Like any book lover should know, whittling a list of favourites down to five feels like a betrayal. So, I’m placating myself by thinking of the below as a list to whet the appetite. A tiny, sexy snack.
poem where I be & you just might (in [Insert] Boy, 2014) by Danez Smith
There's a breath to Danez Smith's poems, a space between words that buoys them. Reading them in your head, you’ll stop for a split second, wondering why you can’t feel your chest rise and fall. And then you’ll realise, no, you’re just breathing along with the words. Mirroring their cadence. And then there’s the next beat.
It comes as no surprise that Smith, a non-binary African-American poet from St. Paul, Minnesota, cut their teeth in slam poetry. It echoes in their lines. Smith writes of the body: its Blackness, its baggage, its politics, its isolation. And its desires. In poem where I be & you just might, there's a body crying out for another.
I am sitting next to you & you are not there
you're a frameless heat, mass of ruptured air.
to be clear, you are the spit & liver it takes
to be human & I want it & I think you want me
The want here is frozen in the air, tempered by intergenerational trauma. There’s a faded optimism. Maybe we can’t apply a single universal language to sex, but we all know what it’s like to internalise a yearning. To build a story around the things we want.
Tampa (2013) by Alissa Nutting
The Humbert Humbert comparisons came in thick and fast, but protagonist Celeste Price is no loquacious Nabokovian antihero. Though Nutting and Nabokov share a bleak, black humour, Nutting is her own woman. Tampa is brash and sticky. It’s a squirmy book, and the sex isn’t written for the reader’s gratification. Price, though, gets it in spades. Her vice of choice? Pubescent boys, who she deftly seduces while suppressing her disgust at a much older husband.
Consumed by the pursuit of that underage D, Price even builds her career around it, becoming a schoolteacher. But as icky as her motives are, she’s riveting. Maybe it’s that she’s 26—an age not so far in my wake. Or that her multi-step skincare routine isn’t dissimilar to mine. Or that thing about not being able to look away from a car crash.
I devoured Tampa on a three-hour bus trip in Cuba and my travel companion read most of it over my shoulder. Make of that what you will.
Written on the Body (1992) by Jeanette Winterson
I mean, Jeanette Winterson. C'mon. Open up a page at random. You'll see.
Articulacy of fingers, the language of the deaf and dumb, signing on the body body longing. Who taught you to write in blood on my back? Who taught you to use your hands as branding irons? You have scored your name into my shoulders, referenced me with your mark. The pads of your fingers have become printing blocks, you tap a message on to my skin, tap meaning into my body. Your morse code interferes with my heart beat. I had a steady heart before I met you, I relied upon it, it had seen active service and grown strong. Now you alter its pace with your own rhythm, you play upon me, drumming me taut.
Her Body and Other Parties (2017) by Carmen Maria Machado
At the 2018 Sydney Writers’ Festival, Machado said something delightful about writing about sex. To paraphrase: Most sex scenes written by straight white men have a sense of shame or shush, where the participants have sad orgasms or no orgasms and roll away from each other in resignation. Sex is fun so much of the time, she said, so she would write about it that way. While I don’t remember her exact words—no doubt more eloquent than mine—the sentiment has stuck with me since.
Her Body and Other Parties is a collection of short stories, which makes it a relatively easy sell to friends who claim they don’t have the time to read novels (yeah, I don’t get it either). Sometimes labelled ‘feminist horror’, it’s surreal and deeply fun—sensual where lesser writers might be sleazy, an animalic joy infusing its pages. Come for the story of the green ribbon that’s not quite what you remember from your childhood. Stay for the episodic Law & Order: SVU recut that reads like it’s been wrung through a hall of mirrors.
(There are sombre notes, too, but that’s not what we’re here for.)
The Argonauts (2015) by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson’s name is hallowed around these traps. Bluets, her lusty ode to the colour blue, has been named in two separate PF Book Clubs. The Argonauts, published six years later, details the intimacies of Nelson’s relationship with gender fluid artist Harry Dodge.
Nelson, a poet, casts her ‘auto theory’ in irregular stanzas. As she and Dodge build a family (first Nelson becomes a stepmother, then a mother), she invokes the wisdom of the ‘many-gendered mothers of [her] heart’—as would I if I had Eileen Myles’ phone number. She muses on identity and carnality, books and brains, tops and bottoms. She interrogates the boring happiness that comes with marriage. She talks a lot about filling holes.
October, 2007. The Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes. A friend and I risk the widow makers by having lunch outside, during which she suggests I tattoo the words HARD TO GET across my knuckles as a reminder of this pose’s possible fruits. Instead the wordsI love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You hadMolloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better?What’s your pleasure? you asked, then stuck around for an answer.
What’s your pleasure? If the person lucky enough to squeeze you isn’t asking, you know what to do.
— Tabitha Laffernis