Not safe for porn

Audre Lorde’s essay “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” constitutes pages 53-59 in my edition of Sister Outsider. The paperback is a distinctive blue; it’s the kind of bright, medium blue you see in kindergarten posters or picture books about colors. It’s a color that always gestures: this is “Blue.” This is the color of instruction. I can always immediately locate my Sister Outsider, whether on my bookshelf or among the Jenga-like stacks of books on my floor, because of its blue.

Within the covers: the first footnote of “The Uses of the Erotic” tells me that it was a paper “delivered at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Mount Holyoke College, August 25, 1978.” These words were spoken by Lorde on a particular date, in a particular place, for a particular occasion. Her body was there, her voice formed these words. An audience heard those words, shared a space with them and her. 

I note this here, just as I note the blue of the paperback, because talking about the erotic in poetry means first, foremost, situating our readings. Where - and how and what - are we when we read? And then what do we do with that? The blue of the book is essential to my experience of reading it. It's how I find it; it's there, when I call forth the book in my mind. 

But how does it play into my interpretation of “the erotic,” or my understanding of how “we operate in the teeth of a system for which racism and sexism are primary” (“Man/Child”), or my extrapolation of Lorde's reminder that to imply “all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women is to lose sight of the many varied tools of patriarchy” (“An Open Letter to Mary Daly”)?  

Maybe not at all. Probably not at all. But still, it’s there. It exists. 

Something can be experienced without being read. Something can be noted without being legible. Something can exist without having to be used. It may end up having many uses. Its power might be that plurality, that ambiguity. “The Uses of the Erotic:” the various ways the erotic is used, the various ways the erotic uses. 

But “the using of the erotic” (singularized, instrumentalized) might be pornography. Near the beginning of her essay/talk, Lorde makes an important distinction between the erotic and the pornographic.

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation wthout feeling.

This resonates with me, demands a physical response. I draw parallel tracks in the margins. I’m not ready to reset to “reading pose;” I flex my wrists by adding two more (superfluous) check marks. I don’t see the erotic as being about sexual gratification, about the biological impulses of the genitals. I want to reinscribe my body into my reading and writing practices, but I don't want to reduce my body to sex, even my sex. It feels like a reduction.

My body has felt foreign in a number of ways, in a number of places. My body has generated, and carried within it, two others, who now move progressively freer and further from it. My body has responded to sexual desire, and it has rejected it. My body has shrunk, seeped into itself, struggled to disappear as an act of emotional self-negation. My body has shifted and expanded, in taking medication to stop that drive for disappearance. In this, I’ve learned that the distinction between body and mind (or sensation and emotion) is a convenient fiction, primarily useful for constructing sentences. In all of these instances, I have felt and learned about the erotic.

So I don’t see the erotic as a means for, or a mode to realize, the pornographic. Lorde writes that the pornographic is the opposite of the erotic; “pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic.” The erotic and the pornographic do not work toward the same ends, vie for the same conclusion. If there is confusion, conflation, between the erotic and the pornographic, it is because the pornographic is the spectacle-as-substitute for the erotic, it is the false and empty demand that the erotic must have a fixed purpose, must have a clear teleology. 

But for me, the erotic is there. It exists. 

It’s there, when Lorde writes in “Recreation,”

Touching you I catch midnight
as moon fires set in my throat
I love you flesh into blossom
I made you
and take you made
into me.

And it’s there, when Mette Moestrup writes in “Hair Types: Touch Poems,”

Group Haircutting for 8 persons
(+1 extra person) (+hoist) (+scissors)

The 8 persons lie down in a circle, head to head, with their hair towards the center. The extra person hangs from a hoist, which makes it possible for him or her to cut the hair of the recumbent persons. The extra person gathers up the persons’ peppercorn hair, curly hair, coarse straight hair and mousy-brown hair and cuts it off as close to the scalp as possible. The extra person is raised up and the hoist is removed. The recumbent persons stand up. 

And it’s there, still and adamantly there, when Saeed Jones writes in “Boy in a Whalebone Corset,”

when night throws itself against
the wall, when Nina Simone sings
in the next room without her body
and I’m against the wall, bruised
but out of mine: dream-headed
with my corset still on, stays
slightly less tight, bones against
bones, broken glass on the floor,
dance steps for a waltz
with no partner

But it’s not there, when Ariana Reines writes in “When I Looked at Your Cock My Imagination Died,”

the fat guy shakes his dick on me and when i fuk you i mean when you plow my asshole like they say my two tits like greased basketballs bouncing bouncing bouncing

It’s not there, when Keston Sutherland writes in The Odes to TL61P,

what you really want is not to be the genitals fucking her ass, but to be her, to own the ass and be entitled to withdraw it; or it, open but entitled to be withdrawn; to be passive and open and plastic and traded in light; and because in the end virtual exploitation is for consenting adults less toxis than real, on condition that on principle you do not pay for it

And it’s not there, no, in Rob Halpern's Common Place.

That’s not to say that nothing is there. Something is there, certainly. And that's not to say that there can't be several uses of the pornographic, including critical and subversive ones. But still, to me, this is pornography and not the erotic. 

The erotic doesn’t operate on the level of nouns. The proliferation of certain kinds of nouns we might be conditioned to regard as “erotic” doesn’t actually make the text, nor even the nouns themselves, erotic. Cocks and cunts aren’t inherently erotic. Just as gushing fluids and fashionable hair removals and incestuous twins aren’t inherently erotic. Getrude Stein writes in “Poetry and Grammar,” one of the last century’s most erotic accounts of poetics:

As I say a noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known. Everybody knows that by the way they do when they are in love and a writer should always have that intensity of emotion about whatever is the object about which he writes. And therefore and I say it again more and more one does not use nouns.

And so I want to propose the erotic, one of the uses of the erotic, as a kind of radical formalism, a surrender to and infiltration of phenomenology, for which poetry is the ideal medium. Poetry can provide description, delineation, repetition, affirmation - but also inherent in poetry is the possibility of abstraction, and this abstraction can conceptualize, circumnavigate, shift, relineate what we see as the limitations of our physical forms. Poetry, I would say, is the tension that arises.

“For the erotic is not a question only of what we do,” Lorde writes, “it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”

Cited:

Rob Halpern, Common Place (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015).
Saeed Jones, “Boy in a Whalebone Corset,” Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press, 2014).
Audre Lorde, “Recreation,” The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (WW Norton, 1997). 
Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Sister Outsider (The Crossing Press, 1984).
Mette Moestrup, trans. Mark Kline, “Hair Types: Touch Poems,” kingsize (Subpress, 2013). 
Ariana Reines, “When I Looked at Your Cock My Imagination Died,” Mercury (Fence Books, 2013).
Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” Writings 1932-1946 (Library of America, 1998).
Keston Sutherland, The Odes to TL61P (Enitharmon Press, 2013).