My guess is that most adults have experienced the following, although probably not since the pandemic began: You meet someone and have an immediately physical attraction, and feel vibes that the other person is attracted to you, too. But one or both of you is involved with someone else, or the situation makes pursuing your interest impossible—one is interviewing the other for a job, or you are work associates, or one of you is with friends, or there is a strict regulation against dating a customer, or it’s your child’s teacher. Or perhaps the interaction is so transitory as to make anything beyond the moment impossible—interactions on a subway, at a food counter, on line at a grocery store while on vacation. Sometimes people attracted to one another in these situations will engage in light flirting of a very innocent and non-sexual kind. Sometimes it leads to unnecessary nervousness. All these adjustments seem to me to be sublimations of the basic sexual urge—and a sign of a civilized, socialized person.
Several years back I devised a poem around three of these situations in which something else takes the place of a sexual act that would be anti-social: someone displaces sexual tension through nervous drinking; two people flirt over word play; one person teaches the other a morning exercise that approaches religious worship. The poem, “Instead of Sex,” was published in Cortland Review. “Instead of Sex” involves heterosexual situations, but I think the sublimation of sexual urges applies to all possible combinations of sexual identity, proclivity, and attraction.
INSTEAD OF SEX
All human activity is prompted by desire.
– Bertrand Russell
With A. B.
Whispered comments to the screen,
they scroll their burning fingers
up and down, back and forth,
colliding on the keyboard,
linger, pull away, touch again.
She grabs his water bottle,
sips from it, sips from it again,
one hand fondling plastic base,
the other hand ascending and descending
camber, gulping lips and neck in fan-dance.
After swallows, each one longer than
the one before, they scrutinize the screen
and breathe their comments, each one shorter
than the one before: she drinks, they phrase,
she drinks, they phrase. His throat is parched,
a thirsty sun in love with Vedic princess.
He asks her for his bottle for a drink.
She sees it’s his and drops it to the desk,
scurries red-faced to her water
buried in the scatter of her things across the room.
With C. D.
Untouching walk through snow
ends at frozen wooden bridge
overlooking ice-cracked stream
under febrile blue sky mocking winter.
She leans against the railing mouthing steam,
twitching hands, fumbled body heat.
They look to ice and neither moves
until as if as one in thought,
they point to unfamiliar blue above
and try to capture it in words:
faded Plumbago blossom…
child bright cornea washed in tears…
shimmering geode core…
Falling snowflakes send them running to the car,
pushing boot heels deeply inside
frozen footprints made before.
With E. F.
Another woman suns on flat rock
jutted into water, feet still wet from wading.
Above them pine trees grow together,
sunshade and canopy, cataract below
enamored crash and carnal silence
in their glances to each other’s eyes
and then away, to bluecurls, lupine, paintbrush,
and then she speaks, an exercise I do each day
goes like this: Clap your hands, eyes closed—
clap, clap, clap, clap, clap…
Rub them hard until they burn,
she shows him as she says it,
and when your hands are fire,
hold them to your eyes, press down lightly,
rub your temples, think of nothing,
then slowly imagine appearances—
these trees, these rocks, this waterfall,
wildflowers and sky, or wherever you are,
your yard, the room in which you sleep,
then draw back your hands like curtains,
open your eyes, swallow the world.
Published in Cortland Review #46 (Winter 2010)