Little Death: Desire's Little Illusion


by luther hughes

As much as I hate to admit it, lately, my questions about love, sex, and desire have come from porn. While I know porn is scripted, something has culled my interest in the progression, the succession of porn scenes. At the end of the day, someone gets their nut. Someone’s desire has been filled.

            Desire. How do I define it? Is it just hunger? Is it curated hunger? Can one’s desire be manipulated, changed, and will the body react accordingly? When I find myself desiring, after watching porn, or in lieu of a few drinks, it feels more physical than emotional. Sure, I wouldn’t mind having a man who will “break my back” and then in the morning treat me to breakfast in bed, but is it all just fictitious? I mean, even in porn, it’s rare to see the scene after the actors finish.

            I want to know: what is desire?

            Naturally, I turn to poetry. In Jorie Graham’s poem, “I Watched a Snake,” she writes:


                        is the honest work of the body,
                                    its engine, its wind.

Okay, I can get behind that—desire is innate, something that, when and if manipulated, the body will follow because desire is how the body functions.

            Later she writes:

                        Passion is work
                                    that retrieves us,
                        lost stitches. It makes a pattern of us,
                                    it fastens us
                        to sturdier stuff
                                    no doubt.

            Desire leads to passion and passion makes us ritualistic. I desire sex because I’ve had sex and it has, at one point in my life, felt good. But, there must be more to desire and how it relates to day-to-day ideologies of romance and sex. People watch porn for the fantasies it outlines.

            I wanted to know how others defined desire. So, I asked my roommate: “Something you want to experience, touch, hold, acquire.”

            I asked Twitter: “what is ‘i’m tryna smash’ for $500, alex?”

            I asked my friend who often writes about desire: “A longing that seeks to fulfill a lack.”

            And I asked my friend whose dog absolutely hates me: “An external hunger that takes up residence in the body. Moves in. Redecorates.”

            This line catches me: “Moves in. Redecorates.” Is it true that desire, once it comes upon the body, takes over? Hence, porn, its fantasies, and why so many people watch it. I turn to the first few lines of “[a subway ride]” by Joseph O. Legaspi:

            His artfully unkempt strawberry blonde head sports outsized headphones.
            Like a contemporary bust. Behold the innocence of the freckles, ripe pout
            of cherry lips. As if the mere sight of the world hurts him, he squints
            greenly and applies saline drops. You dream him crying over you.

            For these first five sentences of the poem, the speaker is enamored by a man on the subway and paints him fantastically beautiful: His head is a bust. His freckles are innocent. His lips are cherry and pouting. He’s squinting. It’s all sexual.

            Look at the form: a prose block, all justified. This speaks to the entrapment of desire. The speaker is unable to escape his wants, his hunger. 

            The poem ends like this:

Until he exits. Or you exit, returning home to the one you truly love to ravish him.

            Question: if the speaker didn’t have someone to go home and “ravish,” would he say hello? If he hadn’t seen the strawberry blonde on the subway, would he have had the passion to ravish the one he truly loves? But these are all counterfactuals. He does and because of this he is unable to do anything with the subway man.

            Desire and the inability to have what is desired. I mean I have certainly had sex with somebody when I shouldn’t have or in a place that I shouldn’t have. Blown a guy I told my friends I didn’t care for. Had sex with a guy in a school library bathroom. Who hasn’t?

            I admit, desire has me wanting fantastical things. I once watched a porno where a man was picked up and penetrated against the wall. It looked amazing. The next night, I met a man at his house. I expected him to pick me up, kiss me, choke me a little, look me in the eyes, I don’t know, to treat me like a porn star.

            Justin Phillip Reed, in his poem, “The Personal Animal,” writes:

                        It must be my lust for the musk of the master.
                        Nights it finds me. In the knick
                        between vertebrae, it flickers ambition to future inferno.
                        It huffs at the door of my heat,
                        my laundress humidity come loose and whipping
                        the keyhole. I confess: sometimes I let it sorry
                        white down the lumber. There’s the tick
                        in my tailbone, a spasm of glut.

            The line “I confess” is most prominent to me because it treats desire like a sin or something shameful—“ sometimes I let it sorry / white down the lumber.” I confess myself, I love this confession. There is something shameful, I think, about desire and one’s outright expression of it. Or, perhaps, there is something dirty. This is partly why I think people look down on porn or promiscuity. To desire should be shameful/sinful, right?  

            Notice, too, how sound weaves into this, creating moments of play that, if talking about desire, can act as flirtation. To name a few—assonance, u: “must,” “lust,” “musk,” “huffs,” “glut,” i: “knick,” “flicker,” “inferno,” “humidity,” “whipping,” “tick,” and consonance, h: “huffs,” “heat,” “humidity,” “keyhole,” s: “must,” “lust,” “musk,” “master,” “laundress,” “loose,” “confess,” “sometimes,” “sorry,” and “spasm.” Something about the amount of play (and there’s definitely more), highlights the naughtiness of the poem and of the act itself. It’s as if too much play is forbidden, yet we have so much of it in the first six sentences.

            Another way to look at all this flirtation, or the revving up of it, is that once you start, you can’t stop. Like the man on the subway, once you’ve invited desire in, it has you trapped…

            Did Graham say it best: “Desire / is the honest work of the body”? Desire, then as it were, as it’s explained, can’t be escaped. I’m okay with that.

            My friend might be right about desire being something that overrules us. Takes over. “Redecorates.” Here I am writing about desire simply because I desire a definition for it. Physically and mentally, desire has driven me in the writing of this piece. No answer still, and yet, I still want it. I want what I can’t have.

            Maybe desire is less about the result, and more about what it drives us to do.  

Luther Hughes