Frenetic, Excitable, and Direct: Sylvie Baumgartel’s Song of Songs

Reviewed By

Sylvie Baumgartel’s debut book of poetry, Song of Songs, released last September from FSG, takes its title, in a grand artistic tradition, from the Bible’s Song of Solomon. Sometimes also called the Song of Songs, this passage of the Bible has long been an enigma to scholars and the faithful alike, mostly because it is the only book to celebrate, fairly explicitly, sexual love, and the sexuality of both men and women. Jewish and Christian traditions manage to dodge this protofeminist bullet, choosing instead to interpret the Song of Solomon as an allegory for the relationship between God and Israel and Christ and the Church, respectively. Baumgartel dodges nothing; instead, in a superheroic move, she grabs the bullet from air thick with tradition and history and swallows it whole.

Song of Songs is a book-length poem of prodigious eroticism. I dare you to read this book, straight-faced, in public: on the bus, in a coffeeshop, or on your lunch break, squirming. The poem opens with a threshold-crossing, like any good marriage, and proceeding sexual relationship it doesn’t slow down:

I walked in the door, took off my coat, took off my sunglasses, set them down with my keys, took off my shoes and socks, my jeans, my shirt, my bra and underwear, set them all on the chair by the door, walked into the house naked, went to the fridge, got my cucumber, went to the bathroom, lay on the floor by the warm heater, kissed the floor, said your name, said it again, looked up at you, slipped the cucumber inside and went all the way up deep, said your name, cucumber in and out all the way, all the way in, all the way out, my cunt lips sliding on the cucumber, you, you, you, then you were pissing on my face, which made me so excited I came came came.

The poem continues in this tenor and pitch for seventy-two reeling, prose-blocked pages, during which time the speaker rubs herself against even more produce, some door knobs, bathtubs, table corners, and once, in a dream—or in a maybe-dream—a rattlesnake. Baumgartel’s prose poetry is frenetic, excitable, and direct. Despite its devotional tone, you might even call it plainspoken. If these terms seem at odds with each other, I say only: yes, they are. But religious devotion and sexuality have also often been at odds with each other. Because what, exactly, distinguishes this poem from supermarket-shelf erotic prose and James Joyce’s love letters (the only other “literary” soft porn one might dare to read in public) alike is whom the speaker addresses in the throes of her repetitive and devotional passion: God himself.

Song of Songs, then, is not merely Baumgartel’s treatise on the value and animalistic hunger, the dirtiness of female desire. It’s also taking on the oft-prudish Biblical God—or, at least, the oft-prudish devotees of the Biblical God.

Actually, I take it back. To say that Baumgartel is “taking on” anything at all is too simple for her project. And it would be just as easy to call this a feminist, sex-positive project that updates the Biblical book for the contemporary woman, one who is never ashamed of her own body and its pleasures. But is sex positivity so positive when the sex, no matter how pleasurable, is always happening at the behest of a male God? Is “free love” really free in a world still ideologically governed by the institutionally approved male gaze?

Song of Songs attempts something more delicate, something more nuanced: it interrogates the relationship between devotion and ownership, between confidence and submission, between excess and loss— particularly the loss of self. About a third of the way through the poem, the speaker declares:

My name is for you and only for you to say and for you to own. My past is for you to own and to take. My cunt hair is for you—my master and my God—to pull and to pull harder until I screech and double over in the perfect weeping pain of adoration.

The speaker willingly—over and over again, on almost every page, in language that turns back and repeats and writes over itself—gives herself over to God and His pleasure. And even though she herself receives pleasure in turn, in this repetition, in the giving on giving on giving, Baumgartel writes to the brink of excessiveness, to the point where pleasure—whether it be sexual, devotional, or linguistic—begins to lose all meaning. Is a self made of routine or is it made of the surprising deviations from routine? How can a woman become herself if she is always “coming coming coming” for someone else?

In her essay “An Anatomy of the Long Poem,” Rachel Zucker, herself a champion of the long poem, writes that “long poems are extreme. […] They revel in going too far; they eschew caution and practicality and categorization and even, perhaps, poetry itself, which as a form tends to value the economy of language.”

Song of Songs is extreme; it goes too far; it does not value the economy of language:

In my dream last night, you and I were in a beautiful forest. Misty, green, light, bright forest with delicate beautiful trees. We were naked on the moss. I couldn’t stop kissing you. I kissed your entire body over and over and over adoring every every part and unable to speak unable to do anything but kiss and adore your body and your being. Adore adore adore. My master, my God, my life. My everything. I kissed and kissed and kissed you. With my lips, my tongue, my breath, my soul, my heart, my mind, my entire being kissed kissed kissed my master with all my love love love and life. I was melting melting melting in love. It made me come with love from kissing you. While I was coming, long bursting coming, down my legs and the come lightning up into my face, you opened my rib cage, pried it open, took my thumping heart in your hand, you licked and kissed my thumping bare heart and then you branded me with a sizzling iron. You closed my rib cage over my blessed heart. I kissed you and kissed you rubbed my cunt up and down your thigh squished milk all over your chest from my leaking tits. Licked off the milk and kissed you more. Thump thump thump thump thump thump thump.

Concision is not in Baumgartel’s wheelhouse; her language doubles back and takes up space without apology—a radical act for a femme-presenting speaker when so often women and nonbinary people are forced to be quiet, to be small. Paired with identity, the poem’s extremity becomes a political act. Let the speaker rant, let her pant, let her go on tangents and never return. Let the speaker speak, let her ramble and patter. This poem lets her—the speaker and Baumgartel—be too much.

On the other hand, however, we have extremity’s mundanity in contemporary Western culture. In its dual expansiveness and excessiveness, Song of Songs is a poem of its time, an era in which devotion and extremism walk hand in hand, especially on American soil. We are inundated with language and sex and religiosity, often to the point where all three become practically meaningless—to the point where we begin to lose our individuality in the excessiveness. At what point does devotion—to a cause, to a God, to a person, thing, or mode of speaking—become compulsion?

Though not all of the poets I’m about to name are working under the same terms as Baumgartel, it seems as though the long poem (and even the book-length poem) is having a new moment in American poetry: Rachel Zucker, of course, and Tommy Pico, Ross Gay—even projects like feeld by Jos Charles and Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky feel as though they’re walking the same path as Song of Songs. What distinguishes Baumgartel’s work from, say, Pico’s book-length poems, though, is its relationship to the epic form. I’m not saying, by contrast, that other long poem-writers are not in conversation with the epic, but rather that Baumgartel, in taking up long-held lore and giving it new language in a new context, can perhaps cozy up to the likes of Homer and Milton, while those dreaming up completely new language might stray in a different direction. Song of Songs is to the Song of Solomon as Paradise Lost is to Genesis. Like other epic-writers, Baumgartel is honoring and updating and critiquing the ur-text in turn.

Despite its many linguistic indulgences, Baumgartel’s Solomon update does lack a narrative drive to accompany the erotic lyricism she pinches from the Bible and then expands to excess. At first, I found this lyricism seductive and intoxicating: appropriate responses to a poem such as this. After about fifty pages, though, I found myself tiring, wondering when there would be a shift in action, or even in register. I discerned no character arc when reading; there was no rising and falling action. A lyric, I suppose, needs no denouement, and this excessiveness-to-the-point-of-exhaustion is part and parcel of Baumgartel’s sustaining erotic sequence. So I ask again: at what point does devotion end and compulsion begin? When does excess fade to exhaustion, which then bleeds into loss?

But Song of Songs rewards those who make it past the breaking point. In one of my favorite passages towards the end of the poem, the speaker describes a dream she had about her lover—God—in a garden. He finds an old book. He picks it up. And then:

You ground up the book into a paste. When your paste was the right consistency, you made a little girl out of it. You sculpted her out of the paste that was like playdough. You kissed her face and she came to life. She dove into your arms. She loved you immediately. Your girl.

In writing a poem based on the Bible, which is itself a book of stories about where humanity comes from and how we continue to survive, Sylvie Baumgartel knows that her poem is inherently about the stuff that we’re made of: culture, ideology, faith. It is also a poem that dramatizes, monologue-style, what happens when said stuff becomes all-encompassing—when we become a “your girl” instead of a “my girl.” When we give more of ourselves than we ever thought possible. When we please ourselves without ever stopping to wonder who’s on the other end of the pleasure.

Kate O’Donoghue, a first-generation college grad, is an MFA candidate in poetry at Purdue University. She earned her BA at Muhlenberg College, and she is the recipient of a fellowship from the Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Tangerine, The Normal School, and elsewhere. Her tweets have appeared at @kate_odo. More from this author →