Daffodildo

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Daffodildo
May Swenson

A daffodil from Emily’s lot
I lay beside her headstone
on the first day of May.
I brought
another with me, threaded
through my buttonhole, the spawn
of ancestor she planted
where, today,
I trod her lawn.
A yellow small decanter
of her perfume, hermit-wild
and without a stopper,
next to her stone I filed
to give her back her property—
it’s well it cannot spill.
Lolling on my jacket,
Emily’s other daffodil.

Now, rocking to the racket
of the train, I try
recalling all her parlor’s
penetration of my eye,
remembering mainly spartan
sunlight through the dimity
of the window-bay, evoking
her white-dressed anonymity.
I remember, as if spoken
in my head: “I’m
nobody! Who
are you?”
thinking
how liked by time
she still is. It has linked
the hemlocks closer in their
hedge so that her privacy
remains. A denser lair,
in fact, than when she was alive
and looked through that bay
on the long garden
where I looked today.

Another lady is its warden
now. She smells like bread
and butter. A New England pug-
face, she’s 87, may be dead
before another host of plugless
yellow daintycups
springs next spring in the grass.
(What if one white bulb still sups
sun-time that Emily’s shoe passed
over?) That old
black-dressed lady told
me, “Here’s where
she soaked her gowns in this square
copper boiler on hot bricks.” Whiteness
takes much washing. “Oh, her chair’”
she said, suddenly sprightly,
leading me up the stair
to a blue bedroom, “Mustn’t forget to
show you
that. It’s stored
in a closet.” She brought out
a seat for a four-
year-old, only the cane devoutly
replaced, the ladderback and
legs of cherrywood original.
“An awe came on the trinket,”
one article her hand
would have known all
its life.
“Geneva’s farthest skill,”
I pondered,
“can’t put the puppet
bowing,” and retrieved
an answer,

“I dwell
in Possibility —
a fairer
house than Prose.” Yellow
bells in the still
air of their green room
out there
under the upstair window
mutely swung.
Shining through their cups,
her sunny ghost
passed down the rows.
“A word is dead
when it is said,
some say.
I say
it just begins to live that day.”

To her headstone I walked uphill.
It stands white without arrogance
on a green plot
that is her myth-filled
lot
now. Almost blank. Relatives
shoulder her in a straight rank.
Emily, 130 years older
since you took your
little throne
when you were four,
I crane
but can never
gain
that high chair
where you will ever
sit! Alone.

Self-confessed, and rocking
to the racket of the train,
I play back how
I picked you for my pocket,
stooped at your plain
stone.
One gold dildo
I leave you from the host
I stole;
the other, holy,
I will keep until
it shrinks to ghost.
“Disdaining men,
and oxygen,”
your grassy
breast I kiss
and make
this vow, Emily, to “take
vaster
attitudes—and strut upon my stem.”

“Finger to finger, now she’s mine”

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The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator
-Anne Sexton

The end of the affair is always death.
She’s my workshop. Slippery eye,
out of the tribe of myself my breath
finds you gone. I horrify
those who stand by. I am fed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Finger to finger, now she’s mine.
She’s not too far. She’s my encounter.
I beat her like a bell. I recline
in the bower where you used to mount her.
You borrowed me on the flowered spread.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Take for instance this night, my love,
that every single couple puts together
with a joint overturning, beneath, above,
the abundant two on sponge and feather,
kneeling and pushing, head to head.
At night alone, I marry the bed.

I break out of my body this way,
an annoying miracle. Could I
put the dream market on display?
I am spread out. I crucify.
My little plum is what you said.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Then my black-eyed rival came.
The lady of water, rising on the beach,
a piano at her fingertips, shame
on her lips and a flute’s speech.
And I was the knock-kneed broom instead.
At night alone I marry the bed.

She took you the way a woman takes
a bargain dress off the rack
and I broke the way a stone breaks.
I give back your books and fishing tack.
Today’s paper says that you are wed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

The boys and girls are one tonight.
They unbutton blouses. They unzip flies.
They take off shoes. They turn off the light.
The glimmering creatures are full of lies.
They are eating each other. They are overfed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

“sometimes your hand is all you have”

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Ode to Masturbation
-Ocean Vuong
because you
were never holy
only beautiful
enough
to be found
with a hook

in your mouth
water shook
like sparks
as they pulled
you up
& sometimes

your hand
is all you have
to hold
yourself
to this world
because it’s

the sound
not the prayer
that enters
the thunder not
the lightning
that wakes you

in lonely midnight
sheets holy
water smeared
between your thighs
where no man
ever drowned

from too much
thirst & when
is the cumshot not
an articulation
of chewed stars
go ahead—lift

the sugar-
crusted thumb
& teach
the tongue
of unbridled
nourishment.

to be lost in
an image
is to find within it
a door. so close
your eyes
& open reach

down with every rib
humming
the desperation
of unstruck
piano keys
some call this being

human some call this
walking but
you already know
it’s the briefest form
of flight yes even
the saints

remember this
the if under every
utterance
beneath
the breath brimmed
like cherry blossoms

foaming into no one’s
springtime
how often these lines
resemble claw marks
of your brothers
being dragged

away from you
you whose name
not heard
by the ear
but the smallest bones
in the graves you

who ignite the april air
with all your petals’
here here here who
twist through
barbedwired light
despite knowing

how color beckons
decapitation
i reach down
looking for you
in american dirt
in towns with names

like hope
celebration
success & sweet
lips like money
laramie jasper
& sanford towns

whose trees know
the weight of history
can bend their branches
to breaking
lines whose roots burrow
through stones

& hard facts
gathering
the memory of rust
& iron
mandibles
& amethyst yes

touch yourself
like this part
the softest wound’s
unhealable
hunger
after all

the lord cut you
here
to remind us
where he came from
pin this antlered
body back

to earth
cry out
until the dark fluents
each faceless
beast banished
from the ark

as you scrape the salt
off the cunt-cock
& call it
daylight
don’t
be afraid

to be this
illuminated
to be so bright
& empty
the bullets pass
right through

you
thinking
they have reached
the sky
as you press
your hand

to a blood-warm
body
like a word
being nailed
to its meaning
& lives

Zero-sum game: Learning to give

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I read recently that there is a backlash to e-book sales in the UK. I love the immediacy and convenience of being able to get books on my Kindle device, especially because I live in the country, and even if bookstores were more accessible, I’d find precious little to suit my tastes. I could never feed the hunger for a book a day that is my current appetite, and if I could, I would not find quite the range of things I want. Thus, I appreciate e-books, but there are moments that I long for the real thing. (I suppose this is not unlike something like … if I may be so crass, sex toys/masturbation versus actual sex. Imitation does its job and in many cases may even be more effective, but it’s more clinical. Nothing is quite the same as the real thing. And guess what? It’s National Masturbation Month now! Take note!) In fact, imitation is one of the ways we can isolate ourselves, which is the point of this meandering ramble.)

We could praise this shift – moving to more compact and “less wasteful” modes of producing information, but we lose tradition and the ritual that comes with selecting a new books – the heft of it in your hands, the smell of the paper, the thickness and quality of the paper, the artwork/design, the way the book’s spine wears and pages grow tattered. We love them in a way we will never love an e-book. As cumbersome as it was to travel with books, for example, I enjoyed taking books on the road with me and then leaving them behind in airports, airplanes, hotel rooms, friends’ houses, cafes, wondering if their story would continue – would someone else take possession of the book and get something completely new? What would happen to a book I purchased in Iceland and left in Halifax, Montreal, Mexico City? Now, this will never happen again.

We have certainly lost something – not just in consuming and loving literature but in the way we live, the way we define ourselves, the way we consume, the way we relate to and love others and ourselves and, fundamentally, the way we are. Perhaps it does not matter because the universe as a whole is just a long series of losing things – or things imperceptibly changing. But observing the moment we live in, it feels hollow. No amount of flashing lights and distractions can distract from the emptiness the culture creates.

Dubravka Ugrešić writes in Karaoke Culture:

“The very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games. Today people are more interested in flight from themselves than discovering their authentic self. The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hold far more promise than digging in the dirt of the self. The culture of narcissism has mutated into karaoke culture—or the latter is simply a consequence of the former.”

“We walk through the world with our memory sticks around our necks, each of us with our own homepage, each of us with an archive stored on the web. We, are everywhere . . . And the more voluminous the archive that trails us, the less of ourselves there seems to be . . . We don’t communicate with each other . . . Oh so modern, we put things on YouTube so anyone can gawk at them. We used to send out ghostly signals of our existence, and now we make fireworks out of our lives. We enjoy the orgy of being, twittering, buying new toys, iPhones and iPads, and all the while our hunger just grows and grows. We wear memory sticks around our necks, having of course first made copies. The memory stick is our celestial sarcophagus, our soul, our capsule, our soul in a capsule*.”

“In all its manifestations karaoke culture unites narcissism, exhibitionism, and the neurotic need for the individual to inscribe him or herself on the indifferent surface of the world, irrespective of whether the discontented individual uses the bark of a tree, his or her body, the Internet, photography, an act of vandalism, murder, or art. In the roots of this culture, however, lies a more serious motive: fear of death. From the surface of karaoke culture shimmers the mask of death.”

We are indeed more alienated and isolated – both from others and, even more alarmingly, from ourselves. But with gadgets, platforms and forms of high-tech mirrors, we fool ourselves into thinking we are self-aware because we are self-involved, self-obsessed even. But it’s the superficial self we plaster all over every new social media channel and into every app – crying out for attention – and connection – but moving further away from it all the time as we turn ourselves into caricatures, and eventually, commodities. And we start to see each other as commodities for exchange.

Treating each other as commodities, and treating ourselves as objects we must market and ‘improve’ so we can place the highest value possible on ourselves (but in a way that somehow empties us of self-esteem), started as a pet peeve for me but has grown into a full-blown worry as the trend has accelerated in the digital age and become its own form of epidemic. Dehumanized automatons cataloging themselves online for consumption in one form or another. I am no less guilty of committing this commoditization crime, subscribing to the “marketplace” idea of love or care. We convince ourselves there’s an endless supply of other, better, more interesting options, and so teach ourselves to dehumanize – that there is nothing to treasure, and nothing to trust in. It’s not a new idea, attempting to assign an ROI to people, to cut losses. It’s a game of emotional preservation, but it’s also a perversity. Eventually it does become about summing up balance sheets and ensuring you’re not playing a zero-sum game. And what in the hell does that have to do with care, love, compassion, feeling? It’s not just treating others this way – it’s an internal devaluation that leads us there in the first place.

Erich Fromm captures these very concerns in his The Art of Loving – and did so long before the advent of the internet:

“Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome. Our civilization offers many palliatives which help people to be consciously unaware of this aloneness.”

“At any rate, the sense of falling in love develops usually only with regard to such human commodities as are within reach of one’s own possibilities for exchange. I am out for a bargain; the object should be desirable from the standpoint of its social value, and at the same time should want me, considering my overt and hidden assets and potentialities. Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values. Often, as in buying real estate, the hidden potentialities which can be developed play a considerable role in this bargain. In a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and in which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labor market.”

It’s not just technology that has created this, as evidenced by Fromm’s observations from the 1950s. But technology sprays fuel on the fire and changes. Ugrešić highlights how technology radically changes the perception of everything. I relate, having succumbed to the same mindless tv addiction she describes and am now “clean”. I take it a step further to say it has changed our perception of who we are – how we are – what we are capable of (so much more in some ways, but so much less in others):

“It’s a notorious fact that technology radically changes one’s perception of everything, including time. Thirty years ago I could wile away the hours on the cinematic aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky and similar directors. Today I am ashamed to admit that my eyes have simply been weaned off them; the shots are too long, too slow, and the plot, if there is one, plodding and ambiguous. I used to love all that auteur stuff, but today I don’t have the patience. In the intervening time I’ve become hooked on cinematic “fast food.” Flowing in my veins, this fast food has changed the rhythm of my heart, my attention span, and the rhythms of my respiration. The truth is that I overdosed on television, and so I don’t watch it anymore. I’ve been clean for a while now, and I don’t miss it a bit. But I do watch lots of documentaries—it doesn’t matter what they’re about, the most important thing is that they’re “slow food,” that they offer me the illusion that what is happening on the screen really is happening. The way I read has changed too. At first I was surprised when friends told me that they were going to speed-reading courses. Now I’m thinking about enrolling in a course myself. My eyes are too slow, the computer screen just gets richer and faster, and my attention span is ever shorter. From the sheer quantity of information my memory is getting worse and worse. It’s not just that I have no idea what I consumed on the Internet yesterday, it’s that I don’t remember what I sucked up five minutes ago.”

Should we be alarmed? It can be argued that laws, social mores, technology of earlier ages also came along and changed things. Airplanes, telephones, cars, inheritance laws, vaccines, and so on and on. Every generation predicts the end of civilization (or possibly something slightly less hyperbolic but nevertheless negative) because of change. But change is inevitable. Does it matter, for example, if young people’s brains end up being wired differently because of their affinity for devices? Does it contribute to this disconnection people my age and older are screaming about? Does it matter that taking notes in longhand will make the information stick if young people never really learn to write? Should these be the things we get upset about? Should we listen as Pope Francis chides the digital world for acting as a roadblock to “learning how to live wisely, think deeply, and to love generously”?

Is the loss of tradition, ritual, care going to objectify everything and everyone? Have we already crossed that line? We already “value” everything that is instant or fast. We cannot seem to handle things that are ambiguous or hard. Where do we find hope in this landscape?

Maybe it’s in all those people who take up knitting; all these “rebels” embracing old-fashioned books and letter writing; maybe it’s the neighbor planting a garden. And at the core, perhaps, it is also extending the sense of humanity and connection – building love, which is actually one of the most difficult things. No wonder we run in terror.

Fromm again:

“This attitude — that nothing is easier than to love — has continued to be the prevalent idea about love in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.”

Fromm poses a question, which he may actually, in some measure, have answered himself:

“Here, however, an important question arises. If our whole social and economic organization is based on each one seeking his own advantage, if it is governed by the principle of egotism tempered only by the ethical principle of fairness, how can one do business, how can one act within the framework of existing society and at the same time practice love?”

The answer, as I see it, apart from finding a way to love, is to cultivate true giving. The two go hand in hand.

“Nothing’s free unless it’s freely given” – Charlie Hilton, “Pony”

We can only love if we give freely, and we can really only give freely by loving. Actively. And through both, we can feel alive.

“Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a “standing in,” not a “falling for”. In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.

What is giving? Simple as the answers to the question seems to be, it is actually full of ambiguities and complexities. The most widespread misunderstanding is that which assumes that, giving is “giving up” something, being deprived of, sacrificing. The person whose character has not developed beyond the stage of the receptive, exploitative, or hoarding orientation, experiences the act of giving in this way. The marketing character is willing to give, but only in exchange for receiving; giving without receiving for him is being cheated. People whose main orientation is a non-productive one feel giving as an impoverishment. Most individuals of this type therefore refuse to give. Some make a virtue out of giving in the sense of a sacrifice. They feel that just because it is painful to give, one should give; the virtue of giving to them lies in the very act of acceptance of the sacrifice. For them, the norm that it is better to give than to receive means that it is better to suffer deprivation that to experience joy.

For the productive character, giving has an entirely different meaning. Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.”

*See also Hal Hartley’s 1998 film The Book of Life.

May for the M word

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May is National Masturbation Month. In fact it’s International Masturbation Month! I will stick with poetry, which had its month in the sun during April, but masturbation is still an interesting and compelling topic.

“Ordinary people who do it think there’s something wrong with them, and it’s painted as a pathetic third choice if you can’t get someone to have sex with you. In fact, if you can shake off this bad rap, masturbation is amazing. It can provide extraordinary pleasure, or just help you get to sleep, teach you about your body and sexual responses, and help keep the blood flowing in the nethers, as they might say on Firefly. It’s good for you, unless you do it so much that you forget to eat or run afoul of the laws of physics — here I’m really talking about friction.”

Every article about the existence of masturbation month reminds us of Bill Clinton’s no-nonsense US Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, who wanted to normalize masturbation as healthy. And, hell’s bells, people – it is. We all do it. But this was back in 1994 and her approach was most certainly not accepted in the spirit in which it was meant. Contextually, Elders delivered this as a part of World AIDS Day message – total abstinence from all sexuality is unrealistic, but if we were to destigmatize masturbation, which seems like a pretty innocuous message to me, perhaps we’d not only open up dialogue about sexuality and sexual health in general but might stave off premature (and uninformed) sexual activity. Her message – no surprise – was taken to its extreme and false interpretation:

“She meant that we should teach kids that it’s okay to masturbate. Spin media decided that her message was: “let’s bring some dildos to class and teach these kindergartners to have some fun!” Not the situation Elders was suggesting. She later went on to explain that masturbation could prevent the spread of AIDS; unfortunately, her bold statements led to a forced resignation.”

And you know – sometimes masturbation might have been a better option for a lot of people. Case in point: woman hires male prostitute (referred to in the article as a “professional priapist”) in Germany and becomes pregnant. She tries to track down this unwitting sperm donor/once-owner to claim child support. But Germany’s rigid data privacy laws prevailed on the side of protecting the man’s anonymity.

Meanwhile, here’s a fun masturbation infographic. With wanking stats, not an infographic of masturbation itself.

And of course there’s a poem even for this. Many, in fact, but today’s is from Israel.

MASTURBATION
Yona Wallach
You slept again with Mr. No Man
loved his empty glance
and hugged his absent body.

The eyes of your lover look toward a foreign point
not exactly at you not on you,
he’s young and already so bitter.

The love that penetrated your flesh for an instant
fills your body and soul with heat
from the tips of your hair to your inner organs,

leaving you again with Mr. No Man
stroking with no hand your body
that responds with no emotion no expression
no heat on each stroke –

You showed the poem to your young lover
he responds with rage and says that it’s bad
and no poem at all and turns his back,
perhaps he thinks that he’s no man,

does he think that he’s no man?
doesn’t understand poetry, with feeling
demands too much, hours,
when five minutes of love would suffice
to fill an entire day with the heat required,

no man chills your emotions freezes
your body, the chill spreads through your limbs
freezing your cheeks and sending a nervous shudder
from the curve of a cheek to the opposite eye and extinguishing
the bud of emotion and sending the taste of pain
to the gullet to different parts of the neck and to the back.

You explain to your lover the meaning of the time of
love, five minutes are like hours
five hours even, there are all kinds, it’s worth it
to use all possible times whenever
for it’s impossible before work in the morning
to love three hours you have to warm up and that’s it
he catches on fast and tries but is disappointed
it doesn’t seem nice to him so fast
he wants it more plentiful than it is,
but he’s smart and there’s a chance an opportunity
like this might not return in his short lifetime
you have to change your ideas a little and adjust to the situation,
but again he’s alone with himself and with you
and demands the strength of a night in a brief morning.

You send a cold look to no man
and promise to meet him again in the evening
for sure he’ll  return, he is spiritual death
he gives the coldest look
and stands by you waiting to catch each feeling
through the air, to turn it into complete emptiness into nothingness.

You studied your lover’s look
his dark eyes two berries
that threaten to send a glance as soft
as the memory of the taste of grapes, looking in terror
and more than this blind nerves
that endanger
the soft shoots of feeling and love.

Will he go crazy you ask, will he lose,
the wind’s movement over his face marks
tracks that you expertly decipher,
you give voice to cheerful sounds
of stretching, he cooperates for a moment sends a smile
and you turn him inward with self-love
bring him out and stare at him as at a jewel,
he emerges from the old songs and he
is one of their heroes, also his beauty
is such, he is one of the wondrous names
so lost in the frightened anxious
being in the womb of society,
he will be born out of there even more monstrous
be born anew and will love you
each morning  as it should be as he is able,

he will get used to your prostitution whose source is internal
and logical otherwise it wouldn’t emerge
and its decency according to each honorable homely understanding
that distinguishes between what and how when and where,
and his love will wear less dead forms,
and you will surrender again to Mr. No Man
in the difficult moments he will freeze your fingers
stroking yourself with different desires,

but poems are just a technicality
acquired during years of living
the hero will live in every poetic form
as third person or first or second,

he will understand this also
will live as first person, second or third
the impression he makes is mainly that he
lives as third person with himself
speaks about himself as about he as about someone you’ve tired of,
speaks separates between himself and his sex
speaks about himself as about he and not about these his emotions
that’s someone else altogether the other
of whom he is jealous of whom he will be afraid,
sex that’s him, he gives it to him
you are his mother bring him up
give him back his confidence his faith in himself
you meet with Mr. No Man and learn about
other people about the other he
even though the he could be all kinds of natures
you join his separated sex to himself
it I feel it I sense it,
I my body my soul myself and flesh myself,
he will be cultivated will love operas and emotions,
will generalize with more ease about others of his kind,
because the fruit of love is short lived
even more than the fruits of a poem like this.