'Sex at Forty-five'
Gearing up to my forty-fifth birthday, I’ve been sketching out lines for a possible “Sex at Forty-five” poem, following on the heels of poems composed for thirty-one, thirty-three and thirty-eight. The idea might not have travelled south of the border, but the original “Sex at Thirty-One” originated in Prince George, British Columbia in the late 1970s, when Barry McKinnon and Brian Fawcett decided on an open-ended sequence of self-contained poems to be composed every seven years. They were thirty-one years old at the time, so that is where they began. Reports might vary as to their logic, whether accidental or for the idea that the human body takes seven years to fully regenerate, but the idea stuck, and numerous (predominantly male) Canadian poets have composed their own in response since. Posted in an issue of the now-defunct online journal, Poetics.ca, I composed an essay tracking a variety of Canadian poets who have played with the form over the past thirty-odd years, and the question as to why so few female poets chose to participate. McKinnon and I have even been collecting a number of the various “Sex at” poems produced over the years, from uncollected poems by George Bowering, Kate Van Dusen and Brian Fawcett to a variety of new poems by younger poets. We’re hoping to finalize the collection sometime this year.
Influenced heavily by the original pieces composed by McKinnon, Fawcett and Montreal poet Artie Gold, my own “Sex at 31” attempted the clarity of experience, writing:
sex at 31 neither condones,
What does anyone know at thirty-one? Or, for that matter, forty-five? Forty-five: the age Elvis Costello was when he composed his song with the same title, released two years later. A record year, one might suggest. I’ve long utilized my writing to mark a variety of events, many of which seem obsessed with age: birth, birthdays and death. Soon after McKinnon originally prompted me in late 2000, I composed my own “sex at 31” as an attempt at a short, sharp lyric sequence of hard-won observations and potential wisdoms. The short sequence appeared as a chapbook, and was subsequently included in Aubade (Broken Jaw Press, 2006). Seven years later, on the lengthy train ride from Winnipeg to Toronto, I composed what would become my “sex at thirty-eight” poem, “sex at thirty-eight: letters to unfinished g.,” a poem that appeared as a chapbook, both in print and online, before appearing as part of my trade collection, Gifts (Talonbooks, 2009). In-between the two poems, my enthusiasm for the project led me to produce an extra, a “sex at 33,” produced to coincide with another “record” birthday, as well as a party I hosted three months later, for my “33 1/3” birthday. There was even an extraneous piece, tangentially associated, composed circa 2000, that fell into my Paper Hotel (Broken Jaw Press, 2002):
sex in the prairies
is like love at seventeen, it plies
deep in the solid bone
at the banff springs hotel, five days
in alberta we can never return to
the days are long & yr letters few,
& geography plots against me
a degas painting isnt enough,
even on a greeting card
it gives no greeting, it only reminds
of the separations to come
Sex and death, and sex and death. It spins around us, endlessly. The yin and yang has been connected through art and living for centuries, it would seem. Canadian poet Al Purdy published his collection Sex and Death in 1973, but Leonard Cohen, at least, has been honest enough to admit that perhaps this might be all he’s ever written about. Is desire about anything more than a fear of loss, which itself connects to death? And yet, through two young poets in the late 70s in Northern British Columbia, a sequence of sequences that reference age over death; not a matter of la petite mort, but of aging, and birthdays. After another seven years, I compose my new sequence as a completely different person. I sketch:
Into a block of marble: silence.
Whereas my “Sex at 31” existed as a short sequence of fragments over a couple of pages, my “sex at thirty-eight: letters to unfinished g.” was composed as a forty-page sequence of stand-alone lyrics. Compared to the former, the latter was expansive, unyieldly, unending. It interacted with a variety of texts, such as Robert Kroetsch’s “field notes,” with sub-header “a discovery poem” borrowed from George Bowering’s George, Vancouver (1971). The poem stretched across the thirty-odd hours of VIA Rail coach travel across Northern Ontario and asked: “help please me to know.” But as I approach this new attempt through scattered notes and inattention amid baby’s nap schedule (and: where am I now, as opposed to where I once was?), the question becomes, as always: how to produce something different enough to be both interesting and new? I do not wish to produce mere variations from too much of the same old materials. I sketch out:
Interrupted, coitus. Mid-kiss, textured speech. Spools, spoils. Spoke, just once.
Interrupted. Hour, turns a shadow. Domestic, domestic. The mark of something, beautiful.
And therefore: utterly defenseless.
More recently, in an interview I’ve been conducting with Montreal poet Helen Hajnoczky for Touch the Donkey, she discusses the process of composing poems through note-taking, after a prompt via Natalie Simpson:
I’d been struggling with another manuscript for years, and then in August of 2014 I had the chance to read with Natalie Simpson, whose work I admire a great deal. I was chatting with Natalie about writing and she said that one of her approaches is to write a lot in notebooks, and then type up the lines that she wants to keep. When she said that I thought, “I used to write like that, why don’t I do that anymore?”
Bricolage, as Stan Dragland terms it: composing pieces through the collage of scattered pieces, shards and fragments, somehow woven together into something tight and tangible. I’ve seen the same in the poetry of Phil Hall, Lisa Robertson and Andrea Rexilius, and have moved in the same direction myself over the past five or six years, well after I would have completed my “sex at thirty-eight.” My explorations into the sentence have evolved into the prose poem. My poems are no longer composed chronologically from the beginning, but begin somewhere in the middle, and push against the sides. Words, lines and phrases are inserted, sorted and re-sorted. Over the years, composition has become more fluid. Precise. Scattered: especially as one spends full-time days with an energetic toddler, and nights immersed in a new and very particular flavour of exhaustion.
The centre of what it means to be: ambiguity.
Another, and another. Flightless birds, recycle. Unfathomed.
Mantra: speaks, a separate mouth. Unburdened. Elsewhere on the spectrum.
Sex at forty-five: this is my age, not yours.
Might it ever happen. Child grasps what little sleep, and twists.
Fierce, claw-hands and nails. So baby-strong.
For your safety, name. Mine. What do the stations. What, the names.
More lines erased than written. Sentences reduce to phrases; phrases down into a single word.
- Al Purdy
- Artie Gold
- Barry McKinnon
- Brian Fawcett
- Broken Jaw Press
- Helen Hajnoczky
- Leonard Cohen
- Natalie Simpson
- Stan Dragland
Some notes on Canadian poetry