Sex or Not – A Poem by Christine Gosnay

American poet Christine Gosnay. Photo credit: The Missouri Review


It is hard to make this choice
when the room is so small and bright,
and the outside big and deep.
But I have not taught myself
to lie on the earth and feel
how much greater it is than me.
And I can’t help following the sky
with my eyes as it moves past me,
and I can’t help closing my eyes to imagine
the boat that carries me to the middle
of a lake as dark as the gaps between the clouds.
I forget everything I have learned
about how to hold myself
at the last edges of sensation
when not so long ago I held
the small hands of a child
and taught her to play a clapping game,
when I stood before a storm of scalding water
that would have killed me
if I gave it the mistake it looked for.
After all this time, we still must love and eat,
and none of us is alone.
See why I create these places where I am a stone.
In the bed, soft against the side
where I make the dark blanket more beautiful
and the sheet a pale and magnificent drawing,
there is nowhere to wrap the part of myself
that understands the handshake of  joy
in my arms and hold her while she cries.
The sink is running in the next room
and the walls are flashed with what the world does at night.
Too much of us is evident in this hour
and I am sick with a cold fever
that hasn’t broken since I was a girl
who loved how good it was to sleep
on the floor, so near to the silent ground.
Still, the boat, and the dark water
that has its private depth.
It never tries to carry me anywhere.
It makes the wind wait in the trees.

Christine Gosnay from Poetry, November 2019

It’s unusual in this blog for me to feature a poem that seems to ellude me. A poem gorgeous with images and feelings but where an obvious meaning for me seems to slip slide away. A poem intent, it seems to me, to create a lyrical “isness” inside a tension of so many opposites. Hard, soft. Water, stone. Bright, dark. Earth, sky. Water made safe by a boat, scalding water.  Woman, child. Someone caught between opposites, perhaps. Is it an issness of someone challenged by the utter surrender sex or intimacy can be?

So why feature it? Because since I read it yesterday I have continued to puzzle over it here in Kauai where I am in a week-long writer’s residency; because the author Christine Gosnay has been getting a fair bit of attention in recent years after publishing her award-winning debut collection in 2017 and releasing her chapbook The Wanderer this year; because I want to know its bones better and in that knowing maybe learn something; and especially because the poem has so many beguiling  and arresting images and lines.  Perhaps the most compelling ones for me:  the boat that carries me to the middle/ of a lake as dark as the gaps between clouds and It makes the wind wait in the trees..

Thanks to lines and images like these above I am haunted and captured by this poem’s mood and feeling even as I am frustrated by its seeming lack of clarity. And then I hear Carl Phillips, the African American poet, telling me to trust its mystery.

And I remember these lines with quotes from the American poet Muriel Rukeyser, from Phillips’ book of craft essays, The Art of Daring:

One way of thinking of a poem is, in fact, as an effort of speech betwen two people. To “touch one another,’ have ‘our separate entities…come to grips” – to solve, or at least try to solve, the particular puzzle of human estrangement…..

Inadvertantly, I think, we speak from our own to the hauntedness of others, those readers with whom our private poem, as if magically, resonates – that stranger who, having read the peom, says: I have been there, known that place, though I did not know it entirely, or not at least like this. And I have felt the same.

This is what compells me I think. The hauntedness in this poem touching a hauntedness in me. Perhaps a hauntedness I didn’t recognize. But one real enough to keep me curious. And it may be for me this hauntedness has nothing to do with sex. But more, the seeming vulnerabilities and tensions within the narrator.

My biggest challenge is to figure out the title: Sex.  I know there are many poems that have an abstract title that does not seem to be directly reflected back by the poem.  I am thinking of Norman Dubie’s Ars Poetica and Valzhyna Mort’s poem of the same name in Poetry ‘s November issue.But this title seems particularly opaque to me.

If I take the title and directly link it to the poem’s first line then the “choice” would seem to be about having sex. But caught between two opposites of small and bright and big and deep[dark]. Or as I keep reading do I find a tension between control and non control. Of  losing oneself in the boundaryless place sex can take us.  A place big and deep.The needing to: forget everything I have learned about how to hold myself to the last edges of sensation.

After the lush expression of the line above I feel a sudden contrast with the shocking next image of a woman teaching a child to clap while something was scalding that would have killed her if she gave it  the mistake it looked for. This huge need for control in the shadow of danger. And it comes right at the mid point of the poem. This poem what Carl Phillips would call a bi-valve poem. Two halves.

The second part of the poem begins for me with the impersonal statement, the first of its kind: After all this time we must love and eat./ And none of us is alone. My first thought was where the heck did that come from. What a leap. And then the wonderfully terrifying line: See why i create these places where I am a stone. Bingo. Now I am seeing the narrators existential tension. We need to love and eat be in community and dare I say: have sex and intimacy but the vulnerability can be so difficult. So defend ourselves. The narrator a stone inside a soft and beautiful bed. Yikes.

What comes next in the poem  keeps me coming back to try and feel it out. Instead of a stone there is a shocking vulnerabiity: there is nowhere to wrap the part of myself/ that understands the handshake of  joy/ in my arms and hold her while she cries. This unexpected movement to joy and sucxh tenderness. But who is the her? That handshake of joy in my arms? Is it part of herself, a child, a lover? I might vote for a child. Perhaps a mother woken in the night. Someone running a tap. And the intimate anguish of this line: Too much of us is evident in this hour. The despair we can feel when awake at night.

The last lines seem to tie back to the poem’s start.  A narrator who hasn’t taught herself to lie to on the earth and feel…a narrator in a cold fever  for years  that hasn’t broken but who remembers  herself as a girl who used to sleep on the silent floor. And the link back to the imagined boat in these compelling and lush four lines:

Still, the boat, and the dark water
that has its private depth.
It never tries to carry me anywhere.
It makes the wind wait in the trees.

Whatever it is tormenting the narrator these lines suggest deep solace. That her imagined boat on dark water is real to her and sustains her. Holds her, safe. And that mysterious boat remarkably: makes the wind wait in the trees. That this boat and whatever it represents could have such power, could still any winds that could unsettle it, feels astonishingly empowering. But how that might relate to sex, I am not sure!

There is much in this poem that remains mysterious to me. But somehow the poem finds a resolution for the narrator. She does seem to escape to a place of safety inside something much larger and darker with private depth, than a small bright room. So interesting: this idea of a private depth beneath the boat.  How importantthis word seems to be: private. Is this a key word for the poem even more than sex?

Coould there have been more clarity in this poem? For me, I would wish so. But something in this poem was strong enough to compell me to stay on board with it. Pun intended. Something in it reminds me not to be afraid or split off emotionally. To turn to stone. But to trust I am held by a boat, a boat that can make the wind wait in the trees. That safety. Thank you Christine.


And if any reader thinks I have missed the poem’s point entirely please let me know! In comments.


  1. Sandy Martin
    Posted November 27, 2019 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Like you Richard, I am unsure of the meaning/message/intent of this poem, but I love it. For me it is enough just to feel ‘the wind waiting in the trees’ and to sense a lurking past trauma/danger in ‘I am sick with a cold fever that hasn’t broken since I was a child’.
    Perhaps only feeling the words is, at times, enough.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted December 29, 2019 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sandy: Sorry it took this long to get a reply to you. So grateful to know you are out there reading these posts!

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