The erotic sublime is a species of paradox in English-language poetry. Trafficking in the sublime usually entails a renunciation of the body, a giving-over of style, beauty, and politics, to the ineffable at the expense of the real—all of which coexist uneasily with the demands of human contact associated with the erotic.
And yet Ariana Reines, perhaps the most sexually explicit poet writing today, flirts with sublimity, transcendent desire, and mysticism. Aggressively charismatic, her poems exceed the terms that describe them—obscene, scatological, idiosyncratic, despondent, graphic, synthetic—and strain toward ecstatic states with an elusive but fervent will to believe.
Not that she is a spiritual poet. Her poems contain no trace of religiosity or theological hope, and she mentions sacred agendas with comic deflation (“I would be a Catholic in New Jersey if I could”). Glib and garrulous, she traverses hyper-charged realms where contemporary verse culture crosses with Internet pornography, medieval literature, performance art, popular media, and cultural theory, yet beneath all the mess is an intense striving that is hard to pin down, the yearning of a solitary soul in extremis. An unlikely and sex-obsessed prophet, Reines augurs a new direction in contemporary poetry—a disturbing, contradictory offbeat breach of cool that verges on the uncanny.
The paradoxical project of the erotic sublime is not new. Many poets have adapted and refracted stances that entwine sex and spirit, from Sufi mystics to the Metaphysicals to Blake. Think of Keats’s lavish yearnings to unite soul and eros, or Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ability to convey sensuality-in-prayer to the point of combustion (albeit repressed to the nth degree), or Elizabeth Bishop’s oceanic knowledge, “dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world.” Recently, within and against this Romantic strain, we’ve heard from Mark Doty, Jill Alexander Essbaum, Susan Mitchell, Carl Phillips, and Michael Waters. In her class “Prayer, Despair, and Ecstasy,” Reines teaches “Celan, Césaire, Cohen, Conrad, Donne, Plath, Rankine, Rimbaud and others, plus hymns, sutras, curses, and magic spells from Ancient Greece, contemporary Salem, Haiti, and Appalachia.” She takes her place alongside these diverse influences, but with a uniquely contemporary edge.
Reines’s two recent books, Cur de Lion and Mercury, continue the systematic deconstruction of the dichotomy between sacred and profane that she began in The Cow (2006). Her work epitomizes what Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg have termed the “Gurlesque,” a radicalized poetics of feminist rupture that employs sexual effrontery as a means of exposing the limits of gendered conventions. Reines is the Gurlesque’s most explicit poet and also its keenest intellect—the raunchy surface of her work belies its cognitive difficulty, the strenuous demands it places on the reader to synthesize its imagistic sensuality, semantic riffing, and capacious range of reference. In Mercury, Reines reflects on her process: “I began to write in an ugly way / To subtract myself from womanhood and see only / A person in bas-relief with crucial parts and cartoon / Grief. ”
Her investigations of subjectivity and aestheticization are steeped in highbrow theory, and her methods are consciously self-reflexive, but she returns again and again to the fundamental sources of human grief. “I am interested in how suffering’s housed and passed down through crotches,” she explains in an interview. Pathos has its root in suffering, as does passion, and Reines edges us toward the horror and frenzy of Passion with a capital P. Cur de Lion reprints Reines’ self-published 2007 epistolary poem about the end of a love affair. Documenting consummation and break-up, it explores the “. . . many / Kinds of transmission / Between people. / Stronger things than sentences. / Liquids, exhaled / Words on top of them. / Where is the ‘you’ of You / Tube.” (That move, from declarative libidinal performance to wry comment on modern media, is signature Reines.)
Despite the stigma associated with the term, this is neo-confessionalism with theoretical chops. Not since Sylvia Plath has a poet indulged an orgy of self-speculation of these proportions. The bloody entrails of The Cow gave new meaning to spilling your guts, and now Cur de Lion rambles through the psychological realism of too much information, “as though / Your desire really were as limitless / And general as the fucking internet.”
Pondering the affair in retrospect, the speaker’s moping takes a maudlin but meditative turn: “I was listening to Bob Dylan and Leonard / Cohen in order to think about / You for literary purposes.” The reference is funny, but it comes in the midst of a moment of terrifying vacuity of emotion, the speaker’s sense that feeling too much and nothing have become equated. She fears a collapse of her humanity, as if “My heart’s been botoxed; we’re / All fucked.” Steven Lance, blogging for Small Press Traffic, reports that Reines saved a “scary surprise” for her audience at the end of a 2010 reading. She sang a skillful rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that “undid a generation of media exploitation and cheapening.” (According to the Boston Globe, “Hallelujah” is “the most trafficked tune of the soundtrack era.”) Mercury includes a long critique of the 2009 film Watchmen, which Reines claims “assassinates” Cohen’s song by using it in a scene of superhero sex. Treading close to reaction formation, Reines pulls back from her protest:
But Hallelujah, lounge-era Leonard Cohen
Already performs a distance from
Even a kind of irony against
itself, enclosing as it does a Biblical grandeur within cheap atmosphere
Basically the song’s a lesson
That under any vile sheen a soul or truth can move.
“Hallelujah” occupies a place between orgasmic exclamation and the Praise Yah of ancient scripture, the utterance of the seeker and the King of Pop. Reines often subjects religious forms to both praise and parody in this way: “I told you about the red / Stone of the Strasbourg Cathedral / And that I feel a heat from Gothic / Buildings that feels so human, like / Geometry and plants fucked each / Other and went insane.” This is droll, but oddly apropos. It is part and parcel of the speaker’s heartbreaking desire for profound connection, undifferentiated contact, and truth:
how rare, to undertake an act
That’s truly free, and not just a response
To a confused surge of drives and fears.
Fast forward to the end of Mercury, where the words “Amen Amen Amen” sit alone on a page, right after another page with only the phrase “World without end.” Do we read these isolated final words of the Trinitarian doxology as prayer or joke or both? Mercury comprises five sections headed with alchemical symbols, positioning the reader immediately in a realm where the transmutation of materials is an analogy for personal purification and esoteric or spiritual quest. The jacket copy announces a preoccupation with substance and essence, body and soul, and the book’s reflective silver cover stages a Whitmanian communion of reader and writer (hello, listener up there)—a mirror of the speaker’s effort to transmogrify through a process of self-scrutiny. The book’s namesake, the hermaphroditic Mercury, is a relentlessly binary figure of unified opposites. In the penultimate section, also titled “Mercury,” the language breaks down into arrays that exploit the possibilities of admixture: “FUMES / POWDER / ESSENCE / TAMPON.” We laugh at this insertion (sorry) of the Gurlesque, but the singularity of “tampon” acts as a sizzling catalyst in the crucible—we are back in the body and of it—purified enough to receive the book’s final section, titled “0,” which returns to the zero hour of nativity, maternity, and a legacy of familial pain.
Not since Sylvia Plath has a poet indulged an orgy of self-speculation of such proportions.
Before we get to zero, however, we pass through 150 pages of video porn and prayer interlaced with everything else. “The Perforator God” meanders through the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, the search for a sigil in an artwork, the word “mysteriouser,” and the sentence “I will be born again” (followed, after a line-break, by “As a bumble bee, dried up and dead”). It mourns the absence of the windhover, Hopkins’s famous figure for Christ. (“Selfsame,” another quintessential Hopkins word, is nearby.) All of this follows a post-coital scene that is peculiar, for Reines, in its grace:
A silver corsair
In a violet distance
That I am capable of imagining
Inside a world
In which the cashew-colored sky
Emits a musk
Is the zone in which
I will lay down what’s most harassed in me
And make it die.
The poem gestures “heavenward,” where clouds “people the vault / With their comforting velleities,” but Reines quickly undercuts the dim wishes of this network of spiritual valences. In the next poem, “Truth or Consequences,” a female Virgil accompanies the speaker-pilgrim to a mock-ceremonial ablution, or only a swim. A remix of Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island,” the poem dramatizes a full-on, conversion-worthy vision of the world as beef jerky: “Then / All of a sudden // I saw jerky // A curtain / Of jerky spread / Over the world.” The speaker is called by a higher power, and after talking to the sun, declares, “My secular life / If I ever had one is over.” Reines is not serious, but she’s not not serious either. She experiments with the terms and syntax of rapture.
In the remarkable list poem “Baraka,” which is set in all caps (“shouted”), Reines assembles a sequence of impassioned non-sequiturs. Among bodily longings (“I CAN’T WAIT FOR A THICKER COCK”), she includes this block of re-appropriated religious imagery, the heftiest section of the poem,
I CAN’T WAIT TO STEAL THE SMOKING CENSERS, THE MITRE, THE STAFF, THE ALTAR, THE CHRYSANTHEMUM NECKLACE, THE WHITE STRING, THE VEIL, THE SEVEN VEILS, THE HOLY WATER, THE BLACK ROCK, THE WHITE WALL, THE METAL FENCE, THE COILING RAZORWIRE ATOP THE METAL FENCE, I CAN’T WAIT TO STEAL THE BAD UNDERSHORTS, THE SHIRTSLEEVES, THE CASSOCKS, THE MAGIC APRONS, THE CAKES BAKED WITH URINE, THE PINK ROSEWATERS, THE FLORIDA WATERS, THE SMOKE AND MIRRORS, THE ALABASTER JARS, THE TUSKS, THE KILTS, THE FINE MASONIC SWORDS, I CAN’T WAIT TO STEAL THE ARC AND THE WOOD THAT WAS BENT TO MAKE IT WITH, THE ILLEGIBLE SCROLL, THE WAINSCOT BY THE FOOT OF THE ANGELIC YOUNG RABBI, THE STOCKINGED FOOT IN ITS OPEN-TOED SANDAL, THE HEAVY STONE TABLE, THE SILENCE IN THE PLACES, THE SMALL CLAY URN WITH A BOOK STUFFED IN IT
Amen, it is true, so be it—stolen, swerving, and clutched. Reines forces language into tantrums of accumulation that build—“the veil,” “the illegible,” “the silence”—to the threshold of the sublime. In Kant’s formulation, sublimity is not a metaphor for our relation to the ineffable, but rather the metaphor the mind falls back on in desperation and failure after grasping for the ineffable. That sublime-of-second-remove is the sublime of post-Romantic modernity, and Reines thinks herself right up to this brink.
Transcendent or not, Reines’s poetry succeeds because it manifests two old-school virtues. It zooms in on specific, juicy details, and it employs vivid diction with relish and aplomb. She makes us see the world anew, with fresh awareness, whether looking self-ward at the body (“my eraser tits”) or outward at the world (a homeless man who “Wraps his dressings in Duane Reade bags / When it rains”). Her poems get under the skin because they are tactile and attentive, heedful of the particular stopping-places of the mind: “the global / Warming kept me in summer / Love with you like I was under a / Fermata.” She trawls the collective consciousness for terms that pop, phrases that seduce: “Abundance / And parsimony / Are the wicked parsley / In my frizzy hair.” We can trust her flights of rapture because we can trust her wordsmithery: “a serrated eustechon,” “wheat and chaff, lentils and ash.” As one poem’s title reminds, she knows how to work with polysemy: “I Decline,” says the speaker who refuses and demurs, who lapses into weakness, who gives inflection to the things and modifiers.
Reines is a tricky and unsettling poet to appraise—she lays traps everywhere, smiles behind them. Her erotic mysticism is a trap, but she falls into it herself. She writes like her soul depends on it, like a Sor Juana of the sound byte, or like a Saint Teresa of the net stream. But only like. This caveat, this trying on and testing out of transcendence, is inbuilt in Mercury’s eponymous image: “Saying like is attaching one thing to another in this atmosphere that offers no resistance. Or the word wants to be the drop of mercury in the silver dollar sized plastic labyrinth.” That silvery bead is not really mercury, of course, not in any party-favor plastic labyrinth I’ve ever seen—it is plastic too. It moves like mercury, fired by the mind, and its power as poison or elixir relies on a preposterous faith in the transformative power of the word.
B.K. Fischer is a Boston Review poetry editor and author of Museum Mediations and Mutiny Gallery, winner of the 2011 T.S. Eliot Prize from Truman State. Her poems have appeared in FIELD, The Paris Review, and Western Humanities Review.