Love, sex, and springtime are fundamental themes in E.E. Cummings’ lifetime body of work, and in Erotic Poems, editor George James Firmage brings together pieces by Cummings’ that are especially sexual, exalting of fertility, and written in a voice that is at once fresh and wise, evocative of the dumb yet utterly precise instinct to procreate.
These poems, and the line drawings (also by Cummings), were selected from the poet’s original manuscripts and are diverse in their eroticism, tone, and form. Representing a spectrum of sexual desire, thought, and impulse, the poems range from humorous to romantic, graphic to tender. Some are raw, even violent, while others are philosophical, and still others are playful but intelligent. My favorites led me to laugh, delighted by both the humor and the poetic genius in the verse, or else moved me to a deep sentimental ache at the beauty and tragedy of love and the existential anguish in its inevitable loss.
A particularly evocative poem entitled "ix." has a dark shadowy edge evoking the violence of both desire and of life itself, as well as a melancholy awareness of eventual extinguishment of life. It begins:
nearer:breath of my breath:take not thy tingling
limbs from me:make my pain their crazy meal
Then climaxes with:
flower of madness on gritted lips
and on sprawled eyes squirming with light insane
chisel the killing flame that dizzily grips.
And finally concludes:
thirstily. Dead stars stink. dawn. inane,
the poetic carcass of a girl.
This is not your run-of-the-mill erotica! From the sound of the words themselves to the use of unconventional syntax and spacing, the poems in this collection wind up to a climax after following a cadence that varies in texture, from rocky to sinuous.
Perhaps my favorite poem, because it hit me so squarely in the heart, is "vii." After the lovers have made love and:
all the houses terribly tighten
upon your coming:
and they are glad
as you fill the streets of my city with children.
Resting now, the lovers embrace, and it is Cummings' description of the melding of their bodies and hearts that, for me, so poignantly captures the sense of oneness between them:
you are a keen mountain and an eager island whose
lively slopes are based always in the me which is shrugging,which is
under you and around you and forever: i am the hugging sea.
The line drawings are themselves poetic, expressive, and emotional. Their style is reminiscent of Egon Schiele, Chagall, Picasso, and the deco illustrative style of the 1920s. (Interestingly, Cummings worked as a portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine from 1924 to 1927.) The drawings are a great complement to the poems, as each holds large and complex movement, lovers' limbs and torsos twisting and twining around one another, floating in passion.
The book itself has been beautifully and simply executed; when I took Erotic Poems out of its mailing envelope, I had the sense of receiving a valentine. Its white cover is sparely punctuated by rose and black text and a shadowy crease evocative of the furrow at the center of an open book, or the entry point in clean white sheets ready to be mussed. The fashion in which the poems are headed—with non-sequential Roman and Arabic numerals—didn’t make much sense to me, but that wasn’t really a problem. There were poems that seemed to continue into one another and a few that could work as a triptych. While this may not necessarily be intentional on the part of the poet or the editor, it is indicative of the streaming and deeply subliminal nature of Cummings’ poetry and this collection in particular, which reveals the interior erotic landscape of both body and mind.