A Banquet Set for One: Masturbation in the Time of COVID / Ashley Keyser and RL Goldberg

Arthur Rackham, The Goblin Market

Figure 1 “My quarantine routine”

 

1 – Ashley

Masturbation, like poetry, doesn’t “do” anything. It cares little for narrative; an image can be enough for an orgasm. Orgasm is a goal but isn’t the end, as your equipment and endurance allow. With infinite time, you could masturbate forever.

Tweets from this infinite year:

“My quarantine routine: Masturbate: 9:00am – Midnight.”1
“every day is just wake up, masturbate, read and cook for 10 hours, get high, masturbate…”2
“my quarantine schedule… 10AM – wake up; 10:10AM – masturbate; 10:30AM nap; 12PM – wake up; 12:10PM – masturbate…”3
“If I see one more girl post a ~quirky~ quarantine tweet about masturbation, I just might masturbate again”4

RL, when you first showed me these jokes, you noticed they came from (ostensibly) straight cis women. “You can’t get queer people to shut up about masturbating,” as you put it, so these stuck out. Why the mock(?)-confessions on this large platform? And why is all their masturbation so joyless — aside from the boredom of quarantine, are these gals OK?

The tweets cast masturbation as unproductive loafing, though when everybody’s a brand, tweets are products too. Self-deprecation gets a laugh or like, and joylessness is the joke (what’s the alternative, earnest overshares, self-abuse as self-care?). It evokes the experience of Twitter, suggests a finger could easily replace screen for clit. Rubbing-cum-doomscrolling, the idle gesture’s the same.

As masturbation jokes trended, I saw iterations of another meme: a thin woman opening a fridge, captioned “me, beginning of quarantine,” followed by a heavier woman, supposedly “30 days into quarantine.” There’s more to these jokes than boredom, or more to boredom than their affected irony implies — a fear, maybe, of boundless time unbinding our appetites.

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1 – rl

When quarantine began I was repeating, all the time, the first eight lines of Berryman’s “Dream Song 14”:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.5

As you write, there is, perhaps, more to boredom than the affected irony that these tweets imply. I think what most appealed to me about this poem is the idea of inner resources; being sealed in the apartment all day, I started to wonder if I had any. And it seems like underlying these tweets — even less, I think, than our appetites being unloosed — is the sense that maybe we don’t have inner resources. Which is not at all a comment on masturbation as, in itself, joyless, or non-resourceful (quite the opposite! Anyway, I think masturbation is not quite an “inner” resource). But thinking about being-in … being inside, being in a mood, being in fear, being in love, being enclosed, being in a state of uncertainty. As I read these tweets, and kept reading them, it was hard to not read some of them as desperately seeking any kind of relation to outsideness. Whether that’s outside the apartment (yes please!), outside one’s traditional comportment (it didn’t seem like masturbation was something that many of these folks regularly tweeted about — certainly not their own habits), or just getting outside the self. Is masturbation able to get us outside of the self in a context in which casual sex is risky?

Merleau-Ponty wrote, in The Visible and the Invisible, this wonderful phenomenological exploration of the reversibility of the touched and touching; he calls this the chiasm. Essentially, he argues that to touch our hands together, right to left, one is touched, the other touching, but also that this reversibility is “always imminent and never realized in fact. My left hand is always on the verge of touching my right hand touching the things, but I never reach coincidence, the coincidence eclipses at the moment of realization, and one of two things always occurs: either my right hand really passes over to the rank of touched, but then its hold on the world is interrupted; or it retains its hold on the world, but then I do not really touch it — my right hand touching, I palpate with my left hand only its outer covering.”6 The claim here: that within one phenomenal experience —touching a thing — we are both subject and object and the demarcations aren’t so clear; the flesh is the nexus between inside and out. I guess my question is: does touching, and self-touching, change when the possibility of being touched by another is so radically limited? Or do we have enough inner resources to weather this? Is the joke the concept of the inner resource? Or is it whatever non-productive — as you say, masturbation, like poetry, doesn’t “do” anything — things we’re doing to fill the time?

____________

2 – Ashley

I’m into the chiasm! More sensual potential here than say, Leo Bersani’s description of orgasm as self-shattering. To get outside the self, we don’t need to shatter it; we already bottom for the world as we grasp at it.

How does this exchange change, to paraphrase your question, when taking a lover is dangerous? When I consider our lonely masturbator, I think about the lyric speaker, who is — at least in much of contemporary U.S. poetry — an avatar of the poet herself. Her “I” is a nexus, too, containing multitudes, touching a never-met reader. Still, of all artists, poets defend their relevance the loudest. You’d think they’re constantly under attack of being, well, masturbatory. And they are under attack, by each other; from one vitriolic book review: “The pronoun I appears about 440 times.”7

Resources, productivity. These words invoke the future: stockpiles, nest eggs. When charged with irrelevance, poets invest their value in time, in a future legacy. For Allen Ginsberg, to read was to encounter a “time machine” of another’s consciousness (he said this, incidentally, in reference to Blake, whose poetry he read while jacking off).8

I’m interested in poems which don’t particularly care about the future. Take Tiana Clark’s “BBHMM,” after Rihanna. In workshop, her white peers and professors argued the material “would not stand the test of time.” They considered her work, a Black poet responding to a Black artist, ephemeral; meanwhile, white poets’ concerns are the stuff of legacy, even when they dip into blackface (“What’s good John Berryman?” she asks). And yet Clark also embraces the ephemeral: as she puts it, “My poetics were built on this need for some slice of survival concerned with communicating not in the future and for all time, but trying to save myself right now because I’m hungry.”9

For our imagined onanist, masturbation is a means of getting outside of — not only the self or body or apartment — time. The act’s another time machine, fueled by remembered and longed-for touch. Or, as a waste of time, the most valuable resource we have, to fuck yourself is a fuck-you to the future (remember all those “helpful” articles this spring, encouraging us to pick up a new language or skill during lockdown, as if staying alive were not enough?), a wanton refusal. I’m not sure. Maybe, being a poet, I’m too defensive of what I love.

____________

2 – rl

But is solo masturbation different than sex with an other, or others, in terms of wasting time, or in a relation to futurity that is non-productive? At least, as Lee Edelman represents it in No Future, part of the sell or psychic draw of queer sex is that it is non-productive, non-reproductive. His argument is rooted in writing against a very specific kind of future — a stupid, saccharine one where the figure of the Child, as inheritor and guarantor of the nuclear family, is a blissful vision of postwar security etc. But I don’t know, putting that United States white postwar middle-class future aside (which, for our generation, at least, is increasingly unthinkable. How many of us will be able to afford to own a house? To have kids? How long until Florida — and our beloved Gainesville — is underwater? Just this week: those wildfires in California, the biblical flooding in Pakistan) isn’t sex productive always? Certainly not reproductive, but productive in the sense that something — affects felicitous or not, fantasies, new hopes and neuroses to cathect to — is made, or done or manifested? At least in produce’s etymological sense — to draw out, to bring into being, to extend. How is masturbation, as you understand it, fundamentally different from sex, beyond not structurally calling for another’s presence as participant, pedagogue, voyeur?

But our lonely onanist — I’m thinking about the one from Anne Sexton’s “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator.”10 I love the repetition at the end of each of the seven stanzas: “At night, alone, I marry the bed.” There’s something about this line as the final one in each stanza — a nightcap — that gives it, for me, the same sense of timelessness of masturbation tweets. I have the sense that each stanza is the length of a day that culminates in the same anticlimax. What else is there to do?

You write of masturbation as a way of getting outside of the body — the speaker seems to agree: “I break out of my body this way, / an annoying miracle.” But is the body itself an annoying miracle? Or is breaking out of it the miracle? In some sense, Sexton’s bodies don’t seem miraculous. They are hungry, needful, cannibalizing, overfed. But there’s nothing indulgent about these bodies; neither are they bodies that indulge. I don’t have the sense that they’re the sensuously full bodies of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” overfed to fullness. Consider instead Rosetti’s description of Laura:

She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She suck’d until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away
But gather’d up one kernel stone,
And knew not was it night or day
As she turn’d home alone.11

It seems like the overfed for Sexton is the kind of overfed of hoarding, but not enjoyment. I’m reminded of the early days of quarantine seeing reports of how people were stocking their homes with food and toilet paper to prepare for months indoors. Full coffers, but with the self-denying sense of needing to be economical about it.

There’s a way, perhaps, that these confessional tweets, like Sexton’s confessional poetry, share in a kind of productivity. If, perhaps, we understand the will to confession — to produce a confession — as Foucault did, not as just a repressive form of power, but as an active, productive mode of power’s expression. I think, then, I’ve circled back to the same question: is masturbation’s relation to (non)productivity different than that which we encounter in sex? Is it simply a difference of time, and timing—the timing of being on one’s own time, of not sharing, of being riveted to the self?

____________

3 – Ashley

I started to write about Sexton and found myself repeating your words sharing and hoarding. For all the maudlin bell-beating of her confession, the speaker doesn’t share what gets her off. “Could I/ put the dream market on display?” she wonders, and doesn’t; her “black-eyed rival” sounds hot but she’s invoked only to condemn. The repetition suggests timelessness, I agree, but also the burden of time, how it presses on an insomniac. She’s stuck in time, joylessly hoarding the dream market haul, while in a goblin market Laura “knew not was it night or day,” having fallen out of either into rapture.

Now that I think of it, I don’t agree with Sexton. I can’t really break out of my body, or time, through self-touch. Time, ever-attentive lover, touches my body and makes itself visible there. A masturbator is not, however, the starving shadow of “the abundant two.” She is not always compensating for sex. It might be the reverse: when we embrace each other, we seek the polyphony and abundance of our inner lives.

I can’t speak for any “we,” I know. I have little idea what even my friends do to themselves (I asked one, years ago, how many times a day she masturbated, and she replied, aghast, “Once a month!”). Still, the self alone is free. Free to fantasize, reminisce, reflect, connect, space out. At its best, togetherness doesn’t heal our isolated thoughts so much as it performs them, when a pair can be “as free as in solitude,” as Jane Eyre describes her union with Rochester, and “to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking.”

Reader, I married the bed. During quarantine, though, I’ve thought less about the self than the soul. Or souls, multiple souls in a body. When the body stays put, one of the souls — the Egyptian ba, the Chinese hun, the Christian holy spirit — can fly. My grandmother phones from the assisted living facility where she rarely leaves her room, watching from the window as her neighbors, killed by coronavirus, are bundled across the parking lot without ceremony. She tells me, “The rabbi came and said that on the Sabbath, we have two souls! Isn’t that nice?”

Whether these beliefs are nice depends on your perspective. They reveal an abiding frustration with inside-ness, stuck inside mortal flesh — and also that “I” is plural and winged. To your question, if sex is productive, what does masturbation draw out, bring into being, extend? Without the distraction (even a welcome one) of another body, we can have a wider-ranging, wilder conversation. Whether we choose to or not, we can listen more attentively to our bodies, selves, souls.

Twitter masturbators describe their antics as a “quarantine routine,” but masturbation is potentially closer to ritual, something like the “somatic rituals” of poet CAConrad’s writing practice. For them, a flying soul is not a metaphor; via astral projection, the poet soars over their Philadelphia neighborhood at night (woo-y, perhaps, but not a bad idea for the socially distant). They also stage conversations with unlikely participants: squirrels, spider monkeys in a zoo, trees (a jarring experience, they attest, because “trees hate us”).12

In CAConrad’s work, masturbation is not solipsistic, nor the only means of communicating with one’s body. In the piece “Bee Alliance,” they masturbate beside a beehive: the bees “were curious of my activity, dancing on my shoulders and thighs, but no stings. It took me five decades to have sex with bees. That’s too long to wait.”13 In another exercise for others to try at home, they instruct the reader to sit naked at sunset. Masturbation is fine, but “try not to do it for the full 50 minutes, there are many things your genitals would like to tell you if you would only imagine that they could.”14

Throughout each ritual, CAConrad takes notes for their poetry. While Standing in Line for Death, a recent collection, describes the rituals before the resulting poems. They value process as much as, or more than, product; growing up among people exploited and exhausted by factory work, they’ve had a horror of turning their poetry “into a factory.” This poetics of process also roots their work in the present moment. “Because I’m doing these somatic rituals every day of my life,” they said in an interview, “I’m living inside of an extreme present that I’ve created in order to write.”15

I want to think that any of us can inhabit an “extreme present,” and that our solitary rituals therein — masturbatory or otherwise — better equip us to share with others our art, insights, and time. Here, though, my language might echo a corporate mindfulness workshop. Take time for yourself, says that shlock, so that you can come back and be more productive. I wonder if, by attaching a “goal” to masturbation, I turn it into another kind of factory. And yet, as you alluded to, the future is fucked, not only a “stupid, saccharine” dream but, for ever more people, a future of basic stability and health. Maybe I’m anxious that, when pleasure ends, there’s nothing left to enjoy or share — like Laura, sucking and sucking and sucking like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t, and turning away only with a little raw stone in her hand.

____________

3 – rl

But it’s more than just a little raw stone — it’s the kernel; and her retaining it does suggest that she thinks there’s a tomorrow for her pleasure. She brings the kernel home and plants it. Of course, it doesn’t bear fruit, and she nearly wastes away — but its failure is an edge in the poem. This tear in the narrative, this failed growth, is what permits her sister Lizzie to realize that she “could not bear / To watch her sister’s cankerous care, / Yet not to share.” The kernel does manage to mediate a shared pleasure after all. Lizzie consorts with the goblins, returns home and says to Laura, “‘Did you miss me? / Come and kiss me. / Never mind my bruises, / Huge me, kiss me, suck my juices / Squeezed from goblin fruits for you, / Goblin pulp and goblin dew. / Eat me, drink me, love me; / Laura, make much of me.” So I wonder if her turning away with, as you write, a little raw stone in her hand, is actually closer to how Barthes describes, in The Pleasure of the Text, what pleasure wants: “the site of a loss, the seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss.”16

LeeAnn Brown’s poem “Resistance Play” seems to motor on this principle, enjambment especially — that pleasure that is sayable, writable, perhaps most importantly, communicable, only through the break:

“You who pleasurably

enjoy your register of pleasure you.”

Figure 2 “Resistance Play,” Lee Ann Brown

I love the beginning here — resistance play as a kind of act, performance, or perhaps instead a kink. All I need is a little resistance [break] to come.17 But coming is not just coming, it is also a coming to terms with. The pleasure is both something expressed through me, and expressed to me. (And maybe also by me?)

Another poem, “Heavenly Earthly Diadems” — which I embarrassingly wrote in massive Sharpie letters on my wall in college — ends like this: “Let’s press our breasts together and french kiss; / anything more I can’t speak about. / Too much description ruins everything.”18 This is, of course, the sexiest part of the poem: the withheld.

I’m very partial to the distinction Barthes makes between pleasure and bliss: “Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.”19

This distinction between pleasure and bliss returns me to a point you made very early on in our conversation: that the masturbation tweets are joyless. Are they pleasureless, too? For Barthes, it is the adjective that constrains us (I always thought it was the adverb). But if we shift, as you suggest, to the problem of the noun — routine or ritual — what is the status of the adjective? Does bliss, or joy, or pleasure mean something different in the context of routine or ritual? If bliss is that which we cannot speak — it is too fragile, to unstable, too revocable — does it even make sense to think “bliss” in the register of the routine and mundane?

Anyhow, I’m not surprised to know that the trees hate us. Conrad is very right. I love their sense that, “there are many things your genitals would like to tell you if you would only imagine that they could.” I think that’s another way of saying what Barthes writes: “The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas — for my body does not have the same ideas I do.” Not to be pithy about my field, but this seems to be the kernel of trans studies — or what I find compelling in any queer phenomenology of the body.

I’d love to hear you say more about the move from routine to ritual. I’ve been thinking a lot, lately about this distinction (I spent the first few months of quarantine religiously — is this the correct word? — reading Jewish mystics). But this distinction you made reminded me of a similar move in Morgan Parker’s poem “Ain’t Misbehavin’”.

The poem feels and winds its way through routine until the line “and repent for the night / before.”20 In this register of repentance — which I think, and hope, is closer to ritual than routine — we finally get masturbation.

Anyhow, I saw this on Twitter this morning and thought it might be of interest:

Figure 3 Masturbation Sweeps Sadness

____________

4 – Ashley

Whether masturbation is the rug muffling our sadness in its ugly shag, well, that’s another question of pleasure and bliss. Routine pleasure might ask for a fix, for comfort. What does ritual want from us?

Though I’m not the first to elevate sex to ritual, I usually see that gesture applied to sex with others: it’s communication, communion. I’m thinking of poems like Mark Doty’s “Homo Will Not Inherit,” after a poster in a queer neighborhood. Addressing his would-be judge, the speaker recalls a man in a bathhouse who told him, “I’m going to punish your mouth.” As for what happened next, he says, “I can’t tell you what that did to me.”21

“I can’t tell you” as in won’t — the “you” would condemn him anyway — and also just can’t. His mouth, too full to speak and not just of cock. After all, the initiated could not divulge a ritual, like the Eleusinian Mysteries, on pain of death. They knew a ritual can’t be paraphrased, can only be experienced: “Too much description ruins everything.”

You used the word “edge” and Brown’s poem edges, as in won’t come, what’s unsaid vibrating in her margins (I’m about to take a Sharpie to my own walls after reading her). I read Sexton’s lonely masturbator as “hoarding,” but she deals in resistance play, too. “You are not entitled to my fantasy,” she might say; communication is not the point. I’m thinking again of Tiana Clark, how she ends a poem with a line addressed, in part, to us: “I don’t have to tell you everything.”22

I’m not totally satisfied with “ritual.” A stale whiff of sanctimony about it? I remember what my friend Jacek told me — a sex researcher, studying MRIs of the brain during orgasm. “What an orgasm does to the nervous system is more intense than fear or even pain,” he said, hugely grinning. “And people do it every day!”

You asked me about the move from routine to ritual, and I love masturbation because it confounds me as I try to demarcate the two. I understand Jacek’s delight — this bright and painful bliss ribboning the everyday brain! Through Parker’s poem, too, where such bliss troubles the line between isolation and togetherness. After the phrase, “I masturbate,” she introduces a you and we, then draws the compass of her voice even wider: “planets up to their necks/ in our longing.” The poem’s atmosphere is more like water, but in the slog of ennui, her desire still implicates the universe, a reverse-astrology.

The stuff of routine isn’t lower or lesser than Poetry™, but it clamors with its own distractions. For many of us — the millions unemployed, freelancers, artists, adjuncts — daily life must be optimized: to connect and network, tweet and like, juggle and hustle. And yet tuning out is powerful; as artist Jenny Odell writes in How to Do Nothing, “If it’s attention (deciding what to pay attention to) that makes our reality, regaining control of it can also mean the discovery of new worlds and new ways of moving through them.”23 What looks like idleness allows for questioning, resisting, listening.

Earlier I argued that masturbation lets us listen to ourselves; if ritual wants anything from us, it’s not silence per se, but attention. Or meditation, as CAConrad describes their difficult childhood selling flowers by the highway: “As much as I bitch about those years of forced isolation, that time helped me transform isolation into meditation.” In solitude, their first poem descended on them like a god, or cumming. “I’m not saying it was a good poem, but it was a REAL poem, meaning it was a poem that came THROUGH ME! What a beautiful experience, MUCH BETTER than my first orgasm!”24

You wrote, “The pleasure is both something expressed through me, and expressed to me. (And maybe also by me?).” Could you swap inspiration for pleasure? Are they the same? As you reminded me, the body has its own ideas (and emotions?: “My asshole feels.”). Does self-touch inspire the body? I don’t think there’s anything pithy about this kernel you’ve planted. If these questions interest you, by all means RL, “make much of me”!

____________

4 – rl 

I think self-touch “inspires” the body in the same way that desire does — with a particular kind of non-consensuality in its arousal. Martin Buber writes of hitlahavut (התלהבות), or “‘the inflaming,’ the ardor of ecstasy”25 which unlocks the meaning of life in the Hasidic tradition. Although hitlahavut, in its contemporary usage, basically means “enthusiasm,” I think the ancient Hebrew connotation of the word contained within it something like the untranslatable-into-English of jouissance.

The kernel of hitlahavut — that which makes much of us, if we’re lucky — is attention. One has to be attentive, which is to say, receptive to it. But achieving hitlahavut also opens up a space of radical receptivity (which feels like Bersani’s thing) or radical passivity (which feels like Levinas’s) that turns us into something else–a vessel, perhaps, for whatever fills that receptivity. So maybe ritual just wants our attention? But maybe it wants us, entire? Or maybe it wants something in between — that permeable imminent phenomenological I. Fully attentive, intentionally directed to ritual, that seems about as receptive as one could get.

I love thinking along Simone Weil on attention: “Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.”26 But I’m very surprised by this definition. She begins with what Husserl called the epoché — suspending or bracketing what we think to direct our attention, or our intentionality, to that which we want to study. But where Husserl proposes intentionality as something that we can ultimately steer, we’re prostrate and prone in Weil’s conception (ready to be penetrated, ready to receive as she has it).

Penetration for Weil reads, to me, like consenting to something one cannot know in advance. It also is highly relational and about contact: with the self, with the other. But I think it also speaks — as hitlahavut does — to the ecstatic in the banal. Is there any new pleasure here in the kind of prostrate submission Weil describes? Not really. But it does seem to put her into the orbit of a different kind of pleasurable discourse. As Foucault might say, this is an invention of “a different kind of pleasure: pleasure in the truth of pleasure, the pleasure of knowing that truth, of discovering and exposing it, the fascination of seeing it and telling it, of captivating and capturing others by it, of confiding it in secret, of luring it out in the open — the specific pleasure of the true discourse on pleasure.”27 Certainly I get that from reading Weil’s diaries, truffling out those moments of pleasure she sometimes holds out to us — or from us.

Sans transition — except the most loose connection: I cannot but think of Samuel Delaney each time I think “contact” (specifically his description of intraclass contact in gay Times Square),28 then I immediately think of Marilyn Hacker. So I want to leave one of my favorite of Hacker’s poems here for your attention:

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5 – Ashley

I LOVE that Hacker poem (sorry for the caps, it’s the CAConrad effect)! I often think of it when struck with longing, also often. It sounds like Sappho: melting, leaking, loosening. Here “torrents are unloosed” and so Sappho characterizes desire: “Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me / sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up.”29

With both poets, Eros is like hitlahavut ravishing the mind. To your reading of Weil, I’ll add that she poses a problem. For the ego driven by plans, goals, opinions, it’s hard work to give up, stop steering, to allow itself to be altered. If ritual wants to consume my I, do I want that?

Romantic cliches have a lover letting go, letting another in. Thinking again about Sappho, such an experience was not “romantic” — it disturbed her. For the ancient Greek poets, as Anne Carson explores in Eros the Bittersweet, desire is an assault. It devours, poisons, grinds down, its goddess is born from the foam of lopped genitals. When Sappho looks at a woman she wants, the wanting is illness: “cold sweat holds me and shaking / grips me all, greener than grass / I am and dead–or almost / I seem to me.”30 The creature steals up on the lover and changes her, and no resistance play can help her come / to terms: “You cannot resist the change or control it or come to terms with it.”31

A lover so undone has another enemy: time. His desire constitutes an extreme present; he sees “the difference between the ‘now’ of his desire and all the other moments called ‘then’ that line up before and after it.”32 He’s marooned between “now” and the “then” where his beloved is. How to endure it? The move from recitation to written lyrics, Carson argues, offered a means of control: “When you read or write you seem to achieve that control which the lover craves: a vantage point from which the dilemmas of ‘now’ and ‘then’ may be viewed with detachment. When desire is the subject of a text you are reading, you can open it anywhere and end when you like. If Eros is something written on a page, you can close the book and be shut of him.”33

Shut of him — but not really, and not of the author. As I think about the texts you and I have touched on, I consider how they’ve touched me, seeped into me. Something like Ginsberg’s time machine, but I’m looking for more intimacy — maybe this word “contact”?

I’ve approached our exchange as a poet, less as a reader, I realize now. A poet told me once, “I don’t really read poetry, I just write it.” A blowhard, but I wonder how many writers don’t read that much, driven instead to produce, afraid of wasting time — or that widely, preferring not to stray beyond their plot of genre, attitude, style. Such a reader looks for another kind of control, or maybe this speaks to pleasure as Barthes defines it, against the possibility of bliss to unsettle, discomfort, bring to a crisis.

I’m not sure how to reconcile, provisionally, the erotics of reading/masturbating. For now, I’ll say that reading is, like masturbation, usually pretty banal. The eye slurs over the lines and line blurs with daydream. And now and again, a moment of clarity arrives, a penetration or more like an annunciation and I am changed. When I’ve shared these moments with another consciousness — Carson, Sappho, Hacker, CAConrad, Clark — it’s a “now” where I am alone and not alone, and so it feels like, it is, desire.

The other night, I flipped through my used copy of Carson’s Sappho translations, If Not, Winter. I hadn’t noticed before — the last reader some years past had marked in pencil, with underline and a little star, lightly, the fragment:34

Fig 4 Sappho Fragment

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5 – rl

I want to return, then, to your opening provocation — that poetry, like masturbation, doesn’t “do” anything. But immediately I’ve gotten it reversed — you had said, masturbation, like poetry, doesn’t do anything. Does the reversal tell us anything different? What is the like doing here, what kinds of incommensurabilities is it covering over? You write that with infinite time, you could masturbate forever. I love how this last Sappho fragment you cite posits desire as infinite, reaching back into the past as she invokes someone, in the future, who will do the remembering. I love the strangeness of “even in another time” — even as a kind of intensifier to stress the impossible inevitably of another time. Another time! At least for me, quarantine, COVID, this summer, which is now the fall, has made it hard for me to think of “even in another time” in the future (or, at least, one we might be excited to occupy).

In the extreme present, as you call it, we have masturbation and poetry. These might be two ways to waste our time, two distractions from the fact of seemingly boundless time unbinding our appetites even as our appetites won’t be satisfied as everything becomes more precarious and scarce. For those of us lucky to be working from home — to have, at least for now, the promise of a paycheck if not in another time, at least in the extreme present — we lose the distinction between public and private. One of my students put it this way: each time she comes to class, she invites the class into her home. When I think of boundless appetites in queer studies, I think of Lauren Berlant & Michael Warner’s 1998 “Sex in Public.” They write, “The aim of this paper is to describe what we want to promote as the radical aspirations of queer culture building: not just a safe zone for queer sex but the changed possibilities of identity, intelligibility, publics, culture, and sex that appear when the heterosexual couple is no longer the referent or the privileged example of sexual culture.”35 Much of this is, at least right now, off the table, from sex to “safe zones.” But I wonder if there is any way that we can see these masturbation tweets — and much of the poetry we were discussing — as proleptically invoking a public that decenters the hetero and allo referent? Is there something new to be said about sex in private? As a thought experiment: can private connote without any sense of privation, but instead lean into a belonging-to-oneself?

If yes, I think, ultimately, I disagree with your provocation. Poetry, like masturbation, can do something: working the etymology of fantasy, it makes visible. When you say poetry, like masturbation doesn’t “do” anything, I understand you to mean that it can’t be possessed. Isn’t this just another way of talking about, constituting, a public?

Endnotes

  1. <3 Alexis, (LexTheStampede). “My quarantine routine: Masturbate: 9:00am – Midnight.” March 20, 2020. Tweet.
  2. Jamie, (veryhotmomm). “every day is just wake up , masturbate, read and cook for 10 hours, get high , masturbate, cry self to sleep,,,,, if we weren’t all under immediate threat of death this might be a kind of respectable life for a taurus girl like me” May 26 2020, 11:57 AM. Tweet.
  3. Rose (LaurenPham). “my quarantine schedule… 10AM – wake up; 10:10AM – masturbate; 10:30AM nap; 12PM – wake up; 12:10PM – masturbate…” March 23, 2020. Tweet.
  4. Molly Jean, (MDMApants). “If I see one more girl post a ~quirky~ quarantine tweet about masturbation, I just might masturbate again.” March 24, 2020, 12:48 AM. Tweet.
  5. John Berryman, “Dream Song 14,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47534/dream-song-14
  6. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 147-48.
  7. John Eberson, “Kaveh Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” Tourniquet Review, December 14, 2017, https://tourniquetreview.com/blog/2017/5/23/calling-a-wolf-a-wolf-ebersole
  8. Allen Ginsberg, “The Art of Poetry No. 8,” The Paris Review, Spring 1966, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4389/the-art-of-poetry-no-8-allen-ginsberg
  9. Tiana Clark, “How I Wrote BBHM,” The Adroit Journal, November 15, 2018, https://theadroitjournal.org/2018/11/15/tiana-clark-how-i-wrote-bbhmm/
  10. Anne Sexton, “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42574/the-ballad-of-the-lonely-masturbator
  11. Christina Rosetti, “Goblin Market” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44996/goblin-market
  12. CAConrad and Ross Simonini, “Extreme Present: A Conversation with CAConrad,” Open Space, November 8, 2016, https://openspace.sfmoma.org/2016/11/extreme-present-a-conversation-with-caconrad/
  13. CAConrad, While Standing in Line for Death (Seattle: Wave Books, 2017), 75.
  14. “CAConrad’s (Soma)tic Poetry Exercises,” http://writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/somatic-exercises.pdf
  15. CAConrad and Ross Simonini, “Extreme Present: A Conversation with CAConrad,” Open Space, November 8, 2016, https://openspace.sfmoma.org/2016/11/extreme-present-a-conversation-with-caconrad/
  16. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 7.
  17. Lee Ann Brown, “Resistance Play,” http://bostonreview.net/archives/BR23.5/Equi.html
  18. Lee Ann Brown, Polyverse, (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1999), 153-4.
  19. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 14.
  20. Morgan Parker, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, (Portland: Tin House Books, 2017), 50-1.
  21. Mark Doty, Atlantis (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1995), 78.
  22. Tiana Clark, “My Daddies Have Voices Like Bachelors, Like Castigators & Crooners…” Four Way Review, October 15, 2019, https://fourwayreview.com/my-daddies-have-voices-like-bachelors-like-castigators-crooners-by-tiana-clark/?fbclid=IwAR1huBOxsQek1XiOZ8e2Qruhvnb1dWcqV548fAyx0rDth5paGHPhgK-IH8w
  23. Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2019), 94.
  24. Tom Beckett and CAConrad, “Interview with CAConrad,” E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E-V-A-L-U-E-S, August 22, 2006, http://willtoexchange.blogspot.com/2006/08/interview-with-caconrad.html
  25. Martin Buber, Hasidism & Modern Man (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 31.
  26. Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2009), 62.
  27. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality volume 1 (New York: Vintage, 1990), 71.
  28. Samuel Delaney, Time Square Red, Times Square Blue (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
  29. Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (New York: Dalkey Archive, 1998), 3
  30. Ibid., 13
  31. Ibid., 148
  32. Ibid., 117
  33. Ibid., 121
  34. Anne Carson, If Not, Winter (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 297.
  35. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry vol. 24, no. 2 (Winter 1998): 548.