The following essay is a free sample from the forthcoming book, ‘Anatomy’ by Simon Travers. It gives more depth of understanding for what the project is about.
The curtain rises. A fig leaf falls. Sex is a theatre of vulnerability.
Acts of intercourse, giving your body to another body, receiving somebody’s body inside your body, leave those involved open; open to pleasure, to one avenue of fulfilment, to secrets, to security and to love. However, there is also the fear that sex leaves us open to disease, violation, rejection, failure and heartbreak.
As a product of an act of vulnerability somewhere, after months of vulnerable gestation, we are born vulnerable, naked and helpless. Whatever the cause of our death, at the end we are all found vulnerable, with some level of understanding that we are “like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” (Psalms 103:15)
Between birth and death, we contradict ourselves. Humanity is vulnerable and yet it is part of the human condition to aspire to the opposite. We sew fig leaves together. We gold plate what is wood and armour plate what is flesh. We declare that our homes are our castles.
Sex and gender identity are common tools for sustaining the contradictory perception that humanity is not vulnerable when it is. Our culture has continually told sex and vulnerability to stop holding hands, to stop getting lost in each other’s eyes. Divorced from vulnerability, sex embodies the contradiction. Gender identities and relationships become defined by impersonal burdens of competence, control and commerce.
Corruption follows. Rejecting vulnerability leads to hierarchies founded on a will to dominate, where others are reduced, objectified and used as resources. This is wrong and ultimately futile. Human vulnerability cannot be erased, neither can the emotion of vulnerability that comes with being vulnerable.
Strength and the ability to control events is over-rated. Vulnerability leaves us open; open to be at peace with ourselves because we have nothing to prove, open to see the best in others because we are not striving for control and open to the ideas of grace and forgiveness that cannot be bought or sold.
Anatomy is an exercise in reuniting sex and gender identities with vulnerability. You are invited into the private world of a British married couple, where only an occasional ankle will be flashed of a husband and wife’s public persona. You have permission to watch and listen as the couple lay everything bare, from their desire to the smallest of daily rituals. You will be exposed to the anatomy of this marriage, behind closed doors, under the duvet, on deserted bridges and in walled gardens. In the privacy of their setting, these poems are free to be frank and provocative, intensely candid and intimate.
The poems speak in conversation with a book of the Bible called Song of Solomon. Song of Solomon is enigmatic and little about its origin is certain. However, recent biblical scholarship suggests it is reasonable to believe that Song of Solomon is a collection of love poetry. If these poems were not entirely written by Solomon himself, it is fair to believe they have a male authorship.1 I have found that the more conservative I have been treating the origins of the book, the more radical the consequences of Song of Solomon are. If a reader accepts divine biblical inspiration, then they are confronted with a picture of a male author, under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, imaginatively incarnating into the world of a wife who describes her lover as being like the perfume between her breasts. In the writer and characters alike, vulnerability is entwined with sex in a way our culture is not familiar with.
I have attempted to recreate the effect of the Song of Solomon, speaking with both a male and female voice. The poems start with the husband speaking, and then the wife, and then they alternate throughout. In addition, some poems directly or indirectly reference passages and imagery from the Song of Solomon.
It seems to me it is difficult to construct vulnerable conversations about the issues I am attempting to raise in Anatomy in a public forum. I have been frequently confronted while writing with a sense of how powerfully social and cultural forces impact our lives. What we say, the things we believe, what we feel we have permission to do and the traditions we rebel against are all impacted by our awareness of what is required to maintain the embedded cultural contradiction that we must appear strong when we are not. Sometimes we keep quiet to protect ourselves because we fear we may be on the wrong side of history. Sometimes we aggressively amplify and polarise our beliefs because we don’t wish to be seen to doubt, because nuance can smell like weakness.
Anatomy attempts to deal with this situation by avoiding the third person. The husband and wife are surrounded by the same kinds of relationships that you and I are, family, friends, colleagues and strangers, the people on the TV screen. However, their opportunities to be alive are found in the tension of a reality where there is I and You working to form an Us, without reference to a He, She, It, or They.
Vulnerability is a constant in this conjugal, promise-keeping, private arena. The exclusivity of one partner, the creation of joint identity, the fear that a promise can be broken, the process of ageing, the faith needed to find beauty and meaning in your surrounding context, the spiritual, emotional and physical nakedness of intimacy, all this must be negotiated in a marriage.
In addition to these concerns, Anatomy concentrates on the specific vulnerabilities of this husband and wife; the vulnerability of the husband who embarks on a project to construct a masculine identity which is not hierarchical, the vulnerability of the wife whose desire is to know and be known. These themes connect all of the poems and I have provided two essays, “The to A” and “In Love With Reality”, to explore them in greater detail.
If you want it, Song of Solomon is most holy ground. However, it is a strange, uncompromising book. Modern readers are invited to disrobe of our cultural heritage and, in faith, vulnerably place the text inside us, experiencing something of what it means to be both lover and beloved in relation to other humans and to God.
My hope in writing Anatomy has been to follow and respond in the same spirit. The living and the writing of Anatomy has been done with every ounce of vulnerability that I can muster. As you read these poems and essays, perhaps you will feel vulnerable too. Please believe that I do not mean it unkindly if I say that I hope you do. Vulnerability is good. Vulnerable is what humans are.
1 Longman T. III & Dillard R.B., An Introduction to the Old Testament, (Nottingham, IVP, 2nd ed., 2007)pp. 292-3, 297-8