My first book was The Book of Orgasms. Ever since, I have felt a little bit cursed. Because whenever I give a reading, people want me to read a poem about an orgasm. No matter how hard I try to find an alternative, I fail.
I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as an alternative to orgasms. Whether I like it or not, people come to my readings anticipating, and when they don’t get what they want, they fidget and talk. Sometimes they raise their hands and ask, When are we going to have an orgasm? And if I say never, they take out their cell phones and press their fingers rapidly into the pads, as if to assuage their disappointment and anxiety. I look out at the audience and see heads bent and hands active in laps. It’s true.
I told this to my French friend, Ann, who informed me that such behavior doesn’t happen in France. Even at the dinner table, one keeps his or her hands above the table cloth, and his elbows on the table. If the hands are beneath the table, if the hands can’t be seen, everyone knows what’s going on.
But, my French friend added, a poet like me can avert such problems. Just give everyone an orgasm right away. Just one will do for the average person. Then you can do with them what you please. When I complained that I was tired of my same old orgasms, she said, Make up a new one. A new orgasm for a new occasion. Why not?
So I am currently working on a new book of orgasms, orgasms inspired by my favorite poets, such as
these . . .
these . . .
Orgasms are bad news. In the town where I grew up, people didn’t allow them. They nipped them in the bud. Men and women dressed in heavy black cloaks. On windy days they looked like dark sails on the streets. By the time I was twelve, I wanted an orgasm. Just one, I said. I knew it was a bad idea. Wise men tried to convince me to behave. They explained that men and women were made in the image of God. We must live godly lives. God never had an orgasm. Neither should I.
I did my best to remain orgasm-less. But curiosity got the better of me.
One day I felt one. Fresh, alive, pungent. My soul left my body at once. It caught fire like paper. My face gave me away. Suddenly everyone knew. Especially the men. And such men! They were so obliging then. When no one was looking, they took off their coats and ties. They took off their white button-down shirts, their trousers, their shiny wingtip shoes, and their skinny black socks. The men became acrobats in disguise. How could I have ever guessed? And how could one, or once, have ever been enough? Like little h’ors d’ouevres! I consumed them all. I could not help myself. Though I was careful to examine each one carefully, and with utmost respect, to inspect their colors and sizes and shapes and flavors. Oh yes, I said, and thank you, and please, and yes.
And so it was that I came to write A Field Guide to Nudes. A Field Guide to Desires. A Field Guide to Orgasms . . .
I was so busy with my research, I had no time to reflect. No time to consider the consequence of my acts. Of course I should have known. The people were outraged. They chased me into the streets and out of the city gates. Now I can never go back. I live alone with my desires. With my dreams that never stop dreaming. With these orgasms that never stop singing my name. Yes, it’s a fact! Whatever they say, I can only sigh. Whatever they wish for, I just say yes. Yes! Yes! I say yes. Again and again, I say yes. And I will say it for you if you ask.
Yes! Yes! Yes!
The City of the Orgasm
after Italo Calvino
A man could travel for years without finding the city of the orgasm, a city where every staircase, statue, window, violin, perfume, dream, song, even every brawl or brand of beer is inspired by the orgasm. A first-timer might hesitate upon entering, not knowing how to find his place among the throngs of men and women, all dream-colored and nude in the soft light of desire. But here, as in every city, while some inhabitants are as lovely as angels but possess an iciness (or what the French call une froideur glaciale), others blaze with rage and urgency, their fists raised in the air. Still others weep and melt like ice cream on the pastel-colored streets. Some parade their orgasms around like trained poodles, giving them treats when they jump through hoops, yap, or roll over and play dead. Others feel as if they are stuck in elevators, ridden up and down by the orgasms for hours with no particular exit plan. Still others never know they are there. Or how little time they have. They linger in restrooms, staring into mirrors, picking hairs from their brows and chins, applying blush and perfume. Many fall to their knees, their faces to the ground, saying Amen again and again, as if it were too much to ask for more. Their prayers move across the skin in slow, red waves. No one can stay for long. But no matter how many times a man leaves, he can never recall the exact geography of the town. Only his first and last moments remain clear in the mind. All else remains forever a secret of the city of the orgasm.
My Last Deirdre
after Frank O’Hara
I am a not woman. I am an orgasm.
An orgasm of life.
Why? I dunno. I would rather be
a woman, but I am not. I am not
like my friend, Deirdre.
When I drop in to see her, she says,
“Sit down. Have a glass of Cabernet.”
I drink. She drinks. I look up.
“You are always welcome here,” Deirdre says.
“Okay,” I say. So I come.
And she comes, and the days go by.
I drop in again. And again.
And I come, and she comes,
and the days go by.
One day I drop in.
“Where’s Deirdre?” I ask.
All that’s left of her
is a heap of soiled sheets
and three socks. One sock
is blue. One sock is orange.
Another sock is pink.
“She had enough,” the cleaning lady says.
But me? I keep thinking of
Deirdre. So I write a poem
called “Deirdre.” I write another
“Deirdre.” Then another.
For Deirdre is life.
And I am an orgasm of life.
Therefore I am an orgasm of Deirdre.
As the great Aristotle said,
if A=B, and B=C, then A=C.
Days go by. I tire of Deirdre.
I stop writing about Deirdre.
I erase her from my pages.
I erase her from my mind.
We are finished, I think.
I will never mention Deirdre again.
But I have written twelve poems.
I call them MY DEIRDRES.
One day I see Deirdre again.
She says, “Do you remember me?
I shake my head, “No.”
I shake my head, “No.”
I leave. I do not look back.
I write a thirteenth poem
called “My Last Deirdre.”
I leave the page blank.
When I first started writing poetry, I didn't like the confessional poetry that was so popular at the time. I was not a huge fan of Plath or Sexton. I decided I would try to avoid autobiography altogether. Of course, after a while that became a little weird. There's only so much not-telling you can do. My book, Southern Comfort, was my first attempt to record some of my story.
Dear Confessional Poet,
How else can I say it?
I hate what you do.
You and your entire school.
Ever since that Christmas ages ago
when my parents gave me the complete works
of Ann Sexton, and Sylvia, too.
Like Princess Di, both of them,
only the princess was in the right profession.
Of course, in those days confessional was IN.
Poems about my ugly face and big, bad daddy.
For some reason they remind me
of the first time I went to an evangelical church.
It was with my friend, Mary Rose.
She was just so sweet, she wanted to save me.
After the service women gathered in this carpeted room
called the library (without books),
and one of the clergy asked us
to kindly tell a little tidbit or two about our wounds.
It was horrible. I was there.
I can’t tell you how horrible it was.
As if on cue this blonde
started sobbing and talking of abuse.
Even her bouffant hair was trembling . . .
Terrible tales of an alcoholic dad
and what he did, and others chiming in, Me too.
When it was my turn, I couldn’t think
so I told how once upon a time,
when I was a little girl,
my mom hated shopping so much,
she bought everything two sizes too big.
Even my underpants were huge.
They came all the way up to my nipples,
and my skinny legs hung out
of the holes like spaghetti strands.
Thank you for sharing, everyone said.
All I wanted to do was puke.
I think everyone did.
I think that’s what sharing means.
Mary Rose patted my knee and hissed.
Is that true? Yes, I said,
but I wished it weren’t. I wished I’d lied.
Later, that’s what my professor said to do.
Why not, he told an entire class:
Define the woman you aren’t and live to tell about it.
The day I came home with a busted lip and two black eyes,
my mother said the problem with me
was my southern accent. Get rid of that extra y
in Dayaddy, and you’re talking about your father,
not some deity.
I tried to tell her it began with a dayare,
but my mother said it was dare, not dayare,
and besides that, she didn’t want to hear one thing about it.
A girl is supposed to act nice.
And speak like a lady.
If you’re going to fight like a boy,
you can cut your hair like one, too.
What’s more, that stuff growing on top of your head
is not hay as in hayer, it’s hair.
Driving to Watson’s Beauty Salon downtown
on Jefferson Park Avenue, she instructed me
to open my mouth nice and wide, say ahhh, not ayyy.
I didn’t mean to, I tried to explain.
It was just an accident.
Not everything rhymes with Bayer, my mother commented.
She was from New England. She wasn’t like me.
But I never could get it right. No matter how I tried,
I’d hear my father’s voice,
his Memphis drawl in the back of my head:
You being about as helpful as a crawdayaddy under a rock?
When was the last time you peeled your mama spuds
or washed your hayands and said something sweet
with a smile on those rosebud liyips?
I knew how to answer him, keep my eyes cast down,
my voice a wisp: No, Sir. Yes Sir. Or, if I dared:
Can I please be excused?
No Ma’am, he’d answer just as quick as a blink.
You can. But you may not.
Not as long as you don’t know
which word is proper,
and what kind of excuse you might be.
I’d wait, keep my mouth shut tight.
But there were always those thoughts
circling my mind, sassing him like a beginner’s violin,
the slow ache in the middle of each word
I’d never lose:
You think you’re as bright as a rock
on a rain-soaked night?
When was the last time you were anybody’s wish?
But my best one was this: You say you’re my daddy.
Well, what if?
A lot of my poet friends are former teachers' pets. They loved school so much, they write as if they are still in school. Me, I was never a happy pupil. I especially hated the early years. Raising my hand to ask to go the bathroom. Trying to sit still. Lining up for fire drills. But the worst part was those awful Dick and Jane books. Learning to read with Dick and Jane. The only thing worse than reading Dick and Jane books was answering the reading comprehension questions about Dick and Jane. Did Dick run? How did Dick run? Name Dick’s dog. I developed a disturbing habit of making up reading comprehension questions ever since those early readers.
Questions about Dick and Jane
1. Is this book about a particular Dick, or a universal Dick?
2. Is Dick really Dick, or is he merely a symbol of Dick?
3. What might Dick be a symbol of?
4. Are you disturbed or surprised by Dick’s limited vocabulary?
5. What is the cultural context in which Dick first appeared?
6. Is anything missing from these stories?
7. Is the sun always shining in Dick’s world? Is Spot always running?
8. Would you consider this book: a) an edge of your seat suspense (b) a leisurely summer read strictly educational
9. Who came first, Dick or Jane?
10. Is this a sign of gender identity?
11. How would Dick be different if this book were written today?
12. Has our relationship to Dick changed?
13. Is Dick’s world the real world? Or is it just a fantasy?
14. Would you prefer a fantasy Dick?
I think that school health teachers are well-meaning, but some topics just don't lend themselves to the school environment. Especially if that school is a religious school. These next two poems are about sex ed:
Bathing in Your Brother’s Bathwater
Bathing, Miss De Angelo informed us in health class,
is very important, especially once you become a teenager.
In fact I can smell many of you this very day,
so I advise every one of you girls
to go home and take a good long bath tonight.
I know some of your folks like to skimp on water,
but consider it homework.
Say Miss De Angelo assigned it to you.
But Girls, let me warn you.
Never take a bath in the same water as your teenage brother.
Well picture this:
all those tiny bubbles settling on your legs
when you sit in a nice tub of water.
If you could count every itty, bitty bubble,
that would be only a fraction of how many sperm
stream from a single man.
Even if he doesn’t touch himself,
the water does.
And it only takes one.
One fast moving whip-tailed sperm.
And you know how easy it is to catch a cold,
how quickly that little virus races clear through you.
And once that happens,
no one will believe you’re any Virgin Mary,
no matter what you say.
Sex Education According to My Mother
is a total waste of time.
if the heifers can figure it out,
you girls can too.
My father practiced every superstition known to man, and a few I don’t think anyone else knew. This next poem is about one superstition I think he made up. Or at least, I’ve never met anyone who knew of it. It’s the superstition that says every twenty minutes we vanish for just a split second, and trade places with the dead.
These next two poems are about my father.
When I was a girl, my father said, every twenty minutes we vanish, go silent, join the dead and our dreams. If you could time it, and knew when to start the clock, you’d see them, too, lingering there between one thought and the next. Some steal a breath of your air or give you a pinch. Others walk right through you on whim. A sudden chill, a shudder, it’s the natural response. Try to stop them if you can, repress or pretend. Say no one’s here. You’re all alone in the evening air. It makes no difference to them. They know where they’ve been. And how much they like it, touching you like this, traveling through you again and again.
It happened the morning my father reached for his shaving cream and knocked over my mother’s $105 an ounce Christian Dior Diorissimo perfume. Instead of apologizing, my father screamed a stream of profanities, so long and loud, even the three family hounds and 4 stray cats would not re-enter the house for a week. That day my father told everyone, including the plumber and the druggist, how he couldn’t comprehend how a sane soul could live with a woman whose bathroom is nothing but maze of perfumes and powders, lotions and elixirs, pills, douches and palliatives, and God only knows what all else, and he kept right on talking because it soon became clear that even after frequent laundering and dry-cleanings, his favorite suit would forever retain the disturbingly floral scent he associated with both my mother and funeral parlors.
My mother had an instinct for retaliation. She began to inquire of guests at cocktail parties just why it is a man can’t learn to control his aim. After 12 years of marriage, not a morning had passed, she explained, when she had not had to Lysol and wipe up at least one splash from the rim of her toilet bowl or floor. Long ago she had had to dispose of her lavender furry toilet covers and bath rugs. Surely they are unsanitary in any bathroom shared by the male species. She even began to wonder why some sort of disposable funnel had not been invented by Proctor and Gamble or Johnson and Johnson, which could be attached to a penis, perhaps with a rubber band or Velcro, and made to conduct the flow neatly into a toilet bowl without mishap. Of course, she reasoned, men run the business world, and while they have no problem inventing any number of products to inhibit female odors and comfort, it would never occur to them to improve their own standards of hygiene, now would it? My mother even went so far as to design a hose-like mechanism, using the tubing from her defunct bonnet hair dryer for my father to “test-drive,” but when he refused she asked him to use the hall bathroom and placed a sign on the door, Women Only. In a house of many daughters, the message was clear. My father was not welcome.
I wrote a chapbook of poems based on notes, emails, and comments that students gave to my husband, a professor of physics. The book is called Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum? Each poem begins is called “Dear Professor.”
I should have dropped your class.
If I’d known how badly I was going to do,
I’d have found another way to get credit.
All I needed was a C.
There should be a class for people like me.
It might be a relief for both of us.
Think about it.
You wouldn’t expect very much,
and we wouldn’t disappoint you.
I read this article about the difference
between men and women
and why men are good at math and science
and women are good with people.
It said men have mono-tracking brains.
They can focus on one thing
and only one thing at a time.
When men brush their teeth, for example,
they stand with their feet a foot apart,
their heads bent over the sink
This relates to how they solve math problems.
I did notice that Joe, my TA, has really clean teeth.
I still don’t believe heavy
and light things fall at the same speed.
A feather and a stone, for example.
You kept saying I’d get it
if I lived in a vacuum.
Do you live in a vacuum?