The Dirty Orgasm
I know what you think. I’m the orgasm poet. I have nothing else to write about. I should stop. Or we should—the orgasm and I. Now! You’ve had enough of our antics, our poetry, our socially unacceptable performances. Even the word, orgasm, should be banned. It’s dirty, unkempt, and leaves tracks on the floor and in the mind. I agree. I am tired of it, too. But what can I do? I who have kept an orgasm like a genie for so long.
I’ve sought medical advice, but the doctor insists the orgasm is all in my mind. (He doesn’t know the orgasm can hide in my favorite coffee mug, tucked behind the dishes where no one else will find it. And at the bottom of a laundry basket, folded and refolded like an origami bird.) “You need only stop obsessing,” the doctor insists. “And the orgasm will vanish forever.” Forever? I wonder as I think about not thinking about the orgasm. But I have my fears. If the orgasm is all in my mind, then what if my thoughts leave first? If I have to pick between an orgasm and a brain, which will it be? What if one is part of the other like the sugar in my coffee? Or the milk in my cappuccino after the froth is gone? And what am I to make of that cream curdled at the bottom of my unwashed cup?
What Did Your Parents Think of Your Poetry?
The first poem I published was in The Paris Review
and was about an artichoke. My parents’ friend,
the short story writer, Peter Taylor,
showed the poem to my dad, and my mom called
to say how ashamed they were.
“That poem is, well, you know,” she said.
I didn’t know. After a silence, she added, “It’s
so risqué.” She was right. It was quite an artichoke.
A week later I wrote a poem about an orgasm.
Not a risqué orgasm.
Just a whisper of a thing. “My Secret Orgasm,”
I called it. Without the title, no one
would have known an orgasm was present.
Next I wrote “The Performance Orgasm,”
and when I read it in my writing class,
everyone broke into applause.
“You can’t publish those,” the professor
said. I published them both.
Soon, more followed.
If my parents saw the orgasm poems
or heard of them, they never said so.
Nor did the Taylors.
But one day when I was visiting my folks,
Peter’s wife, the poet, Eleanor Ross
Taylor, invited me to tea. I sipped
Earl Gray as she drank Sprite
and praised my poems. “Honestly,
I admire your work,” she said in her lovely
southern accent. “But,” she added,
“I wish you’d stop using
that horrible, horrible word.”
“Which one?” I asked, feigning ignorance.
“You know what I mean,” she snapped.
“Try bird or cloud or, I don’t know.
How about a horse?”
“Instead of an orgasm?
You think a horse is an orgasm?”
I thought of the horses in our barn, kicking
and whinnying in their stalls at night.
Of my pony, Sugar, Mom’s horse, Jester,
and my father’s geldings, Playboy
and Best Man. And my dad’s gay friends—
he called them geldings. Or fags or worse
to hide the fact he was a homosexual, too.
I wondered then, Is he happy?
Living as a straight man?
“Do you think it’s better to hide
the truth and speak in code?” I asked.
I thought of my orgasms then
as an army of horses, champing
at the bit. Eleanor pursed
her lips and gazed at the painting
behind my head of a drab southern
ancestress in an olive-brown gown.
“Yes. I do,” she said, nodding
slightly. “But I have to admit,
I am terribly civilized.”
The Unpublished Orgasms
I called them my Eleanor Ross Taylor’s.
I had so many back then—poems,
I mean. I’d write and write
and not send anything out. Eleanor
admitted she did the same. Sometimes
she pretended not to have time
to submit to literary reviews.
Her husband, she said, was all about fame.
“But after a while, one can get awfully
tired of being invisible,” she confessed.
“Playing second fiddle,
housekeeper, gardener, wife.
If Peter had writer’s block,
I didn’t type either.
The sound of my working upset him so.”
I thought of her sitting silently,
unwritten poems scrolling
through her head as she waited
for Peter to be inspired.
She lived the life of a southern wife
just as my father suggested I
should, always letting her husband
take the lead, as in a waltz.
“I’d have kept writing on the sly,”
I said. She nodded. “Sometimes
I did. In the early years.
I wrote short stories, too.
Of course, that didn’t work.”
“Of course?” I asked. She shrugged.
Outside her plate glass window,
an icy wind hurled snowflakes
at the sky. I watched them rise
and rise as if trying to ascend,
like all her unwritten poems
and stories, swirling madly
before disappearing in air
as white as unlined paper.
Aren’t you ashamed?
“ . . . to stand up and read those poems?”
my mom asked. I was about to give my first
reading at the New Dominion Bookshop
in downtown Charlottesville, but I’d only
published The Book of Orgasms.
What else could I read? “Don’t you have
any nature poetry? Or farm poems about horses or
geese or dogs?” my mom asked. She was thinking
of Mary Oliver. If only, I thought.
“But at least she’s original,” Mom’s friend,
Eleanor Taylor, said in a conciliatory tone.
“Most poets these days are terribly derivative.
But you, Nin . . .”
How often have I heard, “But you, Nin . . . “
and the voice trails off. I still remember
my first grade Christmas concert,
the first time I was ever on stage, dressed up
in a black velvet dress with a red silk sash
and a matching hairband. My teeth were brushed,
and my hair was clean.
My mother had even combed it herself
and wiped the cat food off my fingers
with a dishcloth and checked my shoes for manure.
I remember blinking under the lights and thinking,
This is my day! I can be a star!
I wanted everyone to see and hear me.
But I hadn’t learned any of the words
to the songs. So I began shouting,
“I had bacon and eggs and grits
for breakfast. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.
And my sister, Julie, is in the hospital,
fa-la-la-la-la-la, with a hernia.
We ate Melvin, my pet bull,
for dinner last night, fa-la-la-la-la.
I hate penmanship and ticks and turnips
and Freddie Jones, fa-la-la-“ and then,
suddenly, I looked out at the audience
and noticed the shiny top of my dad’s bald head
in the third row, turning from pink
to red to crimson and purple, the way it did
when he was so angry, I knew he would spank me.
“I should beat you black and blue,”
he always said when he picked me up
and lay me on his lap. Whap, whap.
I felt a wave of hot terror rise up
like lava and my dress felt prickly
and tight, and I started to sweat
and then upchucked all over
Marlene Leggett, the skinniest girl in class,
who was standing in front of me—
she was the daughter of Leggett’s Department Store
(that’s how my father put it) where Mom
bought new cloth napkins and place matts
every spring and once, two pairs of pinchy
patent leather Sunday shoes my sister, Ouisa,
and I wore once. When we tried to return them
the saleswoman wouldn’t take them back
because she said we’d stretched them out with our fat,
little feet, and so we wore them every week to church.
I was wearing them then, and when I looked down,
they were covered in vomit—mostly egg chunks
and bacon and OJ, fresh squeezed, with little white seeds.
The nurse, who led Marlene and me off the stage
and into the Girl’s room and rinsed
us in the sink and then sent us home early,
said she knew just what I ate.
So did Marlene. She told my parents
I must have had an ample breakfast
and suggested they refrain from feeding me
before the next concert, but Mom said
not to worry—I wouldn’t be in the next show.
Neither my dad nor my mom said a word.
No one spoke at dinner that night either
until my sister, Sal, said, “We sure heard you.”
And Ouisa said, “We saw you upchuck, too.”
And they all burst out laughing.
But Mom insisted it wasn’t so bad.
“Just think. We will always remember
Nin’s first concert. But if she’d sung
the right words, no one would ever know
she was up there today, on that stage
with all those pale, little girls.”