I. God gives a teenager nakedness so he’ll have something to believe in, the curve of a girl’s breast or the religious straightness of her upper back. No one in school suspects how, all day, this kid has been taking pictures in his head, snapshots: the shock of bristling fur along a boy’s bare back, every unfolding complication of a girl walking, the soft assertion of her pubis. He doesn’t permit his eyes to feast. They hide and hoard for later — like a camera. Clear prints are developed only afterward, no ordinary disorder of light now, but light polarized, pored over, as close as a fifteen-year-old gets to worship. Shadows on a woman’s stomach, streaks of sun in a boy’s hair — he knows the text, its subtleties, its fine distinctions. II. Once you discover an island, how can you keep from returning to it? Dunes you sink your arms into till your body feels as soft and deep as they are. Skies you watch until you are gazing up into the dark inside your mind, and inside your mind are stars, too. And breezes that have traveled across a sea to minister just to you, to remind you the world is not as unforgiving as you had thought. Only you know how to find the island. Once again you are shipwrecked, and a girl is kneeling over you, or a boy is kissing your brow. The boy’s hair is streaked with light. The girl’s arms, surprisingly powerful, pull you to her, rock you against her breast. III. Too much made of too little? Of course. That’s part of the delight to sex. The penis’s pride — all at once, triple its original size. Gazed at, how can it not leap up like a kid in class rising in his seat, waving, eager to be called on? In the morning, caressed, do other men react as I do, with shy astonishment? As if, lost for days, they’ve only now been found and can’t believe anyone would search so patiently for them? Sex. As a young boy I couldn’t imagine doing it, let alone anyone having it done to her or to him. And now my wife lifts herself on top of me and, as she rocks, strokes my neck as if being gentle not just with me but with the world, cradling my head and then pushing down harder. So much joy. How can I not turn away from it, trembling? How can I not long for it, not lean toward it, each day, each ordinary day? IV. You can’t be a male and not have heard other males brag of their conquests. And so many men who do have bodies about as lovable as a refrigerator. Some look like vacuum cleaners, some like gooseneck lamps. What artistry is in their hands? I trip in the dark, stub my toe. Still shy after thirty years of marriage, I need someone who will put up with me moping around the house day in and day out, fretting about my failed ambitions, our children’s future; someone who, even after seeing me hop naked in front of her, holding my injured foot, will still want to make love. How does a man manage to fuck someone he hardly knows? The penis pushing in again and again, an instrument attached to a larger machine whose controls no one really understands, an act I still find impossible to comprehend. It means touching a person, and touching a person I can do only after long practice. V. A man pulls off the road to watch boys play basketball for the same reason he can’t keep his eyes off water moving — it’s the fastbreaks: a kid, sinewy as a wave, slipping loose from the rest of the pack; water hurtling itself ahead, flinging itself free of entanglements, giving itself over utterly to the air. The boy glides upward in an arc of his own making, his shot almost an excuse now for rising into the sky, the ball balanced on his fingertips as if he were carrying something he knew he must give up. He offers it to the air as if he were leaving the earth, as if he had no plans ever to return. VI. Do we think they will add up, all our glances, our yearning? That we will look and look and finally be as beautiful as the young woman on the balcony or the youth we notice sitting on a ledge staring out at the ocean? Seeing the slant of his shoulders, the slope of the rocks he’s nestled in, how can a person not want to trace each curve, as someone in a museum, against all prohibition, is tempted to slide his hand over a sculpture, as if by stroking its lines he might be included in its beauty? Yes, I am greedy: I want to tell you of all I yearn for and to yearn for it still, as if each longing were a kind of casting off, a weighing of the anchor, a voyage that put our lives at peril, and the true heroism were to return from it, to come back from the adulterous seas, and to tell what could be told. I am so greedy, I want to be free to imagine everything, and to believe that you could still welcome me back, knowing I had imagined it. That I could still walk on the beach with you, visit a museum, go to a movie, take your hand, be led to the marriage bed, as if life could be simple, easy, at least with you, your touch: the gentleness that weds me to the world.
This poem previously appeared in Chelsea.