A Review: Poems of a Penisistbyjthserra©
Review of “Poems of a Penisist”
“In the name of / Man, member, / and the holy fluid, / Amen,” so Mutsuo Takahashi begins his epic, thousand-line “Ode” the centerpiece poem in his book, Poems of a Penisist . The book, described in the Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures Volume 2 as: “One of the world’s great books of erotic poetry” and in Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage as: “One of the most important collections of poetry on homosexual desire and sex written in the twentieth century” is a selection of poems from three of Takahashi’s poetry collections.
The first eighteen poems in Poems of a Penisist were selected from Takahashi’s first two collections of poetry written when he was in his teens and early twenties. The poet, born in 1937, exhibits a youthful and brash attitude in the poems often describing the lover with distinct, often violent imagery, yet he also touches on the innocence of love. In these early poems, the reader sees the poet growing with explorations into the mythic lovers Daphnis and Chloe, an incestuous relationship between mother and son, an erotic “murder” of a love affair to the theme of Cain and Abel, and a fascinating glimpse into the mirror of self-love.
In “Dove” the first poem in the book, Takahashi displays a touching tenderness as two men, hold and pet a dove, with each describing what they find enjoyable in the creature. The gentle innocence of their exchange culminates in discovery as the poem concludes:
“I love you, he said and let the dove go
It’s gone, I murmured
In his arms”
The innocence is soon darkened with “Mother and Son” a poem that trembles in an uneasy sensuality as purity is overshadowed by a swift passion. Slowly, almost timidly, a mother abandons herself as she:
“Opens her robe, hands trembling
And, looking down, stands before her son
Shame and embarrassment rush to his face like blood
But that disappears in choking, fierce gratitude”
The son remains motionless, until the mother with a painful smile, nods, releasing him to the passion. The boy “Then leaps to his mother with a murderer’s agility,” tossing aside all restraint, as the purity and innocence is murdered in their desire.
In these early poems Takahashi’s fascination with the landscape of the body begins to take form. Vivid description drives his metaphorical “The Tree Lover” and “The Rose Tree,” as he breathes, tastes and grasps the body in vibrant lines. The poet then rejoices in the body in his poem “The Man”:
“The forest of highly fragrant hair, the shining column, the sun of darkness
Those black thighs under the boxing shorts
Buried in between, the pale lily”
He savors even the sweat and grime, finding beauty in a man’s greatness and intensity, proclaiming:
“To kneel under his armpit hair and the aroma of his sex
And to kiss his bare toes in the dust”
A young poet, writing so graphically of sex and as a homosexual living in the 1950s Takahashi saw and experienced society’s reactions to this “deviant” lifestyle. He understood and chronicled what homosexuals faced in “Christ for Thieves” where he spoke to Christ complaining that “You forgave thieves.” Asking for acceptance he asks Christ to”
“Be the father for homosexuals
One infinitely gentle”
This heavenly request quickly returns to earth for the poet as he continues the stanza:
“They are trembling for love
At street corners, on the stairs of cheap hotels”
He ends the poem with an earthy request for paradise, asking for “...a tiny, tiny happiness / A manly lover.”
Takahashi then takes us into the dark streets, the places where the disenfranchised homosexuals retreated in a search for companionship, love and mostly sex with his poem “Ten Stanzas with the Ninth Missing” from his collection “You Dirty Ones, Do Dirtier Things!” (1966). He opens the poem with a quote from Genesis, 19 4-5, speaking of Sodom and then explains, “The heart is a terrible city,” where he sees:
“The degraded backstreet paved with tiles
The dirty sheets on a wooden bed that squeaks like a widow
On the damp cold straw in a stable”
Sin and guilt echo from these streets, as the poem describes a surreal and gloomy city of men searching for male lovers in the back alleys and men’s rooms. The biblical references throughout the poem strengthen the dark eroticism he portrays.
Much like the philosopher and erotic poet Georges Bataille, Takahashi’s poetry often tiptoes between the sacred and profane, praising the beauty of the body and its passion as both a religious and hedonistic experience. “Ode,” published in 1971, is a celebration of both sacred and profane, of the beauty of the male anatomy, of a journey into, “…the furtive and sordid settings in which, in our modern society, homosexual encounters so often take place.” (1 – pg xiii).
In long flowing lines, reminiscent of Walt Whitman, “Ode”, extols in stunningly beautiful and detailed language, the male body, beginning with the toes and rising slowly, sensuously up to the waist. Like Whitman, he magnificently celebrates the body, toe jam and all:
“I would kneel, I would kiss
The skin of your sole, turned moist, white, flaccid in the shoe
Smelly from the grimed sock, your foot
Your toes, rolling upward, nail storing darkblue dirt”
In extended metaphor he speaks of the body, including two pages on groin odor alone:
“The perfumed oil of nard rubbed on the thighs down to the shins
Of a bullfighter in a tight corset
The young smell of olive oil which the youths
Of the gymnasium of ancient Greece
Rub on each other’s naked skin, standing or bending –“
Rising up the body, he reaches the “Prick & Balls” which he calls (among many other things) “A cannon with its two wheels / A rocket launcher equipped with two hangers.” The imagery is imaginative, provocative and downright erotic.
Throughout the poem, he wanders from the body to take the reader to the places men meet: the “Gropeteria,” a term he uses for male only porn movie houses, the “Turkish Embassy” featuring Turkish baths, and the “Tea House.” Like Whitman’s longer poems, “Ode” is a tour-de-force of erotic male anatomy and of the places men go to share that anatomy with each other. The poem ends with a single word” “Ah!” Ah indeed.
“Poems of a Penisist” was translated by Hiroaki Sato and includes an introduction by Burton Watson. This collection is out of print and difficult to find. Amazon lists prices for new and used copies starting at $30 US plus shipping, most booksellers list it much higher. Several other Mutsuo Takahashi titles are more readily available including: A Bunch of Keys (1984), which includes “Ode”, and Sleeping, Sinning, Falling (1992).
1. Takahashi, Mutsuo, Poems of a Penisist Chicago Review Press, Chicago 1975.
2. Haggerty, George E. Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures Volume 2 Garland Publishing 1999.
3. Summers, Claude, Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: A Readers Companion to the Writers and Their Works from Antiquity to the Present New England Publishing Associated, Inc. NY, NY 2002.