Sharon Olds’ “The Connoisseuse of Slugs” is an erotic telling of a woman’s sexual experience made more meaningful with its association to a sensual past. The author may have used a harmless series of descriptions but the climactic level to which eroticism is brought cannot be downplayed. The beginning of the poem already reveals that the “I” persona is—“was”—“a connoisseuse” (line 1), an admission that she was a female expert with whom domination or control is associated. However, the use of the verb in the past tense suggests that this mastery on the part of the woman must have faded away, or she must have submitted to a greater power over time, and it is not far-fetched to believe that the control has been lost to a man, who is ideologically considered the stronger sex. She says she is an expert of “slugs” (line1)—small, snaillike mollusks which are often seen attached on walls or moist surfaces. These larvae can shrink or grow depending on stimuli or the lack thereof, an ability that is phallic and is in fact compared to a man’s “coming out of hiding” (line 20) or, simply put, growing a penile hard-on. Their characteristic sliminess adds more to the phallic reference, for another comparison is made: a man’s shaft is “gleaming in the dark air” (line 21). The phallic suggestions using the slugs imply that while the persona went on to become an expert of “the slow/elegant being” (lines 19-20) later on in her life, she has become a master of the slugs first and foremost. The “part[ing] of the ivy leaves” (line 2) in order to find the slugs is no different from the undressing in order to get to the core, something reminiscent of our Biblical parents who draped their naked bodies with leaves immediately after the Fall of Humankind. For the persona to access either the slugs or the nakedness of her man, she must have to do with the hindrances first. “[A]t my mercy” (line 6) reinforces the point that the woman is indeed a connoisseuse, and taking the “naked jelly of those gold bodies/translucent strangers glistening along/the stones” (lines 3-5) for the doubly-meant male sexual organ, the persona is dominating a sexual foreplay. She confesses that she is “not interested” (line 8) in slugs’ “shrivel[ing]/to nothing if they were sprinkled in salt” (line 6-7), because in such a case, it defies the male “mystery” that is to be “reenacted” (line 19) later on in her sexual life. It pleased her to see the unknowing slugs grow before her very eyes (lines 8-16), a fascinating experience that is repeated when she “first saw a naked man” (line 17). The sexual experience reaches a climax when the “sensitive knobs would pop out the ends, delicate and intimate” (lines 15-16), the persona’s way of reacting to the climbing pleasure begun by the emerging “antennae up out of [a slug’s] head, the glimmering umber horns/rising like telescopes” (lines 12-14). She feels the same way later on; she “could weep” (line 22) because the mystery of her dominatrix past with some snaillike creatures is unfolding yet again in the form of a naked man’s growing penis, which she sees as “eager and so/trusting” (lines 21-22) in her presence unlike her historical slugs which enlarge only when they mistakenly forget she “was there” (line 11). The intense reaction of the persona—she could weep—embodies the typical reaction of females over a consummated desire or a progressively mounting desire. It may just be sex, but that is also a form of love and her reaction is so overwhelming because associating the emotion with a distant hobby makes her realize that the delight she is feeling is not new all along. She was a connoisseuse before and, with her parallel experiences of pleasure, it is clear to her that her expertise did not fade away, after all.
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