Most children . . . are in possession of a theory of the origin of babies.
— Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex
They come from cow patties and God’s solar-
powered kitchen, though we suspect the Holy Mother
drops them into doctors’ bags along with wasps
nests and rattlesnakes. Or the midwife will go up
in a balloon to fetch a little squalling thing back
to earth swaddled in a tea towel. You can order
a blue baby from the winter catalogue. Last
Christmas Santa came ho ho ho-ing down a ladder
and plunked them in all the empty mailboxes.
The colicky ones, well, they come from the ears
of sows. Some curl inside the sticky buns you can
buy in Chinatown. I know this because once
I pulled apart the steaming dough and found
one, half-formed, sleeping in a gooey bed of jam.
Don’t believe the rumour that babies come from
the torsos of many-breasted beasts. And those
human shapes growing inside the abandoned
cars in Hagar’s Field? What else could they be?
They arrive suddenly, like hiccups, wearing nothing
but wool booties and brittle bats’ wings that snap
in the first frost. They can tread water and hold
their breath longer than mermaids, though we doubt
angels drop the wizened ones in puddles to plump
them up like gooseberries. What happens to those
loved briefly, then discarded, do they end up as firewood?
Once, I heard a baby mew all night in a cardboard box,
and this I know is true: the milkman delivered one
to the crazy lady on Broom Lane when her husband
was at sea. We used to think the stork brought babies
but now only the gullible among us believe the frog
writhing in the bird’s bill is a tiny human infant.
Our big-boned mother tells beautiful lies, but she
would never lie to us about the baby she dug out of
the ground along with the potatoes. See how firmly
she holds the squirmy thing under the basement tap
to wash away the worms and bugs and clumps of dirt.
I wish to speak of origins:
the snail’s caress, its antennae and the roots
growing deep in the earth.
I wish to speak of the duck’s bill,
guillemots nibbling each other’s feet,
the pose of any feathered thing.
I have traced the kiss to Semitic antiquity,
beyond Africa and its asexual wild grasses.
Homer scarcely knew it, the Greek poets seldom mentioned
the kiss though it took the rest of Europe
by surprise. In Lapland
the kiss was the center of gravity,
you planted it just below the navel where a pool
of sex-water lay. In Celtic tongues
there was no word for it and so I sat alone
in a farmhouse trying to invent
a name. The Welsh kissed
only on special occasions, at a game
called Carousel. Whenever there is rope-playing
there is also moonlight, and then one
came to me, shaped like a beet or pear.
Throughout East Asia the kiss was unknown,
in Japanese literature pleasure was intense.
The kiss has always been alive
in the ravings of schizophrenics, reveries
of satyrs—a theta wave in the alchemist’s brain.
During lovemaking the Tamils licked each other’s eyelids.
I wish to speak of such tenderness, the wisdom
inherent in voluptuous acts.
In the light of Palestine the kiss grew
in the incandescent spaces between olives trees.
Among early Christians: of sacramental significance—
kiss the relic of a saint, foot of the pope.
In Rome the kiss was a sign of reverence
and so the erotic possibilities did not become
flesh. Was it
the terrible kiss of God
that caused the virgins of Central Russia to lose
consciousness and turn into
dock leaves? In Borneo
nose-pressing was the kiss of welcome and of mourning.
Arabian deities were easily uncaged
when about to receive kisses. Powerful
the impulse and yet some thought it cannibalistic.
Among the hill tribes of India: olfactory,
nose to cheek, smell me, they said.
Mothers of the Niger coast rubbed
their babies with their lips,
lovers did not. And the great unlit
kiss that feeds on mud at the bottom of the lake!
I wish to speak of the mammal’s bite
and the hunger inside me, for every human infant.
Watch them. Their small fists
bringing each detail up to their mouths.
In the Chinese restaurant we drink
Tsing Tao beer and choke down
words, handful by handful.
We grow quiet in the name
of our fervent desires.
Sometimes it is easier to exist
in silence. What other
eloquences have we learned
in two million years?
At Olduvai Gorge someone picked up
the sliver whacked off a rock,
peeled words from the other’s
tongue like peeling rind
from a freshly picked melon.
Outside, the streets are ancient
gullies roaming the badlands of Tanzania.
But we do not huddle in wet misery, no, we are
smarter than that, have just enough sense
to come inside where these vermilion
walls hold back the elements
as we try to hold back
primitive emotion. Darling,
we are old, much older
than the grunts and squawks
sprouting from the buds at the end
of our spinal cords, older even
than the dried-up riverbed Leaky discovered—
that twenty-five mile gash
in the earth’s surface. Tonight
it is your mammalian brain
that bowls me over, that beautiful
cantaloupe ripening beneath your skull.
And if we were to climb up
on the table between us,
go for each other
smelling of ginger root and lime
would the sky
cease pouring its grief
into every crevasse? When it rains
even the brilliant chimpanzees
fold their hands over their heads
in little caps of shelter.