The Erotic Can Save Us: Cletus Crow’s Phallic Symbols – Sofie Wise

Cletus Crow’s new full length collection Phallic Symbols is a symphonic meditation on the role of the erotic in queer Southern life, the way it clashes with love, violence, terse family lineage, the desire to live and die, and the natural world. As one might expect, the collection is full of poems about the penis. From the very first poem “Hike with Erectile Dysfunction” the reader will understand the violence the speaker relates to their sexuality, their penis: It’s this spear I wield / as skin-thin divining rod. The force of this violence is not necessarily that of sexual aggression, but often of the shame associated with sexual aggression, as in “Hike with Erectile Dysfunction”: stumbling through forests soft / as flaccid flesh hangs low / like my head in frostbitten hands. The penis imposes itself on its owner, possibilities thrust upon it by gender expectations, religious shame, and the devastation wrought when one finds themself having different orientations than what has been bestowed upon them.

There is a sense of inevitability screaming through Crow’s collection—that of death, of the natural world’s force, of God (and his lack), of interpersonal violence, of love, and of course, of sex. In reading, one can only submit to the forces at play, the forces which so clearly plague our speaker(s). In this way, the collection creates the feeling of a fever dream, inviting the reader to live inside the liminal space of their mortality—to face their brevity and vulnerability.

In “Seasonal Allergies,” the natural world takes control of Crow’s speaker:

The trees are horny.
They pollinate my eyes.
Yellow cum covers my car…
Someone drew a penis.
Someone wrote “I love you”
on both headlights.

The trees are ejaculating. The trees are causing violence, blinding the speaker. The trees are creating opportunity for sexual interaction. The trees are making a circumstance for love. The world can be anything and everything all at once, our speaker seems to say, over and over again. Pain—blindness—can lead to pleasure, can lead to exchange. And it does. Our speaker is situated in Tennessee, surrounded by a claustrophobic American Southern culture that seems to have also given our speaker paths toward themself, these paths being forged not by outright invitation but by invitations created through limitation. The holes in the narrative, the speaker’s ability to seek pleasure in the face of a sexually repressed culture, create openings for them, as in “Catholic”:

you pray to Mary for misery
breaking bro code
we were spanked southern baptist
but admire the aesthetic
and history of medieval torture
young me hoped to be a youth pastor
just to be a long-haired youth pastor
just to be jesus hot

And these openings are everywhere. Standing naked in the window of a fourteenth floor apartment (this is how / vampires / kill themselves). At the smoothie bar, watching a “smoothie boy” make a cucumber smoothie with a “big, black / butt plug.” In the movie Tetsuo the Iron Man, of which a speaker writes “My penis is a sewage pipe. / There are pieces of metal in my brain / called shame.” At the claw game machine: “there’s this plushie eggplant / with button eyes / you’d love.” This last line is part of the final poem in the collection, titled “Hope,” which seems to me to be the poet’s ultimate intention with this collection—to create a sensation of possibility for his readers by colliding the erotic with the violent, the mundane, the sad, offering pleasurable sensations, fantasies, and possibilities, as a respite through it all.

It is impossible not to think of Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic,” wherein she writes “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honour and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.” In Crow’s collection, the poet offers a portrait of what it means to continuously return to the erotic, to use this interior well of feeling as a resource to keep going. This idea is made most acute and obvious in contrast with the recurring theme of death and suicidality, which the poem’s various speakers are constantly contending with. In “Vacation” for example:

You feel yourself step forward.
They should let you do it,
but no one wants to ruin a moment.
There are kids here.
You’re sorry for their open eyes.

This poem is followed by “Sunday,” a meditation on the pleasures of domesticity, of consistent, mundane love:

O cock O kitty pee
O malignant monogamous sex drive
pain pain pain
i’m immunized to our chaos

Domesticity, partnership and obligation seem, for Crow, to be another antidote to the violence that eroticism can wreak on a life. The speaker of several poems here address a nameless “you,” who we continuously understand to be a consistent and safe love, wherein the speaker of these poems has the ability to feel the full spectrum of fear and angst and life-hatred and life-appreciation. It is another inevitability for the speaker, one that comes with as much difficulty and pain as the erotic, but also as much pleasure.

This new collection reminds us that we can experience “chaos” alongside others, can make meaning in the midst of the rest of it. We can, in other words, yield to madness, trust that the erotic and the domestic can usher us along our own path. We can worship these forces, cede control to them. The penis is, in this way, God.



Cletus Crow’s debut poetry collection Phallic Symbols is out now with Pig Roast Publishing. Sofie Ray Wise writes from Philadelphia, where they are an MFA candidate at Rutgers Camden. Sofie and Cletus met in Shy Watson’s poetry workshop.