In the introduction to Mildly Erotic Verse (The Emma Press, 2013) Emma Wright, one of its two editors, asserts that ‘Poetry is the ideal medium for examining elusive concepts without flattening them’. The volume, which is also illustrated by Wright and co-edited by Rachel Piercey, takes on the challenge of exploring eroticism through poetry. The collection brings together new and bold poets who are never crude or unsuitably coy. Some are funny, some dark, some are all of that and somewhere in the middle; Mildly Erotic Verse takes an honest look at our most intimate experiences and reveals that there is no one way to be sexy.
When approaching an anthology of single poems, from poets who are relatively unknown, context is everything. Piercey and Wright skilfully and seamlessly gather works which benefit from the anthology format. Wright also provides illustrations which are peppered throughout and complement the collection. Page 33 features a line drawing which could be identified as waves crashing against rocks or random scribblings. Having seen it after reading the preceding poems, the image appears to me plainly as two heads resting against pillows under ruffled sheets. The abstract image is concrete-cast by its inclusion alongside the poems. The erratic lines are as lighting bolts on the page; the energy palpable. Like the illustrations, the collected poems gain from and add to each other. The composition of Mildly Erotic Verse exemplifies Piercey and Wright’s skill at lassoing diverging voices into a cohesive whole.
Although the majority of the works featured are in recognisable verse form (as you would expect from the title) there are examples of poems that experiment with space to great effect. Julia Bird’s ‘Press Play’ rolls and rewinds rhythmically across the page while Victoria Kennewick’s ‘Contagion’ teases the words out, practically steaming with anticipation:
if I ever see your hands,
if I catch one glimpse I will lick them, palm to thumb,
A real strength of Mildly Erotic Verse is the diversity of experience on display. Much of the eroticism depicted is complex and never solely sexual. Ali Lewis’s ‘photographs from our holiday in bed’ surprises with the line ‘the night we were strawberry and lime in a twister’. As childlike and fun as the twister is sweet and sharp, it conjures an image of two people as close as it is possible to be, at once erotic and innocent. Lawrence Schimel’s ‘Fairy Tale’ is sublime, with the absurdly precise image of male genitalia ‘like a frog crouched/in the thick reeds of dark pubic hair’. The conclusion (which if you know the fable you might guess) and is as funny as it is sexy.
One of the most carnal poems in the collection is Amy McCauley’s ‘Anti-Pornographia’, a love letter to the female form. It renders masturbation a dialogue between the physical and the rational, poking fun at shame and embracing sexuality. ‘You and I, little lovebud/have not always been well-acquainted’ positions in the speaker in a post-state, awakened to her own sexual desires. The lines ‘I will give in, wee harlot,/to the slutty Mexican wave. I will bite’ are hilarious but also titillating. The comically high register throughout generates a tension between the act and the thought of the act, as if to acknowledge the ridiculousness of our obsession with pornography and sex compared to the simple gratification of self-pleasure.
Mildly Erotic Verse shows that humour and sensuality are not mutually exclusive. It brings to light the manifold ways sexuality can be experienced and expressed, whether with a partner or alone, real or imagined. The collection opens up discussions which it purposefully seems not to conclude. The final illustration of a hand holding the tip of a blanket and the closing poem, ‘Layers’ by Fiona Moore, seem to fade off the page:
Did you sense this
_________when I turned away
____to fold the jersey?
_____________Maybe you did, but
it is more beautiful
_____________not to know.
Like all good erotica should, Mildly Erotic Verse knows what is best left unsaid and leaves you longing for more.
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