237 More Reasons to Have Sex by Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh
(Otoliths, Australia, 2009)
There are at least 237 reasons for Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh to collaborate on a long, hilarious list-poem. I’ll keep my list to two. For one thing, both have written powerful list poems before, Duhamel as early as “Assumptions” in her debut collection, Smile! (1993) and recently the chapbook length, Mille et Un Sentiments (2005) and McIntosh in the title-poem and several others in Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death (2007). Further, these are two of the funniest contemporary American poets to comment in their work on sex and death. When one of them found the article, “Why Humans Have Sex,” in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, with a set number of reasons, it was a matter of time before these poets conjured up “237 more reasons.”
While one job of the poets may be to make the reader laugh, mine as critic is to dampen that humor for the time being with ponderous analytic seriousness. I must make the “instruct” in Horace’s “instruct and delight” gain temporary priority over “delight,” unless one finds such instruction delightful. (When I proposed, then taught a course called “Humor in Literature” in the eighties as a new assistant professor at City University of New York—La Guardia, I encountered much annoyance about analytic dampening. I haven’t taught the course in the last two decades.) Today, a fine way of realizing my aim is to introduce a formulation of desire as lack by the intellectually burly French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan even before citing anything from the Duhamel/McIntosh collaboration:
From the outset we see, in the dialectic of the eye and the gaze, that there is. . . a lure. When, in love, I solicit a look, what is profoundly unsatisfying and always missing is that—You never look at me from the place from which I see you. . . .
The objet a is something from which the subject, in order to constitute itself, has separated itself off as organ. This serves as a symbol of the lack. . . . It must, therefore, be an object that is, firstly, separable and, secondly, that has some relationship to the lack (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1998. 102-3.)
“The objet a” is sometimes known as the little other (petit a), in contrast with the big Other (Autre), which indicates an otherness beyond the ego’s assimilation. Particular features of the little other entice the subject, often on an unconscious level. Sentences 86 and 87 of Duhamel and McIntosh’s collaboration provide examples of a subject being aware of what lures them without losing the attraction: “I’ve always had a thing for good boys in letter sweaters”; “I’ve always had a thing for letter carriers in blue sweaters” (16-17). A mere list of object a’s would not produce much of a poem; the two sentences are related because of a double meaning of “letter” (a key-word in Lacan’s celebrated “Seminar on ‘the Purloined Letter’”) and a repeated item of “sexy” clothing, and this goes beyond simple listing. While one object of desire wears clothing that communicates status within a school and no appreciable societal utility, the other’s uniform signifies a job not usually invested with glamour but a useful conduit for communication. This implied contrast suggests how arbitrary—hence how absurd—the workings of an objet a can seem. The idea that a differing structure of symbolic or metonymic chains would cause one person to fall for the postman/woman and one to fall for the student-athlete is funny enough, as presented, to make one see chaos take the place of pseudo-coherent narratives about predestined “soul-mates.”
Duhamel and McIntosh also exploit and mock the pandemic range of fantasies about celebrities seeping into ordinary folks’ erotic selections:
62. I pretended you were Tom Cruise playing air guitar in Risky Business. (14)
63. I pretended I was Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch.
64. I pretended I was the couch.
113. You promised me we could name our first daughter Chastity, just like Sonny and Cher had. (19)
154. There was Vaseline on the camera lens, so you looked like Warren Beatty who will only be filmed in soft lighting. (24)
Falling for a non-celebrity, one frequently makes an objet a out of a fragmentary association between that person and a star’s isolated trait. Perhaps, for the speaker in number 62, the juxtaposition of movie star looks and silly “air guitar” would involve a lowering of inhibition that seems to make the previously unattainable accessible—through pretending. In the next sentence above, ardor is derived from the identification of a role-model’s action with one’s own. Although the incident on the Oprah Winfrey Show made many star-gazers doubt Cruise’s sanity, a number of them must have been touched that he risked utter ridiculousness to express his passion publicly. Again, the very absurdity of his couch-jumping would narrow the gap between the speaker, inflamed by the televised example with a passion for an available object, and the star. In number 113, an odd chain of metonymies involves the speaker’s longing for association with celebrity through naming; physical attraction to a celebrity or his/her stand-in seems irrelevant. (Lacan makes much of metonymic “sliding” from signifier to signifier as the trajectory of desire.) The reference to Warren Beatty’s control of his represented image in number 154 demonstrates a parallel between the highly mediated desire for a non-luminary with the elaborate development of fictions that package celebrities as widespread objects or images for a desiring public.
Thus, mistaken identity can be important to sexual decisions: “14. I thought you were somebody else. 15. I thought I was somebody else” (9-10). Those who focus on attributes of fantasy that render someone an objet a may find that, after sex, less than pleasant traits come into view and displace the objet’s charms. In the second sentence, someone strives for intimacy with another in order to reinforce a particular self-image, only to find that the image s/he sees and seeks in the mirror has changed; the other person no longer fits. The fickleness embodied by these mini-“Dear John” letters is funny to the unattached reader, but not recipients of “reasons no longer to have sex.”
Some of Duhamel and McIntosh’s sentences show how a desire for power can drive erotic activity:
122. I wanted to protect myself into the future, one frame at a time, like our father Genghis Khan. (20)
123. Then you said, “Everything is about sex except sex, which is actually about power and money,” making me feel richly powerful.
150. Sure I was a money-grubber, a gold-digger, but that didn’t mean I didn’t love you. (24)
151. They told me: “She’s just using you! She’s taking you for a ride!” And I answered: “So what?”
. . . [Man’s] desire finds its meaning in the other’s desire, not so much because the other holds the keys to the desired object, as because his first object(ive) is to be recognized by the other.
(Ecrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 2006. 222.)
Acquiring a sense of power often involves meeting externally-based criteria. In number 123, the speaker is both seduced and considers himself/herself empowered by the other’s repetition of a cultural truism. The placement of an equals sign between the lust for pecuniary power and love in number 150 may be a defensive rationalization, or it could reflect a sincere conscious belief in the fusion of intrinsic and extrinsic value, a social “truth” that could have been inherited in childhood. Further, in the next entry, the “So what?” (that confirms the part of the prior statement about extrinsic value) indicates how the speaker places a higher priority on sexual satisfaction than on being loved intrinsically. Perhaps his ego is strengthened by his ability to put his power to use.
Some entries present “reasons” featuring the elimination or reduction of personal insecurity, a compensation for powerlessness: “73. There was a lull in conversation and I’m frightened by silence” (15); 236. “We did it again because we were no longer beautiful” (31). However, the decision to welcome eros risks further insecurity, as when the speaker is plied with alcohol in the ambiguously raunchy number 132: “I hate losing control, but when I put my lips to the keg and you turned the spout, I knew I’d be losing” (21). While only a handful of sentences—for example, 85, which immediately derails the quest, and 174—acknowledge a drive for higher (spiritual?) value in erotic encounters, numerous sentences sprinkled throughout the chapbook implicitly deny intimacy as a goal. In so doing, the speakers cushion themselves against a possible devastating failure of intimate contact by justifying sex as a pragmatic solution to an ordinary situation. We hear of someone’s “vibrator . . . in the repair shop” (9), a “Blue Light special on condoms,” the arrival of “the K-Y Jelly’s expiration date,” the other’s appearance with a “worn out” vibrator, the need for “an excuse to smoke a cigarette” (12), a “class” taken “in Tantric Sex” that would have been wasted without application (14), and the other’s promise to “take out the trash” (30). We are far from the objet a and recognition of actual desire.
Indeed, the chapbook’s title merrily prevaricates: pseudo-reasons, non-reasons, partial (and secondary) reasons, and reasons at several removes (from credible version of origins) comprise a majority of the 237 entries. While this confirms the massive skepticism of psychoanalysts like Lacan and his followers about the truth that can be expected from ego-driven consciousness, the poets anticipate this and not only encourage an ironic perspective on the potential for accuracy but allow various speakers to signal their own evasiveness, their resistance to “analytic truth,” with humorous flourishes. The text’s rendering of the sprightly evasion of psychological insight is insight that can lead readers to ferret out unstated relevance. However, delight and instruction in this prose-poem include an aesthetic component that is not dominated by psychological inquiry; the rationale for placing one sentence before another has as much or more to do with the play of language as with any thematic component:
82. I was in the union and under the impression I was being paid scale.
83. I was looking at the numbers on the scale and thought I’d better take the first union that came
100. I was intrigued by the cello you were clasping between your thighs.
101. You’ve got to admit it is well strung.
102. I loved the way you plucked the high notes. It made me whoop and holler! (18-19)
Yes, yes, Lacan’s most oft-quoted chestnut is about how the unconscious, tinged with the accidental that makes a transcendental Signified so elusive and splits the subject, and a language have comparable structuring. And his analytic method can make the analysand aware of the sliding from signifier to signifier without expecting the concrete realization of a self as mirror-image. But did Lacan sustain poetic humor half as well as Duhamel and McIntosh? Methinks not.
Thomas Fink’s recent chapbook is Generic Whistle-Stop (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2009). He is the author of Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2008) and four previous books of poetry. A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001) is his most recent book of criticism, and in 2007, he and Joseph Lease co-edited “Burning Interiors”: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics. His work appears in The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). Fink's paintings hang in various collections.