Ivy League Sex Education

Slam Poetry


On a recent trip to New York City a made an obligatory stop at The Strand bookstore, quite possible the world’s best. Their poetry section is so rich with options that it is almost impossible not to make an interesting discovery. 

Among the discoveries I made is Taylor Mali’s book “What Learning Leaves.” I picked it because the cover looks like a classic composition book, the type that are sold in drugstores all over the country, which I happen to love.
I also chose it because Mali is a four-time National Poetry Slam Champion, an original member of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and a teacher. Good thing I did because his work is fun, casual and intimate.
Here is one of my favorite poems from the collection, photographed to the right in, what else, a New York City yellow cab. The formatting is original:

Dad, this one’s for you. Because everything you told me about sex turned out to be true. 

Because you could speak of sex and the penis
as if they both went to Yale,
were, in fact classmates of yours —
the vagina, a dear old childhood friend
from Holy Cross who used to come
visit on weekends religiously —
because you could do this, it was you
who sat me one day on the hearth
and gave me my Ive League sex education.

On the hearth beneath the chimney,
fashioned out of local rock
except for the gravestones that you found
abandoned in the back field in ’66
and brought to the mason, who crossed himself
and asked forgiveness before he sat them in stone:
of the stones themselves,
from Moses Grant, beloved husband and father,
and from the white stone with no name,
only the willow tree in bas relief,
pressing itself out.
Sex and death, linked in my mind from the get go.

And like we were jumping into the fire
to teach ourselves to swim,
you gave me the facts of life
as later you would give me the car keys,
teaching me how to drive
when all I knew about the family car
was how to turn her on,
what to press to make her go faster.

You called orgasm the ‘sneezy feeling’
and to this day I sneeze when I get turned on.
Is it you I have to thank for that?
And is it your face I think I see
beyond the darkness of my headlights?
Or is ti the gravestones in the chimney
that have cemented grief into every act
of intimacy so that it’s barely noticeable,
like a willow tree in bas relief,
pressing itself out of white stone?
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