Sally Read is the author of two books of poetry, both published by Bloodaxe Books in the United Kingdom. The first, The Point of Splitting, was published in 2005 and was shortlisted for the Jerwood-Aldeburgh prize for best first collection. The second, Broken Sleep, came out in 2009. Her work has been recorded for the Poetry Archive and anthologised in The Forward Book of Poetry 2006, Bloodaxe’s Identity Parade (2009) and The Picador Book of Love Poetry (2011) among others. Sally’s poetry has been translated into Italian and a Selected Poems in Italian is in the pipeline. In 2001, she was the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award. She has worked as a teacher and a psychiatric nurse and is poet in residence at The Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs.
What do anal sex and fishing have in common? This was the question I was most asked after I read what was for a while my best known poem, ‘Breaking Fish Necks’. In the poem the protagonist has anal sex for the first time. I stopped using it at readings; I didn’t include it on my Poetry Archive cd. I felt it would become a ‘signature poem’ and I disliked the knowing leers and questions from male members of the audience that it provoked. Then, Mia Lecomte, organiser and director of May 28th’s Madrigne for La Compagnia Delle Poete, included its Italian translation in the script. I called her up and told her I’d rather not perform it. But she pushed my writer-buttons: it’s a fine poem, it’s significant, it isn’t titillating. Plus the script is written.
When my Italian husband went through it with me in Italian he freaked, “Santo Dio!”. The mother in law has been shipped over from Sardinia to babysit so he can drive me and my tough New Yorker friend Rosie (who’s been through everything from armed burglary to 9/11) to the venue and steal me out through a side-door afterwards, under a blanket. As Rosie drawled when she read the script
“Honey, are you sure you wanna do this? You don’t wanna be the poet who took it up the Hershey tunnel.”
Why do people assume poems are real, and what’s in a poem is what a poet has done? Well, mostly because it’s true. Most of my poems are, in some way, an account of what I’ve personally been through. Except the exceptions. Anal sex is a thing I’ll bet most women have been confronted with, even if, ultimately, like me, they opted for anal virginity.
“What is it with men and the ass these days?” Samantha in Sex and the City asked (in the days when it was a fairly intelligent examination of the modern mating game). Yeah, what is it? Most men seem to want it (not all). The man at the centre of the poem ‘Breaking Fish Necks’ was always after it. And he gave me my favourite ever lines from a decade of dating in London:
Me: “You’re telling me you’re leaving first thing in the morning, that you don’t even want to spend the weekend together, and you want to have anal sex with me?”
Him: “We’d be having anal sex not building a shed.”
This same guy used to fish when he was a lad – out with his pa on the Great Lakes, bonding, drinking beer, and doing guy-things. But he stopped because he couldn’t stand breaking the fish’s neck. His dad thought it was more humane to snap the neck than let the fish flap about and suffocate on the bank. What a sweetie my guy was. And then I got to thinking (as Carrie Bradshaw might have said before she sold out to foreign location and greed), how this same guy was intent on us performing what, for me, would have been a painful, unhygienic, and ersatz act. I asked around friends: Who had, who hadn’t. The nearest I got to consent was a friend who told me it was “The agony and the ecstasy”. Oh, and someone I worked with: “Well, if it keeps ‘em happy” (bless them).
The poem, it strikes me (at a distance of eleven years since the writing of it, it does seem penned by someone else) is about women not breaking. The man able to intimately dominate and undo a woman, and not have her fall apart. The desire to illicitly find the nub, the rub, the kernel that is nothing to do with her womanhood and the gift she has of creation. And not kill her. Not really. Unlike the fish “too easily become the dead weight of flesh …” She is easier to play with. To walk away from.
The poem almost became classified as an ‘erotic poem’ – a label I strenuously resist for it and all the sex poems in my first book The Point of Splitting. Now I’m out of the London dating game, I see the willingness of a lot of women (not all) to feed desires that have nothing to do with love or procreation as sad. Many of us are help-mates in the perpetuation of our own loneliness, or ultimately, childlessness. About to turn forty, my peer-group is witnessing the impact on women of a legacy of contraception, abortion, and work-above-all-else. Women who, suddenly, want a baby. After two decades of assiduously trying not to fall pregnant, it’s now not so easy. The term ‘Culture of Death’ springs simply and silently to mind.
The vagina has become a second class erogenous zone.
How, in hell, did we let that happen?
Breaking Fish Necks
The next afternoon we tried anal sex
and as you coaxed my neck with your thumbs
I thought of Wolf’s Creek
and the fish you wouldn’t catch,
plump trout necks you couldn’t bear to break
and take home dead to your mother.
In the warmth I knew my arse
was soft, the downy peach.
But what was beyond drew you in:
a core, sensitive, harsh
like a peachstone –
its coarse ridges, fine strings
caught in grooves
where flesh is torn raggedly away.
Here, at the kernel
of spine, cat’s-cradle of muscle,
you tried to undo me, cupping my hips
with your hands, breaking me patiently.
As we paused, I did loosen
but held together
around this hardness,
in the brace of your arms
till we rolled apart
and I healed slowly over.
You stopped fishing years ago.
You only used the stillness,
the bronze film of water
to will the fish deeper.
You couldn’t watch them
choke on air or feel the snap
of delicate bones
between forefinger and thumb.
Or walk the mile home
swigging a beer
with a wet chill on your hands,
and flashes of silver skin
too easily become
the dead weight of flesh
slung at the bottom
of your pack.
from The Point of Splitting (Bloodaxe Books, 2005).
Order The Point of Splitting.
Order Broken Sleep.
Visit Sally’s blog, The Far-Near.
Read more of Sally’s poems at The Poetry Archive and The Poem.