Phebe Davidson   •  October 25, 2004

Sex Education: Where We Are Going and Where We Have Been

A Review of Janice Moore Fuller’s Sex Education

Sex Education: Poems by Janice Moore Fuller. Irish Press, 2004.
89 pgs. $13.00 (paper) ISBN 0-916078-60-4

The casual browser in the poetry section of a local book store might look at the cover of Janice Moore Fuller’s second book of poems and blink. The title — Sex Education — is superimposed on Sigrid Burton’s cryptically titled painting Fifth Song and the result is a book cover that is seductive and just a little scary. Should this hypothetical browser persist, opening the book and starting to read, then he or she will almost certainly join the growing company of Fuller’s fans.

I note at the outset that books please and entice us in a variety of ways, not all of which are attributable to the poems themselves, to that mysterious stuff English teachers used to call content. Sex Education is a beautifully made book. Burton’s painting, rendered in rich scarlets and deeper reds, suggests a sexual knowledge that speaks from the shadings, the central swirl of design, and the curious vegetal line that compels consideration. The painting demands the eye’s best attention in part because the palette in which it is painted and printed is full of passion and mystery. Equally important, for those who open the book, is the tactile appeal of good paper that thumbs well and pleases the fingers that, very likely, caress one page of crisp, elegantly margined type while turning to the next.

Given the subject matter of the book, this visual and tactile appeal strikes me as singularly important. I have always believed that the secretive hearts of books cannot be fully isolated from their presentation, that books are indeed bound not solely by the binder’s stitching and glue, but by their association with the physically specific volumes in which a reader first locates them. That said, however, the truth remains that the appeal of cover, paper, and print is never enough to “make” a book.

Sex Education is, in the most profound sense, Fuller’s sensual and undeniable “I am.” The book’s first poem (“Breaking the Thermometer”) puts its readers immediately into the midst of things, experiencing with the poem’s speaker a remembered incident from years ago in which she watches the mercury of a broken thermometer (“against the law”) roll about in her hand, though the readers understand what the young speaker does not, the implicit connection between this image and the way “the Tucson Mountains squeeze / together at Gates Pass like massive thighs / tight against the desert light.” It is all but impossible not to draw the sudden, excited breath of a voyeur when the boy with “humped hands” says to her, “Let me show you.” This is sex education indeed, and as these poems make stunningly clear, sex education lies at the heart of everything that lives and everything that matters. It is nothing less than the continually astounding discovery of sensual and sexual energy in all aspects of the world we inhabit. It is, very possibly, the heart of poetry itself.

Throughout the four sections of the book, Fuller gives us again and again this same resonating insight. It may come in the lines of “Imago,” the recognition that “At night / we will lay us down / forming me to myself…,” or in the title poem’s startling assertion, “my babysitter typed dirty words / on Mother’s Remington Rand,” or yet again in the excruciatingly beautiful “Remembering Seven Horses Struck by Lightning Under a Tree Back Home.” Here the poet/speaker walks in an imagined memory towards “Seven, huddled close, not knowing / how electricity travels from mass / to mass, not knowing / the only hope is distance.” What unites these poems, whether they are based in the receding past or in near-­present, is that sensual, sexual energy that can no more be denied than it can be securely ruled, the same energy inherent in image and metaphor and in the poems themselves. Indeed, in the world of Sex Education, this is the energy that makes us human, makes us vulnerable and dangerous, makes us alive in every important way.

Fuller’s first collection, published by Scots Plaid Press in 1998, is a 33 page chapbook titled Archeology Is a Destructive Science. Not surprisingly, it is poet’s excavation of emotional and physical sites that have moved, enlivened, and inspired her. Like many chapbooks, it is simultaneously intriguing and frustrating, lying somewhere between the satisfying heft of a full book and the literary equivalent of a theatrical trailer that is a promise of the work to come. Sex Education is the promise fulfilled. It is where the poet (and her readers with her) fetches up after those archeological digs, in a region of poems whose images range from subtle to brilliant and whose metaphors are unfailingly rich. This newer, fuller volume is mature work by a writer who is fortunate enough to inhabit both the formalist’s visibly ordered world — as evidenced by “Childhood Sestina” — and the seductive and shifting landscape of free verse, a landscape where Fuller’s Rapunzel can say of her hair, “It grew longer than my longing / to escape….”

I love to quote the poems of Sex Education. They are that good. But I will quote only one more before I stop. In “The Long Way Home” Fuller writes, “I am stuck in this land of metaphor.” Of course she is. That is where poets live — deeply and sometimes chaotically — because it is the place where poetry is perceived in almost everything and where it is rendered real. And that is the ­sensual, sexual, satisfying gift poets give the rest of us in books like this.