e.e.'s coming

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W.W. Norton and Company

When I was a young reader first discovering poetry -- and still very much under the thumb of my strict Asian parents -- I blushed (for obvious reasons) whenever I encountered e. e. cummings' name. In those prudish days, were I to know that cummings penned some of the most deliciously sensual poems of the last century, I might have been frightened off literature for good. This hypothetical is redundant, as I wasn't scared off poetry and eventually outgrew those jejune ideas of virtue. This hypothetical is further redundant because his erotic poems were never published together in the same volume until now, in Erotic Poems, a new collection of cummings' amatory verses and sketches.

Readers will delight in these works, which are as naughty as they are tender, bemused as they are earnest. Consider the below, from "16":

(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

The poem winks at its author's salaciousness while joyously proclaiming it. Other poems in the book replace cheekiness with bodice-ripping romance:

you said Is
there anything which
is dead or alive more beautiful
than my body,tohave in your fingers
(trembling every so little)?

Reading through these lovely pieces, I was reminded by how beautifully Michael Cain recites cummings' "somewhere i have never traveled,gladly beyond" in the film Hannah and Her Sisters (by Woody Allen). I hadn't seen that movie in years, yet as I read along I could hear Cain's clement voice reading in my ear.

nothing we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility; whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain has such small hands

In the movie, as Cain recites the above excerpt to the sister (played by Barbara Hershey) of his wife (played by Mia Farrow), Hershey is seduced by the poem's slow cadences and the sensuality of cummings' beautiful words. The viewer, watching, can't help but sympathize with her, even as she steals her sister's husband. You can't blame someone for engaging in a torrid affair with a man who read e. e. cummings from memory: it's not the man she wants, but the poetry. The works in this newest collection, which was released earlier last month in time for Valentine's Day, remind us again and again how thrilling it feels to be seduced by language.

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