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Loving It in Print

lady reading

'The Sex Box' is great
bedside reading for VD

By Gretchen Giles

GUT LIVE hummingbirds. Dry the hearts and powder them. Sprinkle the powder on a desired one. So advises "Gumbo Ya-Ya," an anonymously written almost-poem on the secret arts of winning over a loved one.

Consume the delicate testicles of spring lambs; daub a Eucharist wafer with semen; crunch down the water of a celery stalk. Any of these edibles will help induce lascivious feelings in one--so says essayist W.L. Howard, writing on aphrodisiacs in 1896.

The bed is where the heart is, at least according to the authors collected in The Sex Box. Coyly declaring authorship by "anonymous," this anthology--edited in fact by one John Miller--is a provocative compendium of the arcane and the erotic. Split into three volumes--"Man," "Woman" and "Sex"--that slide comfortably into one firm box, these readings range widely from the teachings of the Kama Sutra to Anäis Nin's Delta of Venus to a lengthy essay by Havelock Ellis on the joys of foot fetishism (in which he not once mentions smell).

Luridly titled in flame-colored letters, the books in this series can't be told by their covers. Spending one I-love-my-job afternoon curled up in my office with jazz vocalist Betty Carter coolly swinging on the CD player, I began naturally enough with "Woman," which itself begins naturally enough with a recipe.

Curiously (and freed erotic impulses are nothing if not curious) citing sauerkraut as a childhood love begotten from a sick day spent doing nothing but watching cows cud grass, writer Sabrina Sedgewick craves the stewed stuff after lovemaking. First she simmers it with plenty of phallic images (read: sausages) and with shreds of the very fruit of temptation itself, the apple. Sedgewick next recommends putting her casserole on the heat before making languorous two-hour love, then decamping nude to the table to savor the meal.

An excerpt from Pauline Réage's famous 1959 The Story of O concerns itself as much with the vagaries of female dress as it does with submission and seduction, while Nin's Delta of Venus selection centers on the erotic components of a heavy silver belt and long blonde hair.

Food, clothes, hair and sex: all this "girl shit" is presented in such an adult manner that you almost forgive Miller's collective metaphor. That's particularly true when reading Christina Rossetti's long 1859 "Goblin Market" poem, which fairly bursts its juicy seams with images of ripened breast-heavy fruit waiting to be taken into the mouth like a strawberry in Tess.

The selections in "Man" begin jovially, with ancient Roman author Ovid (he of the Metamorphoses) describing a midday nap delightfully eclipsed by the appearance of a disrobing woman who joins him on his couch. He ends rapturously, "Jove send me more afternoons as this!"

Sixteenth-century Arabic author Muhammed Al-Nefzawi's writings on gymnastic sexual positions include convoluted descriptions of such lovemaking techniques as "the fitter-in," "the coitus of sheep," the beauteous "rainbow arch" and "frog fashion"--the latter as complicated as an engineer's wet dream.

PLEASURES of a mutual order play out in "Sex," boasting what must surely have been the first printing of the phrase "flying fuck"--Thomas Rowlandson's 19th-century poem "Pretty Little Games"--which describes a lass riding her "steed" to ecstasy. Running the gamut from a sweetly told night of fellatio in 19th-century China to Ellis' toe tales to the matter-of-facts of anthropologist Margaret Mead, the slim "Sex" volume gives us more from the sage Vatsyayana, who advises differing methods of slapping one's partner to euphoria, but who saps any appeal from the idea of orgy, terming it the "congress of a herd of cows."

Most compelling of all is Molly Bloom's sweet surrender to joy taken from James Joyce's Ulysses, found in the "Man" volume. Joyce's familiar breathless run, occupied with such homebody concerns as mustache cups and the always-present lack of money and the need for clean linens, builds as surely as an orgasm to its final, glorious assertion of the act of love. Yes.

The Sex Box, edited by John Miller; Chronicle Books; 558 pages; $29.95 cloth.

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From the February 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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