Fiveby Linda Nochlin
The Sex-Life of the Mollusk, or
Pornography is Where You Make It
“The beginnings of copulation in the mollusks, for example,
give way to very strange gropings before the act is adapted.”
– Jean Piaget, footnote
Beneath the surface of the sea
Lurk shoals of shelled perversity;
Who would believe that bivalves share
In sins to which the flesh is heir?
Or that the inoffensive squid
Indulges his calcareous id?
The mollusk lusts in bed of slime,
Where, sheltered by unblushing brine,
His moist, tentacular embrace
Hovering on satisfaction, waits
Til strangely groped by mollusk mate,
His partner oozes to her fate.
Oh, who would dream of deviation
In such restricted circumstance?
Does pause before mere penetration
Refresh subaqueous romance?
Oyster orgies, clams in drag
Fellation for consenting crabs;
How must the modest mussel feel
When buggered by an invert eel?
Imagination boggles at
The mollusk as a pornocrat.
(Or is this needless agitation
Brought on by simple mistranslation?)
In any case, we cannot claim
That man alone makes sex a game.
No limits to lubricity
Are set to sex beneath the sea;
Nor, if you really think it through,
Are mollusks better off than you.
All pleasures that are good per se
Are better yet some kinkier way:
Oysters Rockefeller, moules in wine,
Clams in chowder – all divine!
Although, if one likes seafood well
One won’t disdain it on the shell.
Carpaccio’s Birth of the Virgin
Two rabbits, nibbling lettuce on the floor,
Have stopped the rush of masculine perspective.
Lying in bed beneath her canopy
Anna is calmly self-absorbed, reflective.
She alone is thought, all around
Her world of women welcomes the new girl
With tasks of homely job, and tasks abound.
One turns a spindle in a distant room
Another warms the diaper at her fire
A turbaned matron occupies herself
With swaddling tape; all hands conspire
In the timeless ceremonial of the womb.
The old nurse shifts her weight to feel the bath
The baby Virgin sheltered in her arm;
Only old impotent Joseph on his stick
Is left to represent the masculine rance.
He’s clearly on the way. Cleanliness, charm
And order mark this space
As holy, with the unself-conscious grace
Of ordinary caring. On the wall,
Above the shelf with candle, bowls and fruit
A Hebrew tablet, sign of the arcane,
Warns of future glory, future doom.
Meanwhile, a modest servant robed in red
Cools down the mother’s porridge with her spoon.
June 18, 1999
This is my mother’s birthday
She is gone now, she left with little pain
Barely a groan, nothing romantic, her last words
When asked “how do you feel?”
Were “I feel rotten.” Does this mean
Anything at all? I doubt it but last words
Take on an aura of their own, as though
They hid some higher, deeper truth about the
Dear departed. Someone unexpected, like Wittgenstein
But not quite let out “Mozartele!” at the last minute.
Dick’s last quotables were “I want to enjoy my life”
Well this means something, certainly, but nothing
Mysterious there, quite straightforward. Or perhaps
A terrible last minute regret for not having done so.
It is hard to be sentimental about someone so determined
Not to be, herself. She pulled her life to the vanishing point
In the end. What was she afraid of? Of life itself
It seems. And yet, she, more than anyone else enjoyed
Things for their own sake. Ballet, the dance, the beautiful
Legs of the boys; beautiful boys in general, objectively, at
Eighty-two “What a beautiful young man!” she’d cry. Whye
Did she pare her life down to the fleshless bones of being?
Yet she read all through her life, until the end, it dwindled with
Her eyes. Smaller and smaller the circumference of her days
Less and less the vital pleasure of the ear, the mind of the eye.
Her wit, however, never deserted her. At times it was outre,
Embarrassing but undiscouraged it endured. No real suffering
Just the final trip in the ambulance, the meaningless
End of it all.
From the beginning
She was the mainstay of my life
My maker. She made me feel and think.
She’d been to Paris in her early days
And met my father there and married him.
A great mistake (not Paris, but my father).
She had a room in some white Russians’ house
In the Sixieme, near Gertrude Stein. On rue Madame I think,
A very early-thirties place to stay.
We made music, danced and sang.
She read me Joyce when I was eight, the start
Of Portrait of the Artist, animal noises.
And Katherine Mansfield, Catherine Anne Porter,
Odd, mannered birds, popular at the time like Elinor Wylie whose
Venetian Glass Nephew I illustrated
With drawings precious as her literary style
And Thomas Mann, especially disorder and early sorrow
Which meant a lot to her: that inward way of getting at
The viewpoint of the child. She saw the subtlety of Mann,
His deft embrace
Of childhood angst, like little Hanno Buddenbrooks
Incapable of “making the mill” at dancing school with
All the blue-eyed children. Did she identify with outcasts? I do not think so
It was the miracle of the Great Man who could
Empathize with someone so young, a tragedy so small
That moved her. So I sought for similar movements of the heart
And drew a wistful Tonio Kroger lying on a chaise lounge
With ruffles at his wrists. Later, we went to plays: for
My twelfth birthday, The Three Sisters with Eva Legalienne,
Junior Miss and Streetcar Named Desire; the Dark at the Top
Of the Stairs. She had gone to the Theater Guild in her youth,
A passion of my grandfather’s, and seen all the great O’Neils
In first production. Those were the days. What happened to that
Heady excitement of the mind, the senses? She passed it on to me,
The mad art-lover, concertgoer, dance aficionado, poetry reader
And left nothing for herself. Not out of self-sacrifice, that wasn’t at
All her style, but out of a kind piecemeal enervation, to borrow
Not quite correctly from Ezra Pound. She simply couldn’t be bothered
Later on to see the art, to read the books, to watch the dance as
Once she had. She was just (pace Emily D.) locking up to die
“Mortality’s old custom.....”
July 24, 2001
Outside the walls, before the iron gates
We met, two massive women, tenderly embracing
Our bulging bellies bumping through
The heavy, hanging folds. Inside, deep in the
Cave of waters, the little heads collided gently,
Girl and boy. Both redheads it turned out, children of the spring,
Both chosen, marked with wary grace.
What mysteries of propinquity and absence
Grow from a legend, lend themselves to
Imperceptible change, marvelous latency?
All meetings are miracles. Shells mingle with other shells,
The surface changes with the tides, vast plates slide and clash
Towers fall, fields become garbage dumps, lakes
Breed slime and monsters. We hold hands above the city
And drink martinis, talk of love and work, watch over this tenuous island,
This Manhattan. Soon it will be over.
When I am laid to rest in the dark cave of earth or
Rise beyond time on wings of fire
Your hand will be in mine,
Growing like a vine beyond the stars, the moon
The sun, to realms we can only dream of
Here on earth Only love me, touch my hand. It will happen soon.
April 1, 2002
Linda Nochlin is an American art historian, born and bred in Brooklyn. The Lila Acheson Wallace Professor Emerita of Modern Art at New York University Institute of Fine Arts, she is a writer and a poet. She is the author of Courbet; Realism; Representing Women; The Body in Pieces: the fragment as a metaphor of modernity, The Politics of Vision; Women, Art and Power; and Bathers, Bodies, Beauty: the Visceral Eye. Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader, ed. Maura Reilly, was published 2015, including the celebrated essay seen freshly: “‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Thirty Years After.”