A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
I sing, for my daughter, of shanks and shafts and the endearing contrast between the mind’s affairs and the body’s undiscriminating inclinations.
This is a midget and perhaps very foolish ode, I kid you not, to the erection. I’m writing it for my baby girl, who’s just now taking an afternoon nap inside her exemplary body on the big bed she was born in. I take on the expedition, too, for her friend Charlotte, who just turned 2 in April, and for the companions the both of them will have in the years to come.
I was myself a doe in the headlights when it came to sex. I was a grasshopper on the windshield of a Dodge Durango. I was a wee strawberry below the steel-toed boots of some mean-assed fisherman. My parents did sit me down for “the talk” when I was about 11, and my father, a painter, even got out his paper and his pencils. But what my parents covered that afternoon was menstruation and ovulation. And while there is nothing wrong with menstruation and ovulation, it was erections that dumbfounded me, erections that were the trump cards in the deck.
Thus I take them out here and lay them — ace of spades, of hearts, of clubs and of diamonds — on the table.
Beyond the horrid euphemisms of insipid romance novels, in which the erect penis is most commonly referred to as “throbbing manhood,” I have never read any sentence in any font referring in any specific, informative way to any erection — not in the singular, not in the plural, not on an American man, not even on an Italian guy. The only joke I know about the erection is not even a joke about the erection. It goes like this: “Why do men name their penises?” The punch line, as you may already know, is that they would hate for their most important decisions to be made by a complete stranger.
If I type “erection” into the window of a good Internet search engine, I am led, first and foremost, to countless Web sites concerning impotence and Viagra. This leads me to understand even more completely what I have understood since I was 18, and that is that men are altogether dedicated to the health and well-being of their own erections. My Internet search also leads me to Web sites on erecting steel towers, and to pornographic pages single-mindedly allegiant to the masturbatory practices of gay men.
In the process of uncovering all this information, I saw a photo of a creature called a “shemale”: a man/woman with two breasts and a (flaccid and rather small) penis. Whether shemales are creatures of nature or chemically induced, I can’t imagine. All I know is that the Internet is too distracting — an underwater tunnel full to the brim with newer and stranger fishes. Thus I prefer to limit this discussion to my own library, memory and imagination, and to the more general area of old-fashioned speculation, which is where I do my fanciest footwork anyhow.
If someone wanted to find out what, in exacting biological terms, an erection is, if she wanted to learn what a man wearing an erection feels about it or how best to inspire erections without lifting a hand or what some common feminine responses to erections might be or how long erections stay erections before and after orgasm or what men do to annihilate their own erections when they emerge in disagreeable places or even read the most embarrassing erection stories ever told, my 1971 edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” would be of no use to her. There are three indexed references to erections in my edition of that famous book: one describing the four “phases of the sexual response cycle” of men, one in respect, somehow, to the Pill and the third in a discussion of the pros and cons of sterilization.
Or I could canvas one of the baby books. As the mother of three children ranging in age from 14 years to 14 months, I have a fairly extensive collection. “What to Expect in the First Year,” a highly annoying, biased and stuck-up little book that I bought at a yard sale, has a section on the erections of baby boys. The authors say:
“All baby boys have erections sometimes (though their mothers may not be aware of them), but some have them more often than others. Such erections require no particular notice on your part.”
This is not very useful advice, as it fails to mention how alarming a baby boy’s erection can be to the mother who has just given birth to him. It also fails to mention that the new mother will typically keep her alarm to herself during her regular pediatric appointments, since it is usually embarrassing and perhaps even impossible to say the word “erection” to strangers, even if those strangers are physicians who are paid large sums of money to enter the arduous conversational realm of the body’s means and manners. Besides, my own early erection concerns never had much to do with my baby boys. They centered, perhaps obviously, around the bodies of grown men.
Five minutes into Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” leads me to this passage in which Miller talks about his “golden period” in France, “when [he] had not a single friend.” He says:
“Each morning the dreary walk to the American Express, and each morning the inevitable answer from the clerk. Dashing here and there like a bedbug, gathering butts now and then, sometimes furtively, sometimes brazenly; sitting down on a bench and squeezing my guts to stop the gnawing, or walking through the Jardin des Tuileries and getting an erection looking at the dumb statues.”
There are hundreds of references in contemporary fiction to these sorts of erections — erections intended to make a character’s sexual arousal or nature more concrete and discernible, or, more commonly, to establish a contrast between the mind’s affairs and the body’s undiscriminating inclinations, as is the case here.
Although I can’t be certain, it seems to me that otherwise fine writers often call erections “bulges.” I can’t imagine why they would be so hideously possessed. Most male writers would consider an essay on the erection an absurd waste of time and energy, besides. You might as well write an essay on the eyelash, they would say, or a few things about the vagina.
Well, I just might, I’d tell them. Don’t tempt me.
During my short-lived dating years before and after my first marriage, I had a few erection experiences with mentally ill and/or drunken men, and all I can say is that I do not recommend either these men or their so-called erections. I’ve also had experiences with men whose habit of manipulating their penises was a sort of dysfunction, turning what should be a collective endeavor into an autoerotic nightmare.
They turn their backs to you and stroke themselves, perhaps sticking out their furry tongues for inspiration. Then they turn around again to face you with an idiotic grin on their faces. But by this time you’re already offended and pouty and would rather watch reruns of “Little House on the Prairie” than have sex, would rather scrub the scum out of the sink or drink undiluted coffee grinds than part your legs for the dumb, man-inspired and thus highly N/A erection lying there beside your could-not-care-less thigh.
And as for teenage sex — well, teenage sex is so contained within the dark, musky leather of the back seat of some boy’s car in the middle of the darkest of all dark nights, or within the dark folds of a dark couch inside a dark basement or movie theater or the dark corner of a dark yard at a friend’s pool party, that I don’t think girls actually see the erections they’re contending with for a good many years. I know I didn’t.
I don’t remember looking at any erections at all until I was perhaps years into my first marriage. I remember the first erection I ever felt, and it was a horrible, ghastly, absurd thing indeed. Perhaps I thought that since it felt horrible, it must look horrible, and therefore decided not to look at it until I was mature enough to handle the fright.
Anyway, for whatever it’s worth, we were in a car, and it was after midnight. By then I’d read “Gone With the Wind” three or four times, and maybe even “Wuthering Heights.” But I’d never heard of “The Hite Report,” so, like most girls, I equated sex with love and misty weather.
Some song like “Hot Child in the City” was playing on the radio, and I tried, somehow, to be the hot child my boyfriend, one of the three captains on the football team, seemed to want me to be, and so we kissed each other’s faces and ears and lips and necks while we simultaneously moved over the dangerous gearshift into the back seat.
Then there was the prerequisite unbuttoning, my hair in my face and his, the smell of his cologne like butterscotch candy, the car windows steaming up, certain lame statements of his that I refuse to remember verbatim, and, then, in no time at all, it was over.
This, I know, is the common story. But there it is, and still there’s no erection for inspection — just the sense that I’d crossed a bridge that I was bound to cross sooner or later, and the boy’s gratitude, which I suppose he expressed by buying me a Coke or a pack of gum, and the feeling that I was all grown up now and ready for prime time, which, girls — and let me be quite emphatic about this — I most certainly was not.
An erection can be, honestly enough, more than a little bit distressing. Sometimes it looks like a lost turnip bulb that has been pulled out of the soil for some reason you can’t begin to fathom. In the darkness, if the man with the erection is standing in a room looking around for condoms and all you can see of him is his profile, the thing can look like a weapon: all shadowy and gleaming with malicious intent. It is not smooth, like his back, or endearing, like his smile. It does little to increase what you describe to other women as his character and dignity; it is like an internal body organ that has been accidentally moved to the exterior. I would like to know how many teenage girls screamed when they saw their first one.
I imagine girls of many countries faint at the sight of their first erection, or go off and join a convent and marry Jesus precisely because his physical body is no physical body but rather, say, a halfway-hot beam of light. As we all know, halfway-hot beams of light cannot blow up with blood and change shape in three seconds flat. And unless you’re the Virgin Mary in a Renaissance painting, beams of light can’t get you pregnant, either.
My first husband was a young man when I married him, and he had a lot of erections. Tons and tons of them, morning, noon and night. Since we’re divorced now, I know nothing about the current number or duration of his erections, and in no way wish to. My second husband is still a young man, and he has a lot of erections as well, though this is not why I married him.
Anyway, in my first marriage, because I was interested in avoiding sex about 95 percent of the time and could come up with hundreds of reasons why it was not a good idea, my husband’s erections were threatening. They were an object in the world drawn out of a sleepy sheath for persuasive purposes, and taught me in short order to hone my rhetorical skills. “Oh, you can’t be serious,” I might say with a turn or shake of the head. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding.” Of course, as anyone who has had any experience with them knows, erections often operate independently of their owner’s wishes, so it makes no sense whatsoever to use ideas against them. Erections are not interested in ideas. When an erection sees an idea, it laughs out loud.
I was in labor with my daughter at the ripe old age of 35 when my attitude toward erections began to unmuddle. My midwife suggested my husband and I take a shower together. I mean, we were getting stressed, and she wanted us to relax. I wasn’t yet in hard labor, but I was in labor enough to need to lean against the shower tiles during contractions — right in the beginning of that place where you know what’s coming and can’t quite believe you’ve gotten yourself into this again and would, if you weren’t getting ready to have a baby, demand an immediate hysterectomy — when I felt the erection.
My husband was standing behind me. I was leaning slightly forward, trying to remember how I was supposed to be breathing. I am pretty certain I laughed, though not at the erection. I laughed in joy because of it. It was speaking its mind at the most inopportune time imaginable, and you could tell it couldn’t help itself. It would have a whole birth and weeks and weeks and weeks to wait, I suppose it knew, and yet still it stood up and made its rather impressive comment right there underneath the streaming flow of water.
This experience compels me to think that the erection, like the first crocus you see in the spring or a lone pine tree in the woods, is a freethinking agent of nature hellbent on its own satisfaction. But it is also a thing in bloom, a thing in celebration of the vast and heartbreaking beauty in this beautiful, beautiful world. It is rapture itself, and more alive than any other male or female external body part I know of.
It’s a symbol of the body’s praise of the body and of the body’s sometimes uncontrollable wishes, a symbol of the body’s dance outward to express its interest in being inward, its interest in union and alliance in absolute war against its longing not to be so alone and hanging like a clothesline in a thunderstorm down the long river of the left side of the pants.
It’s a symbol of everything we should remember, but too often forget. It wants to partake and collaborate, to sing a little undressed duet in the middle of the night or, better yet, at dawn, right when the birds just outside your window are also rising and clearing their pretty, yellow throats.
Copyright 2015 Adrian Blevins. First published in Salon. Reprinted by permission of the author.