It all started with The Cinnamon Peeler. I was pointed in its direction during a conversation about Michael Ondaatje, and have been thinking about it since- about the poem itself, and about poetry’s ability to *ahem* inspire without being explicit (or while being explicit, I mean hey, whatever blows your skirt up). What makes a poem sexy will of course depend on individual taste (heh), but my favorites involve high tension and sly metaphors, with the main action (usually) hidden behind a smart verbal wink. Let’s, as they say, get to it:
1. “The Cinnamon Peeler” by Michael Ondaatje
If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
And leave the yellow bark dust
On your pillow.
Your breasts and shoulders would reek
You could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.
Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbour to you hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.
I could hardly glance at you
never touch you
–your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers…
When we swam once
I touched you in the water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
you climbed the bank and said
this is how you touch other women
the grass cutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume
what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
Peeler’s wife. Smell me.
2. “Hum for the Bolt” by Jamaal May (the sexiest poem about lightning you’re evah gonna read)
It could of course be silk. Fifty yards or so
of the next closest thing to water to the touch,
or it could just as easily be a shaft of wood
crumpling a man struck between spaulder and helm.
But now, with the rain making a noisy erasure
of this town, it is the flash that arrives
and leaves at nearly the same moment. It’s what I want
to be in this moment, in this doorway,
because much as I’d love to be the silk-shimmer
against the curve of anyone’s arm,
as brutal and impeccable as it’d be to soar
from a crossbow with a whistle and have a man
switch off upon my arrival, it is nothing
compared to that moment when I eat the dark,
draw shadows in quick strokes across wall
and start a tongue counting
down to thunder. That counting that says,
I am this far. I am this close.
3. “Come Slowly- Eden!” by Emily Dickinson
Come slowly – Eden!
Lips unused to Thee –
Bashful – sip thy Jessamines –
As the fainting Bee –
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums –
Counts his nectars –
Enters – and is lost in Balms.
4. “Warming Her Pearls” by Carol Ann Duffy
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,
resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.
She’s beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.
I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.
Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head…. Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way
she always does…. And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.
5. “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.
6. “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” by Billy Collins
First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.
And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.
Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer’s dividing water,
and slip inside.
You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.
The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.
Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything –
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.
What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.
So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset
and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.
7. “The Hush of the Very Good” by Todd Boss*
8. Agricultural metaphors run amok. “Putting In the Seed” by Robert Frost
You come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea);
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a Springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.
9. “He is more than a hero” by Sappho
He is more than a hero
he is a god in my eyes–
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you — he
who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing
laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can’
speak — my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,
hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn’t far from me
10. An oldie-but-goodie: “They Flee From Me” by Sir Thomas Wyatt (is it about Anne, IS IT?)
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
And a bonus! A fun, profane, probably-ok-definitely-NSFW Def Jam selection called “Dirty Talk” by Rives:
*I used an image here to keep the poem’s original format/spacing intact. Click it to hear the poet do a QUITE ACCEPTABLE reading.