Venus Pandemos

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In 1987, when I was finishing up my bachelor's degree in creative writing at the University of Arizona (at that point I was still primarily a poet), a beloved teacher and friend loaned me a copy of Little Star, Mark Halliday's first book. I loved it. It was one of my major influences. The title poem is about wondering who sang lead on some 1950s pop song. Halliday acknowledges that the poem


is not the first time I've tried to
get a rock-&-roll song into a poem and it won't be
the last; it is my need to call out
This counts too!

After reading Halliday, I began writing all kinds of poems with rock & roll songs in them, or inspired by rock & roll songs; I wrote a poem about the video to Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" and I wrote a bunch of poems about death by hanging inspired largely by "Gallows Pole" by Zeppelin and I wrote a poem called "1812 Overture" but despite the reference to Tchaikovsky the poem is really about how much I love the song "Close to Me" by the Cure, how sad I always was when the song ended, how it was over far too quickly.

Because I was poor, I never bought Little Star; I just returned my teacher's copy after reading it once, then got a copy from the library and kept it until I finished my master's degree four years later. And then it went out of print and I didn't think much about it, aside from the poem "Why the HG is Holy," which is one of my all-time favorite poems.

But a few months ago, I mentioned to Tom how much I loved that book, and as he had a copy, he loaned it to me. And I got to reread a few of the poems I had rather forgotten about, including the longest poem (seven pages) in the collection, which is called "Venus Pandemos."

When I first read that poem, I thought it was funny, mostly because I didn't have much personal reference for what it was talking about. I was an incredibly naive Mormon virgin who had little experience with dating and had never been in love, and though at that point I quit riding the bus to campus because I found enduring the catcalls and whistles I got while I waited at the bus stop on a busy street too upsetting, I still laughed at this poem, thought he was saying something clever. In fact, I once read much of it aloud to one of my friends who ran the women's center before she stopped me, almost heaving with distress. The poem begins


What am I going to do with my desire
for women?

To be more specific, what am I going to do
with my interest in women's bodies?

and continues its exploration of this


energy--
I am a little excited just to describe it--
the quick expert evaluation of
face
breasts
ass
and then the instant summary judgment:
"I crave her"
"I'd take her"
"Maybe if I was a little drunk and she threw herself on me"
or, more often:
"Forget it, honey."

Then he spends a stanza discussing breasts, and another discussing ass, and then wonders "if any intelligent feminists will ever read this poem." Then we get a section with a fairly explicit discussion of sex. He says it's not about conquest; rather,


it's
to do something about
her beauty.

To do something about her beauty!

Is it a defining quality of beauty
that it won't leave us alone?

He also states that


of course what I'm talking about
has nothing to do with rape. (Nothing?)
So I'm left to rely on my technique of
covert ogling-in-passing--
I eat them with my eyes.
--Is it like eating? It's a job of
disposing of them, one by one:

All right, I see that body,
I have seen it.

--Which means, that body is taken care of now,
that body is disarmed, normalized,
brought under control, it is forgivable now:
I have disposed of it through ritual,
the ritual of snapshot glancing, and now
its power is dead.
ah. So is it, then, a kind of murder fantasy?

And ultimately, he acknowledges,


Yes. I guess that's what I'm saying.
--But it's your fault, baby,
for being so GOD DAMN BEAUTIFUL.

As for why he is writing this, it's because


every day
I think about strange women, for quick seconds,
in ways I consider dehumanizing.
Should I be ashamed?
I suspect my sexual fantasies are
among the tamest (most repressed?) anywhere;
and I can claim that my relations with the women I know
are relatively
nonsexist . . .

and he goes on for another page and a half before writing


In 1973 and '74 I worked in a feminist theatre group;
my awareness of the women's anger reached the point where
it seemed a crime for men to whistle at women on the street.
Now I'm not going to say it isn't.
But I'm admitting to an enduring energy in me that says
an attractive woman is not simply one more comrade on earth,
nor is she just another nice thing about life;

an ATTRACTIVE WOMAN is a PROBLEM.

And that's the real end of the poem, despite one final throwaway stanza.

Now, I'm not trying to dismiss Halliday or his work. I still admire a lot of the poems in Little Star and I was very inspired by his most recent book, Jab. I like how straight-forward and energetic his voice is. But when I reread "Venus Pandemon" for the first time in a long time a few months ago, I didn't react to it the way I did at 23. Eighteen years after first reading it, after enduring several incidences of sexual violence, after hearing a boyfriend say to me, "Look, I'm sorry I date-raped you" (which isn't really all that comforting), after being sexually demeaned by men who claimed simultaneously to care about my welfare and to be feminists, I don't find that poem funny any more. And I feel entitled to assert that a man who finds an attractive woman a PROBLEM, is something of a PROBLEM himself.

And as I listened to that panel on male Mormon feminists, I thought about the fact that any discussion of feminism needed to include a discussion of this issue.

5 Comments

I sympathize with Halliday's honest introspection. It doesn't take much digging for me to realize that at some level, I objectify women.

Like most healthy hetero men my age, I'm often distracted by nameless, passing women. Sometimes it is how the woman carries herself, how she interacts with me--perhaps she sends me a coy smile and a lingering glance as we walk past each other. Sometimes it's the counter-cultural message her clothes are sending, the colors she's wearing, the hint of a piercing in her nose.

Or sometimes it's the seeming perfect heft and healthy bounce of her breasts, or the triangle of negative space framed by the curve of her inner thighs. I can love tit and ass as much as sass and wit. Where does objectification begin and end?

One time, while exercising at UCI's rec center, I was smitten, for the duration of my workout, by a modestly dressed woman studying a medical text on the treadmill. Here I was surrounded by beautiful perspiring women in peak physical condition wearing next to nothing, and I was drawn to this pre-med student. Was I objectifying intelligence + sex? While I'm pleased with myself for noticing and being attracted to intelligence, I'm still bothered by this.

It seems the deeper my relationship, the more complex someone seems to me, the less I objectify, the less I fantasize about them. Even as a married man, it's not unusual for me to have a crush on an attractive woman I've just met--over time the physical attraction is replaced by a healthier friendship based on mutual interests and respect.

What disturbs me the most is that my relationships with women are always tinted or tainted by the fact that I'm sexually attracted to some degree to almost all women in my deepest, primal core (At the same time there is a deep part of me that is repelled by emotional intimacy with men). I have layers wrapped around that core--layers of respect, friendship, spiritual and compassionate love, social expectations, fear, morality, loyalty, etc., etc. These all combine to frame my interaction with all people (including women) and temper the biology, the sexual instinct within me.

I just read over what I've written so far, and I'm wondering if I'm just plain confused--am I mistaking sexual attraction for sexual objectification? How are the two related? How are they different?

John--thanks for commenting. I won't presume to answer your question about whether or not you're mistaking sexual attraction for sexual objectification, but I would like to ask a question about your comment that "part of you is repelled by emotional intimacy with men." I have been thinking about the fact that in Mormondom, the word "intimacy" is used as a euphemism referring to a wide range of sexual activity. I was briefly involved in a forum where a group of men, Mormon and post-Mormon, gay and straight, discussed the fact that they found intimacy with other men very difficult to achieve. I remember reading Dr. Drew (of MTV's Love Line) stating in some interview that "sex isn't what makes people happy. Intimacy is what makes people happy." (I always wish I'd saved the interview so I could cite it with a reference.) Mormondom tries to pretend that *sex = intimacy,* but certainly, sex without intimacy happens all the time, and intimacy is possible without sex. Intimacy is, as Dr. Drew points out, extremely rewarding. So, in your opinion, what does sexual attraction to women have to do with a desire for emotional intimacy, which is repellent when you (and probably many straight men) think about having it with another man?

Rereading my comment in the light of your question, I can only say:

I lied.

Not wittingly. I've been thinking about this for the past half-hour (though I should be programming), and have come to the conclusion that I do value emotional intimacy, even with men.

I find this desire thwarted by my potential male friends. I like to talk about feelings, relationships, spiritual things. I'm not into cars or sports (though I can talk technology). I find that it's easier to talk to women (and gay men) on a feelings level, and it seems like most of my deeper relationships are with women. There are a couple of men I am close to--and I can talk to them for hours.

Perhaps I should have been more careful when I paired sexual attraction and emotional intimacy (though I did so in a parenthetical). Like you, I don't equate sexual and emotional intimacy. I think that one can certainly lead to the other, but it is entirely possible to have one without the other.

Maybe sexual attraction is one catalyst (of many) to emotional intimacy. Perhaps sexual repulsion (or ambivalence) is an inhibitor to the same. It is possible that my desire to not be physically/sexually close to men makes me keep some emotional distance from them. I sometimes find myself drawn to physically attractive and charismatic men, and desiring friendship with them. Is this a sexually-based attraction? I'm not sure.

But the element of physical attraction/repulsion is just one factor affecting emotional intimacy. I don't think it is necessarily the dominant influence (though it certainly can be in certain relationships/circumstances).

Was that enough verbal squirming? :)

Holly,

I agree that the attitude confessed in "Venus Pandemos" is not admirable; I agree that the speaker (myself when I was around thirty-two years old, in 1981) is less charming than he thinks he is. When I wrote the poem, I was full of the idea that drastic disturbing candor was the path to poetic power. Sometimes this caused me to simplify my experience in a poem, because I was anxious not to let complications disguise what was disturbing or embarrassing in my feelings. A woman friend said to me, when she read "Venus Pandemos": "I know you THINK you're being honest." Her remark struck me -- because I suddenly sensed how the poem had actually concealed or ignored the complexity of my feelings about sexual desire. All the stuff about casual lust was true, I guess, as far as it went; but there are emotional complications that come into play the moment a man and a woman begin to attempt any relationship whatsoever, and these emotional complications are infinitely more interesting and important than casual lustful fantasy. And the poem ignored that, in its effort to be courageously candid. As a result the poem came to feel shallow to me. I'm sorry it caused you some distress or dismay.
-- MH (11/14/2010

Hi Mark--

it took a moment for me to realize who you are and what you were saying. It never occurred to me that you might find my obscure personal blog and read my comments.... but I admit I'm thrilled to have caught your notice. I also very much appreciate your taking the time to explain that your feelings about the poem and the situations that prompted it have evolved.

Expect a fan letter via private email, because I have to say more about how much your poetry meant to me.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on September 15, 2005 7:14 AM.

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