“I see no difference,” the poet Paul Celan wrote, “between a handshake and a poem.” At this time of quarantines, of social distancing, many of our familiar physical interactions — a handshake, a hug — have become longed-for memories. Recent books by Uche Nduka and Catherine Wagner remind us that poetry, which can seem more and more dematerialized as pixels on screens, is rooted in the human body: its movements, noises, desires, and articulations — and its interactions with other human bodies. Poetry, in short, can be sexy, as Lord Byron and Edna St. Vincent Millay well knew. And, as Sappho and Whitman knew, no words can address and interrogate sex as deeply as poetry, words hummed and caressed on the tongue, sounded in the body.
Uche Nduka’s Facing You (City Lights, 2020) is a collection of short poems, none of them longer than a page, some of them only five or six lines; Nduka is a master at making every word count. The poems are sometimes awkward, sometimes quizzical, and sometimes resonant, like a proverb or a Zen koan — but they rarely have an ounce of flab. Many are in a fragmentary, paratactic vein, the poet laying down his statements and inviting us to work out their connections, as in “Air Around a Vase”:
We prayed before and after war and felt sick about it later. I want, if possible, a little bit of an insane world. I’m a sucker for toy-shops. Tuesday fled on a boat. Inside an azalea is an exclamation point.
The poem moves from the second-person plural, and the social cohesion brought about by conflict, to the poet’s desire for the irrationality of childhood (“toy-shops”) — perhaps an escape from the greater insanity of global conflict — to a recognition of fleeting time: Tuesday’s escape on a metaphorical boat, the arrest of an “exclamation point” within a necessarily ephemeral flower blossom.
The bulk of the poems in Facing You, as the title implies, are love lyrics of one sort or another, poems addressed to a beloved. The phrase “facing you” can designate both a stance toward another and — not to put too fine a point on it — a sex position; and a great number of the poems take us into the bedroom (or the floor of the study, or the kitchen, or wherever the muse seizes the poet and his partner). These are, as “No Replication” has it, “poems in various states / of undress.”
Nduka’s erotic poems are gentle, tender, and, for the most part, quite hot. There are moments of explicit description, outright tellings of the acts in progress — “Keep parting my buttocks / with scented fingers” (“Double Act”); “Juice alone does / not define us as you / sit on my face” (“A Return to Beauty”) — but such moments are surprising when they crop up, piquant or musty turns, unexpected and emphatic shots of physical punctation. More often, the poems’ erotic elements are part of a more general heightened, sexualized atmosphere, a kind of free-floating horniness or “beautiful confusion” (“In a Textile Mill”) in which the desire to merge with the beloved is inextricable from the desire to create. This is erotics as poetics: “At the peak / of writing,” Nduka writes in “Table of Noon,” “a blank paper / becomes wet.” “This poem smells / of both of us” (“Of Imprinting”).
Facing You is by no means entirely erotica; it touches on a wide range of experience, including Nduka’s own Nigerian-American identity (“There’s no better weather / than this to africanize / the lexicon” [“Fishing Rod”]) and the social crises of our moment, as in “Poetry”:
When I asked why he was shot on the street by a cop they counterasked: What does that have to do with poetry?
That last question, the poem implies, is misguided: poetry’s province is all that is human, from the intimate tendernesses of the bedroom to the brutalities of the street. If Nduka’s poems in Facing You tend to focus on the former, they have not at all denied the tragic immediacy of the latter.
“Flesh arrives to us out of history, like everything else does,” Angela Carter reminds us in The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978); “We may believe we fuck stripped of social artifice,” but the erotic relationship is “the most self-conscious of all human relationships, a direct confrontation of two beings whose actions in the bed are wholly determined by their acts when they are out of it.” Such bleak, Foucauldian insight is at the heart of the complex socio-sexual web woven in Catherine Wagner’s Of Course (Fence Books, 2020).
Wagner’s is a radically embodied poetry, sounding the perceptions of a person full of desires, yet at the same time continually aware of the social structuring and channeling of those desires — and acutely aware that especially for women, the sexual has often been a space of violation and subjugation as well as ecstasy and mutuality.
Though 4 out of 5 girls weren’t raped the history of mammalia was a history of penetration and we were getting bored (a) through or (b) of it. (“Rising Action”)
The longish title poem, “Of Course,” follows the poet’s nature walk in a kind of stream-of-consciousness fashion; birdsong, crickets, water, and foliage vie for her attention with the demands of her personal life (“thinking CALL MY MOM”) and her meditations on poetry in the academy:
I could try to reflect the world back on itself— I can’t though, position alters view—so if position alters views, what do you see, small-town mom poet at decent regional university? That poetry at the university helps brand the institution as more than philistine, and it is my inside job to rehearse the free discourse a university permits.
That’s a pretty flat statement of a place all too many contemporary poets are in, a kind of bad-faith compromise of art with capital. Writ large, it is the continuing compromise, the continuing battle and negotiation of the private and the collective, individual desire and social structuring, that runs through all of the poems in Of Course.
The poet desires — cannot help desiring — but knows that her desires, and the playing out of them, are always bound up with relationships of power and domination. At times she imagines a more free-floating, borderless sexuality, as when in “Impersonal Lubricant” she contrasts internet porn with the mechanical sperm-harvesting of prize boars —
Pigs left to mate at will might mate with pigs that don’t yield prime bacon, might mate with sexy pigs, jovial pigs, smart pigs
— and with the reproduction of jellyfish, whose “see-through pump-domes / simulcast eggs and sperm // into tolerant solution”: “not consensually / not nonconsensually.” Darkest perhaps is the sequence “The city has sex with everything,” in which the whole congeries of urban structures — social, architectural, economic — are figured as a variety of sexual relationships.
This might sound like a heady, even didactic mix, but Wagner’s ebullient idiom — as extravagant as Nduka’s is measured, reveling in pun and neologism, spilling over, coalescing into forms and then disintegrating — is always tethered to a very personal voice, emanating from a very specific desiring body capable both of sublime self-assertion, as in “Cri de/off course,” where she parodies Thomas Hardy’s “Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me” —
“Woman unmissed how you crawl to me crawl to me” Nah that’s not Not how I do
— and of breathtaking tenderness, as in “July”:
Later when I thought about you coming A thin muscle jerked inside my heart If you need to be punished I will Punish you if you want to be I would rather hold you tenderly
When she kicked off the western lyric tradition 2700 years before Freud, Sappho already knew that sex was a problem, a delightful and vexing entanglement of the “sweet” and the “bitter.” Nduka and Wagner, in their very different immersions in the perennial conundrum of the erotic, demonstrate that the realm of the sexual is not a secluded bower or bedroom, but a microcosm and focal point of the entire human experience.