The World Began with Yes by Erica Jong

A Desire for Wholeness, the Wholeness of Desire: The World Began with Yes by Erica Jong
by Larissa Shmailo
In the nineteenth century, literary women who made their sexual desires known died gruesome deaths, such as the arsenic anguish of Emma Bovary and the decapitation by bourgeois rail of Anna Karenina. In Fear of Flying, Erica Jong’s second-wave feminist classic of sexual liberation, Isadora Wing gets away with sexual exploration with her body and soul intact, one of the first major heroines to do so. However, twenty-first century #metoo messages confirm that female sexuality remains a place fraught with danger and a rising tide of antiabortion laws warn that women’s bodies are still not their own. Safe physical desire is still an intellectual and grey-shaded literary exercise, and Jong’s fantasy of the “zipless fuck” with no deleterious sequelae is still mostly fantasy:
The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving”. No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.
— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)
Jong goes on to explain that it is “zipless” because “when you came together, zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. For the true ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never got to know the man very well.” Perhaps because as real men often can’t hear a woman’s no, they may also be unable to hear her yes. Jong ensures that they will with The World Began with Yes.
Like Isadora Wing, we search for wholeness – physical, intellectual, sexual, and spiritual. And with Jong, we demand a place in the world for our bodies, free and unfettered, alive and abounding in zipless pleasure. The World Began with Yes guides that search, and frequently and successfully finds that happy terra firma where a woman may be whole, body and soul. Like the Rumi of the book’s epigraph, Jong’s poems are sensual and simple, philosophical and drunk with life. They eagerly and ebulliently engage the other. With no little joy, we find that here the zipless fuck has evolved: we can know the object of our desire and be known, have our lust and eat it, too, and from that dialectic, create an interdependent synthesis, a greater us:
It was always yes,
come in, welcome, eat me
merge with me, love,
let’s join to make another
little bubble of us
who will seem like us combined
but turn out to be another.
— “The World Began with Yes.”
The 77-year-old Jong sings a joie de vivre absent in the depressing muses of younger poets. Her themes are from an existence that is both every day and sacred, personal and universal. Grandchildren and goddesses cohabitate. The main thrust of all the poems is a dervishing passion, an elemental dance of mysticism incarnate:
If we could imagine
beyond our body’s
we would remember
our connection
to the sea —
how we join
molecule to molecule
in the rush
to be together. …
To bring her happy news home (she rejects the televised type), Jong employs wonderful sound values: assonances, consonances, internal and end rhymes. Elegantly arrayed, these emphasize the sensuality of the “Yes” poems and their celebration of the “fierce force of life.” Insistently of the body, the poems banish shame and guilt.:

We are made

to break each

other’s boundaries &

save each other’s



for sin

does not exist

unless you insist

on death.
Connection, physical connection is the path to the soul and disembodied phantoms may type, but do not love:

What is a Facebook friend?

Without smell, without taste,

Without smile, without guile.

Is a Friend a friend?

—“Facebook Friend”
True to her avocation as writer, language, that physical portal of the psyche, that spiritual touch, is a leit motif in the Yes collection. Like Rumi, Jong has drunk the wine of her poetry:

Poetry is
the most important
meal of the day,
without which
we sicken,
we starve.

—“Your Eggs”

is more than a garment.

It is the poet’s skin.

It is hair.

It is flesh.

It is us:

—“Emily Dickinson: A New Daguerreotype”

Poetry is truly for Jong “the Word made flesh,” a tactile and universal transubstantiation; Jong concludes in “Writing Poetry,” “we r all / writing / one poem.” And as William Carlos Williams had it, you may indeed die miserably spiritually and sensually for want of what is found there.
In The World Began with Yes, it is as though Jong is trying to physically touch us with her words, to wake us, hug us, spank us. The Yes poems go mano a mano, toe to toe, skin to skin with their readers and are a right continuation of Jong’s mission to free the female body, to claim the full rights of our physicality, to endow us with the zipless joy of communion, union, sex. There is a transcendence beyond the fears of #metoo and the defiant waves of feminism, a hope for a joyous and liberating us. If we are to fight, then we are to remember what we fight for, the rush of dandelions, the effortless fall of rose petals, the knowledge of ourselves and the other as we dance the poet’s Sufi dance.

Larissa Shmailo is a poet, novelist, translator, editor, and critic. Her new novel is Sly Bang (Spuyten Duyvil). She is the author of three collections of poetry and is the original English-language translator of the Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun.


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