All We Know of Pleasure: Poetic Erotica by Women Edited by Enid Shomer
Durham, NC; Blair/Carolina Wren Press, 2018, 224 pp., $17.95, paperback
Reviewed by Brook J. Sadler
Sex sells. This truism is evidenced in ubiquitous advertising, popular media, and the insidious leviathan that is pornography. Yet the more “open” we become about sex, the more banal and predictable seem to be the dominant images of it. Sex and sexuality are reduced to an almost vivisectional display of bodies and body parts that would appear perverse if we weren’t so thoroughly acculturated to it. The intensity of sexual experience is reduced to physical grappling, akin to an extreme sport or a cardio workout. Sexual relationship is reduced to a caricature of conquest, resistance, and submission. The proliferation of sexual imagery objectifies both men and women—addressing bodies as things available for manipulation, not persons who are the subjects of experience. The sexual imagery we as a culture produce and consume is largely rote and unimaginative, following phallocentric scripts that enlist and reinforce masculinist assumptions about power and pleasure. Thus, at the same time that we are saturated with representations of sex, we are increasingly impoverished by these images, deprived of the genuinely erotic.
In this cultural context, a book of erotic poems appears as an act of protest, an attempt to reclaim the sensual, mysterious, and deeply human experience of sex. A book of erotic poems by women, coming at a time when female sexual autonomy is publicly represented largely by women’s speaking out against sexual harassment and assault, amplifies the implicit protest: Women’s voices can not only resist sexual domination but redirect us toward a life-affirming view of sexuality. In the introduction to her new anthology All We Know of Pleasure: Poetic Erotica by Women, Enid Shomer makes only the briefest mention of a political point, noting that the women’s movement has made possible a “rising tide of erotic literature” by women. With the political context laying low, Shomer expresses the hope that the book may be a “monument to the primal power of sex.”
The monument Shomer has assembled is constructed of 114 poems by 70 poets. There is not a dud among them. If the glossy images and repetitive video tropes of commercialized sex have made it into something vulgar or dull, here the evocative, inventive power of words is made clear: In these poems, most of which are fewer than 30 lines, the erotic comes to life in simple typeface. Shomer’s collection exemplifies her stated view of poetry’s ability to both “celebrate” and “solemnify” significant events. These are poems that enliven the mind and spirit, arouse the senses, and honor the emotional complexity of the erotic. I don’t know if poets make better lovers (I doubt it), but reading this little book might make you wonder, if not about the erotic abilities of poets, then about the connection between linguistic expression and erotic experience.
The leading poem of the book insists upon this connection: A woman reading “licks her finger, little flick / of tongue and fingertip” to turn the page, and in this moment, an erotic possibility surges. She feels a syllable “bobbing on the tongue,” and her attention is turned from the page to fantasy and (presumably) masturbation as she “lays aside her book.” There, the poem ends, inviting its reader to follow the poet’s subject into the private moment that lies beyond the final line (Kathleen Flenniken, “A Woman Reading”). Shomer could not have made a smarter choice to open the collection; here, language is both physical—on the page, in the mouth—and mental, a concurrence of literal and imaginative meanings. As is the erotic.
The variety of meanings that comprise the erotic experience of women is loosely organized by Shomer into three sections. In the “The Discovery of Sex,” we become privy to girlish experimentation, adolescent curiosity and risk-taking, and adult delight in the joy, beauty, and power of pleasure and of possessing a female body. “Discovery” addresses both the individual experience of first sexual encounters and the deepening realizations of the value and potency of sexual relationships. Elizabeth Alexander ’s “At Seventeen” captures youthful lust: “I want to do it, want to snort and root / and forage in your skin and apertures.”
Sharon Olds observes “his face cocked / back as if in terror”— the reality of male orgasm coming as something of a shock in her “First Sex.” This section closes, suitably, with Jane Hirshfield’s discovery that when the conversation and wine have drained off, what is left is the “sediment dark / at bottom between us, desire” (“Desire”). The second section, “The Ordinary Day Begins,” places the erotic in the context of other daily concerns, domestic life, and long-term relationships. In this group of poems, sex is a familiar experience, though it still has the power to startle, uproot, unsettle. In Molly Peacock’s “The Purr,” arousal is a “hum / in me, the sound something numb come alive makes.” It is a “mysterious thrum // that science can’t yet explain.” That sex has a power which exceeds explanation is a recurrent theme. The exorbitant significance of sex as an event is highlighted by Lorna Dee Cervantes’s “The Best Seven Minutes of My Life,” where “all the ways to live and love” spill forth “in seven / minutes of wonder, and wounding, or less,” proving that sex, like poetry, can be a relatively short form, but nonetheless potent.
Buried in the ordinariness of life, the erotic sends up its surprising shoots: “Sometimes my desire scares me,” writes Stacie Cassarino from the kitchen (“In the Kitchen”). And Amy Gerstler playfully observes, “When we fuck, stars don’t peer down: they can’t. / We fornicate indoors, under roofs, under wraps.” Great sex can take place without a romantic view of the stars, on any number of “couches, cots, and benches” (“Housebound”). The erotic is clearly capable of infiltrating quotidian spaces, as when Dorianne Laux describes a “fullthroated,” orgasmic scream while having sex “on the floor of your office, the dirty carpet / under my back” (“2AM”). Erotic energy cannot be contained but persists even in the most un-sensuous of locations, amid the most stultifying routines.
In the book’s third section, “When This Old Body,” there are poems that address aging, as one might expect. For example, Ellen Bass marvels at the public and passionate kisses of a middle-aged woman in “Gate C22.” But more than reflections on the aging body, these poems coalesce because of a deeper resonance; they share an earned wisdom. Maya Angelou acknowledges the magnetism of the female body with pride in her “Phenomenal Woman,” who, just by walking into a room, makes the “The fellows stand or / Fall down on their knees.” In a forceful womanist poem, Lucille Clifton rejoices in her “big hips,” her “mighty hips” (“homage to my hips”). Katherine Riegel owns up to caring “less/and less about appropriate and more and more / about wanting, about moans and sighs” (“To Endings”). In her “After Love,” Maxine Kumin sharply observes that sex is a temporary reprieve: “Afterwards, the compromise.”
In truth, the range of erotic experience, observation, and wisdom traversed by the poems in this collection is so great that it seems a disservice to attempt to sample it. But it may help to summarize it. The key word in Shomer’s title is “know.” What is it that women poets know about the erotic? They know that erotic experience is a kind of absorption: the self is absorbed in its body, in the body of the other, in the present moment, and the lovers are absorbed into the world. This absorption requires a heightened awareness, focused attention, and a fundamental openness, a willingness to live “with reckless plenitude,” as Stacie Cassarino says (“Summer Solstice”). They know, too, that the erotic involves an unscripted, yet intelligible form of abandon. Sex is primeval; it is animal; it is instinctual; its pleasures are pleasures of the flesh. Animal imagery abounds in these pages. Barbara Goldberg clinches the point: “Anima, animus, we / descend into our evolutionary niche, / wild, demonic, from the bliss of it” (“Capitulation”). Yet we are human animals, and our erotic abandonment must take a human form; hence, its fundamental intelligibility, its aptness for linguistic representation.
Frequently, these poems summon the words “think,” “know,” and even “truth,” direct testament to the essential link between human sexuality and knowledge. Importantly, among the things that women know from erotic experience is men, as Alice Friman makes clear: “Husband, I tell you, there will be no end / to my knowing” (“Watching You in the Mirror”). The claim is expansive and the tone ominous, as women’s knowledge has always been perceived as a threat. There are additional revelations, surprising for their candor. Molly Peacock asks in her title “Have You Ever Faked an Orgasm?” and replies in the first line, “When I get nervous, it’s so hard not to.” The subsequent lines unfold with a lyric acuity to be savored. “The Sad Truth” of Ellen Bass’s poem is that though her lover is a woman, she sometimes misses a penis: “I miss / feeling it nudge me from behind in the night, / poking in between my legs. And the way it goes / out ahead, an envoy, blatant and exposed / on the open plain.”
Women know that moral ambiguity often accompanies the erotic. In “Attraction,” one of Shomer’s own poems, a woman knowingly succumbs to a seduction: “I put away objections / as quietly as quilts.” And in “Navy,” Barbara O’Dair walks a tenuous line between self-loathing and slut-shame, and defiant pride. She glories, “He jackknifed me over the bathtub faucet, / Fucked me four times that morning, / Fat and beating, like a fish.” Female desire should never be reduced to simple submission nor to any overly prettified, sentimental, or romanticized notions.
Though ambivalence and ambiguity surface in several poems, other more troubling aspects of female sexual experience are not fully represented. Few (if any) poems confront the real dangers of sex faced so often by women—the possibility that physical intimacy will lead to rape, assault, male aggression, social stigma, physical pain, unwanted pregnancy, or disease. Had such issues been included, the monument Shomer has constructed would have been very different—less celebratory, more documentary. Although we need poems like this—Cynthia Huntington’s complex poem about abortion, “Shot Up in the Sexual Revolution: The True Adventures of Suzy Creamcheese,” comes to mind— the decision to exclude them allows the book to enact a fully positive embrace of women’s sexual desire, a much-needed outlook. One of the things that makes reading this book such a pleasure is the way it functions as an antidote to the omnipresent news of misogyny and the bleak picture of the ways sex so often endangers women in our patriarchal culture.
All We Know of Pleasure demonstrates that we need language to disclose the erotic. The act of looking at bodies and their parts remains brute until it is transformed by the language of desire, sharpened by metaphor, held close by narrative, articulated from the perspective of real, feeling persons. Thus, as Deirdre Pope suggests in her “Desire,” it is not necessarily an anti-feminist act to focus on the parts of the body, to delight in their separateness: “clit // breasts // lips.” So often in these pages, bodies and genitals are described with a poetic appreciation that invites us to perceive in new ways our own experience of bodies as sites of meaning. Peacock speaks of “your scrotum / hung like an oriole’s nest,” imbuing the sexual encounter with a memorable tenderness and particularity (“The Purr”). When Bass writes of her lover, “I cherish / her sex—the puffy lips of the vulva / like ripe apricot halves,” the image communicates both the sweetness of the fruit and her loving regard (“The Sad Truth”). Even when the body is made analogous to the inanimate, the intrinsic subjectivity and individuality of persons and their bodies is never lost. The quality of the female gaze is displayed as agential and humanizing.
All We Know of Pleasure not only illuminates the need for intelligent erotica and for female-made representations of it, it also demonstrates how much we need the erotic, and all the subtle and vital freedom, joy, and togetherness it can deliver. In a culture overrun with the trivial and dehumanizing, Shomer has made a book that feels necessary.
Brook J. Sadler, Ph.D. is a professor of philosophy and a poet, teaching in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida. Her writing appears in numerous academic books and journals, literary periodicals, and at the Enid Shomer Ms. magazine blog.