one foot behind the other in an awkward pirouette, hands interlaced behind her head, her body arching and increasingly vulnerable, her secret parts an open book, waiting to be read and revisioned by the class.
A few weeks later I withdrew from the course, though not because I feared the moral or marital repercussions of my art. Rather—and I can see this now—I’d begun to slip further beneath the surface of language, to define myself less as a visual artist and more as a poet, one more intent on sculpting bodies with words than with clay. I’m convinced it was this poet—the one most in tune with my body’s rhythms—who drove me from that classroom and from a career in the plastic arts because he sensed I could only be happy running my fingers over a text’s linguistic and rhetorical features and breaking that textual bread with others over the altar of humanity. Or, to mix my metaphors, he knew I might bear the ripest fruit, I suppose, while stretching my textual roots through the fertile soil of other rhetorical bodies. He innately understood, perhaps, that this erotic inclination is one deeply human(istic) way of reaping the harvest of experience that ripens beneath another’s textu(r)al skin.
I’m not just saying all this to justify some perverted sense of sexuality, though as Roland Barthes has it, taking erotic pleasure in textual bodies is a type of perversion,2 no matter the morality we try to impose on the act. As the fully-embodied and engaged poet and reader I claim to be, then, I just need to embrace my deviance, to commune with the erotic critical persona who’s slid from his relatively distant (and thus less risky) place at my shoulder, into my skin. Then, perhaps, I’ll be better able, like the poet of “Eden,” to “smell the fruit / hidden in [the woman’s] hands,” to find in this keenly sensual object that’s “forbidden” to my actual senses, the key “necessary” to unlock an ethically (pro)creative union with Tanner’s world. (22-4).
In my reading, such a consummation comes in the poem’s last four stanzas as the poet hears a door open and, through that fissure into another world, a voice—perhaps God’s, perhaps a party guest’s, perhaps both—“call[s his] name” (26), teasing him with this very specifically directed word to join them inside. But the poet ultimately refuses the connection—“once, twice, gone” (27)—choosing instead to stay with the woman, whose ripeness seeps through the poet’s line just as the peach she’s “split” drips juice in her hand (28).
I’ve sensed a rise in this pheremonic tide from the outset of the poem with the alliterative dance that increasingly lingers on the ridge between my lips and my palate, as here:
She split the peach,
from her fingers,
and said, “Here, taste” (28-31).
And it’s all I can do not to taste the sounds as they caress my tongue until meaning quite literally explodes from the friction between the line and my mouth in the concluding two stanzas. The poet sets the stage for this rhetorical consummation by reiterating the ethics of textual interpretation. After the woman speaks for this third time, saying “Here, taste,” as she offers him the juice from her fingers, the poet says, “I took this to mean” (32), a repetition of the phrase he’s offered in her response to each of her first two comments.
I take this echo, not only as a prompt to respond to this poem as I’d respond to a flesh and blood body, reading and interpreting the cues its dropped to help me experience its full textuality, but also as a suggestion of the poet’s procreative proclivity, his penchant to spark new worlds, to seed new bodies by making seemingly small gestures within the text—or, alternately (because I’ve recognized the patriarchal movement of my words) his ability, as vessel of word and experience, to grow these worlds in and as an extension of himself, to nurture these bodies into full-grown rhetorical realities.
Tanner ultimately embodies these halves of a sexual whole in the phonetics of his concluding interpretative attempt. After his reiterated phrase, “I took this to mean,” he riffs off of the woman’s directive thus:
Here is my heart,
delicious and desirable.
See how it beats and bleeds,
how it breaks to heal itself.
By lacing his line with a full range of sounds and, thus, of articulative poses—the tongue begins on a glottal “h,” then moves back and forth along the alveolar ridge with “delicious and desirable,” which spills over into the bilabial, assonant ejaculations of “beat,” bleed,” and “break”—the poet employs the hermaphroditic copulation of consonants to encourage full engagement with his textual body.
As I consent to this engagement with the semiotics of “Eden,” I enter into an ethics of textual intimacy; that is, by submitting to the power the words on the page exert over my mind, my words, my body, heart, and soul; by slipping beneath the cover of language and making myself vulnerable to the textual body, reading its cues—its secret parts—and sculpting my response accordingly, my physical and psychological rhythms explode into meaning. And a new text is born of the smoldering matter between us, a rhetorical offspring whose genealogy extends through the revisionary conjugation of Tanner’s and my intertextual genes. Today it was this text; tomorrow, perhaps, it may have been another. Whatever the case, I’m more and more convinced that the ethos of my textual relationships, the characteristic ways in which I draw back any given artifact’s skin, is defined by how much of myself I’m willing to divulge in that moment of intertextual intimacy; and the more I feel I can give, the deeper the well of communion runs.
So while I’m here, sliding between worlds, between words, wrestling beneath cover of language, trying to resist the bibliography tickling my tongue and to keep the orthodox Mormon in me from damning myself for being so sensual; and while you’re there, I can only assume, confronting the voyeuristic urge to take pleasure in my naked, pear-bodied posing or even to avoid it altogether, I find myself slipping further into the material that binds us as a human community—into shared morals, into mutual passion, into language.
And I extend my hand through the veil of words.
Take it however you will.
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1) “I Am (Not) This: Erotic Discourse in Elizabeth Bishop and Sharon Olds,” Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2000), 38-9.
2) See The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang, 1975, 9-10.