On June 14, 2011, inveterate dilettante, “Second Wave” feminista and author extraordinaire (Fear of Flying et al) Erica Jong brings out a terrific anthology, Sugar in My Bowl; Real Women Write About Real Sex, from Ecco Press.
With the piquant, succulent title taken from a Bessie Smith/Nina Simone Blues classic, this release offers a remarkable pastiche of gifted women writers honing in on memorable experiences, from childhood recollections of doctor-playing told with utter hilarity to the poignant short story of a new mother of twins who learns she has cancer and has one last fling, to captivating personal essays on first times, the worst, and the best of times—in flagrante.
When I undertook this review, I had to think back to my Fear of Flying days, which became my pull back into yourself and get used to being alone days, and to ponder how even now, after a protracted era of frankness, one approaches writing about one’s sex life in ways that mean something. Would I be able to do it without embellishment or dodging the hard issues? Maybe and maybe not.
To a great extent the pieces in this book have the depth of a measure of self-vulnerability, despite the obvious constraints of writing essays and short stories within a word limit. And the hungry tigress in me was well stirred by several explicit tours d’ force sprinkled through the anthology
But this collection raises a number of questions: as we age, have we not migrated/evolved within ourselves from the high of the conquest, the carpe diem thrill, to craving the deeper pleasures of eyes to eyes intimacy with someone we know and trust?
And of more concern to me, reading these pieces that are so tenderly and desperately at times about our love-struggle: are we still caretaking men and their fetishes and subordinating our pleasure to theirs?
What about the dynamics of power and control in the bedroom? Some of the pieces, while erotic, tend to focus on male power and dominance more than on how an empowered woman feels when she has succeeded in communicating her needs and getting them met.
Little was made explicit in any of the pieces about “foreplay,” the immense role the deceptively unobtrusive clitoris plays in women’s fulfillment—it’s our sex organ, after all– and asking the other for what one needs-–a huge issue for most women. We are asked in a number of the essays to assume that all was well and that the little goddess-in-the-boat magically sprang to attention and took the writer straight to heaven. This wasn’t entirely believable to me.
Notwithstanding these concerns, I found Jong’s anthology to be a great read, and a book that preserves compelling narratives of the thinking woman’s generational and contemporary sexual identity.
Jong eases us into the anthology with a captivating piece by Elisa Albert on inadvertently conceiving her son after an argument with a lover in which she writes, “It was early June when I emerged from the bathroom in the basement apartment with the pee stick in my shaking hand. “I’m pregnant,” I said, grinning like a lunatic. Then I repeated it, elated and terrified. “I’m pregnant,” the word a shimmering new planet: glowing, marvelous and whole, a thing to behold, there all the while.” I’d rather the writer had used”pregnancy test” or something a little more dignified than pee stick– the vernacular is a distraction.
There is a reassuring surge of humor early on in the book; I laughed and laughed at Ann Roiphe’s Peekaboo I See You in which two five year olds confront the mystery of mysteries– one another’s bodies– with hilarious commentary: “I need to see it,” the little boy frankly avers. I loved Suzie Bright’s Love Rollercoaster about being a movement groupie in the old Left days and cringed at how she was overpowered into an encounter by her charismatic “Movement” lover, to use old Leftie jargon. Been there, done that, oh so many years ago.
Some of the essays made me very uncomfortable, like Linda Gray Sexton’s Absolutely Dangerous, on having multiple multiples through strangulation. But Jennifer Weiner’s clairvoyant short story Everything Must Go about a woman who discovers her own breast cancer and in the wake of her husband’s unresponsiveness, books a suite at the Plaza for a get down good time with an old flame, is beautifully written, calling forth the intense empathy we feel when confronted with the materializing of our worst fears as women.
As a poet I look for beautiful language in any book and I found it in Sugar in My Bowl in passages like this one from Jann Turner, via her character Kit Thomas in The Dignity Channel: “We met at college. We were young and we plummeted ecstatically into love– making love whenever and wherever we could, not because it was transgressive, but because it was urgently necessary.”
Beautiful writing about the inevitable mother/daughter divide characterizes Meghan O’Rourke’s poignant, vivid Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, Gladly:” Like many liberal-minded women of my generation, I thought it was my birthright to be sexually free in my twenties. The frames we came to sex and romance with led us to make radically different choices. Who knows if either was better; the point is just that we make choices, and then we live them out. That is life. Volition is really only a small part of the whole.” While we could all debate the role of volition and fate in our lives, I appreciated O’Rourke’s extrapolation from the anecdotal– what does it all add up to, this business of love and sex? And further on, with delicious eloquence she writes: “It is of course discomfiting to write this account. These words still feel too frontal to me, too un-ironic, too cerebral to capture the dark spaces and silences, the night hours that shape our ideas of need.” Amen.
Exquisite writing and discerning contrasts of now and then notwithstanding, the wickedly funny Cock of My Dreams – A Graphic Fantasy by Marisa Acocella Marchetto endangered my clean underwear and made me want to crack a bottle of wine after years of sobriety.
Susan Kingsolving’s satire Cramming It All In stirred the lyrical honey pot for me in satirizing the purple prose of sex-writing: “Now only memory brings back that final night with a full moon, swelling sea, and his sudden, spectacular vasocongestion. We were in systolic acceleration. His Cowper’s gland opened, moistening and meeting my Bartholin’s. His face grimaced, toes curled, and feet arched. His skin flushed. My brain was swamped and seared with sensation, like a superabundant sneeze coming on.”
For those of us who’ve been left/betrayed or afraid we’re about to be, and that’s probably most of us, a head’s up about Margot Magowan’s intense and beautifully narrated piece Light Me Up—have a box of Kleenex handy and a friend’s phone number close by.
There are manifold other pieces in the book worth quoting from, surely and among them Honor Moore’s deliciously, blazingly hot “A Reading of “O” and The Vagina Monologues’ Eve Ensler’s equally spiced up dramatic triologue Skin, Just Skin. Of especial note: that a number of these writers address the relationship of their sexuality to their careers and the mind-body division so many of us have attempted to reconcile.
I will say of Ms. Jong’s daughter Molly Jong-Fast’s self-absorbed piece They Had Sex So I Didn’t Have To, that while it interestingly illuminates a dynamic of freed mother-reined in daughter, if my daughter spoke of me as unkindly as this young woman writer does, she wouldn’t be in my book…
And ever-brilliant Erica Jong’s own piece Kiss: A Short Short Story ends the book on an explosive narrative high with a twist: “He greeted me with vintage champagne and fresh chocolate-covered cherries. We ate and drank and spoke haltingly. Then we retreated to the couch, wrapped our arms around each other, and began to kiss. It was a kiss that went back to the birth of the universe, the making of the stars, the sculpting of humans out of clay.”
An embarrassment of riches is the hallmark of this entertaining, albeit wholly heterosexual book; Jong has declared, and rightly, that a woman’s spiritual sap, her élan vital, turns on her sexuality, that we are physical beings with the wanton virgin-whore alive and well in our aging bodies.
So it is with the miraculous survivor self, the femme fatale of the Millenium Woman. Ultimately, she is beautifully immemorialized in Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex. Put a few copies on your Gold Card and give them to your friends.
Read more about the inimitable Erica Jong here.