The Bi-Monthly Review is a twice monthly feature of whatever I happen to be reading. Highly informal. Opinions are my own. Try to enjoy.
I picked up The Erotic Spirit: An Anthology of Poems of Sensuality, Love, and Longing edited by Sam Hamill the last time I ventured into Barnes and Noble. At the time, I was just looking for a few sexy poems to keep me entertained before bedtime. Now that I’m already on my second read-through of this book since the beginning of the year, I’ve gained a reverence for erotic poetry, and a new understanding of how love and longing has been portrayed and viewed through various cultural lenses throughout world history.
This anthology examines the line between sexual desire and spiritual longing. Hamill suggests that readers examine erotic poetry as “a guidebook for care of the lover’s soul.” He offers the question; “But how to know the self-indulgent desires of the flesh from the truest spiritual connections that transcend selfish impulses?” As a millennial in the midst of a sex-driven dating culture, I find this question particularly interesting. My generation isn’t talking about the notion of “soul mates” so much as we’re talking about our “booty calls” and “fuck buddies.” Although our culture has its pros and cons, this book brings perspective to my views of love through the ages. It gives me a reference with which to compare our current views on modesty with those in, say, ancient Greece or India.
Hamill has compiled some favorites here from those we’d expect–Rumi, Shakespeare, Marvell–but this book is full of surprises from many anonymous and lesser-known poets. What I find most interesting, is how this book acts as a lens that allows us to view how sexuality and modesty has changed through time, but how the true desires of the soul; the longing for love that keeps us up at night and exhausts us throughout our days, has remained very much the same. Izumi Shikibu (970-1030) describes longing for a lover as an undeniable force more powerful than the physical restraints of the body:
When I think of you,
fireflies in the marsh rise
like the soul’s jewels,
lost to eternal longing,
abandoning the body (63)
There is a sense of awe at the portrayal of spiritual longing depicted here. Love has an undeniability about it. We cannot escape love’s grip nor deny its existence. Centuries later, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) portrays love as a natural force comparable to gravity:
I am he that aches with amorous love;
Does the earth gravitate? does not all matter, aching, attract
So the body of me to all I meet or know. (127)
This aching we experience through love transcends time, culture, and religion. This longing for another person is apparent through centuries and across continents, and reaches its grip straight into modern life.
Although pure love and longing are universal and unchanging, sexual desire changes drastically through the ages, as this book illustrates so beautifully. In the centuries-old poetry depicted here, the modesty of women, and the shy nature of men when they witness a woman in undress, is almost comical in how drastically it differs from today. Women crouch to cover themselves if caught in the bath, and men are polite in their reactions. Just the same, there is a playfulness here… a desire to see and be seen.
When I found her in the bathing pool,
my footstep startled her–she crouched
to hide her breasts and glanced about.
Seeing no one else, her smile was shy. (Bihari, 102)
Today, there is a slim chance of a woman being caught in the “bathing pool” (although there is a surprising number of occurrences in this book!), and men are more likely to “stumble” onto an x-rated website than into a private bath. I find this reverence for the body quite beautiful as it is portrayed here, even in the more sexually explicit poems that are offered in this collection. Although, even these have an air of modesty that is rarely found today (even in poetry). In a poem documenting the rest and contentedness of two lovers after partaking in intercourse, Marcus Argentarius writes, “I will not tell the rest. / Only the lamp bore witness.” (24)
That’s not to say there isn’t a fair share of more visual sexual depictions interspersed throughout, but I’ll let you explore those verses on your own. 🙂 Overall, this was a fantastic read that opened my eyes to a genre of poetry I had never explored in depth. This one comes highly recommended by me.