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The Evolution of a Kiss

The Kiss: Everything human has its animal origins.
Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku. Source image: Hubbard, J.G. and O.S. Strong, Virgin Queens and Major and Minor Workers. In Ants: Their Structure, Development and Behavior. New York: Columbia University Press, 1910.

Let it begin. Not at the beginning, but with ants, maybe, unacknowledged makers of this world they are, opening capillaries in the soil so it might breathe. Let it begin with ants, a highway of them in and out of their busy kingdom, the tickle of their hinged antenna in greeting, a chemical exchange, then a kind of flirtation—the beckoning of mandibles, a barely audible tap-tap-tap not unlike pebbles thrown up at the midnight window of a beautiful girl. We want to say everything begins with us, that creatures feel the way we do, so scientists will tell us not to be fooled into thinking this is a kiss. But watch as one nestmate joins another at its mouth—from one to the other flows sustenance, a body-warmed surplus of sweetness.

Then let’s skip ahead, a step up, past the lizards, up into the air, to birds. The milkcrop of pigeons and flamingos, how their throats swell for their young, their tongues dripping a necessary curd into waiting, hungry mouths. Or all those nest hatchlings with beaks brightly marked on the inside that, opened wide, make for a mother’s beak a bright directive, a diamond-shaped landing pad. Then there is something closer to what we know of a kiss—courtship feeding, all those cardinals and kingfishers passing treats between them as maybe you did at the back of the school bus, an exchange of chewed gum in lieu of a for-real smooch. We cannot call these avian offerings a kiss, not exactly, but still, Darwin knew something we hesitate to admit. When he wrote “they fell in love with one another,” it was no remark about a Victorian courtship—he was talking about a pair of ducks.

So let us not make a kiss into an abstraction.

Obscenely rushed, but you know what’s next: the mammal tongue, warm with its own blood, decked with a surface to taste and scour the one place another animal cannot reach on its own body—its head and face. There is logic here, how each furred being can only groom itself with the lay of its own hair, but groomed by another, the cleanse is deeper, dislodging what needs to be removed, a taste that digs against the grain. Here too is the fox lapping the face of his mate, the nipping of hyenas and nuzzling of rats, the puckering chimps, the male elephant in musth—his face inviting taste, literally seeping with desire.

So let us not make a kiss into an abstraction, a metaphor planted on your own palm and blown into the air. Because everything human has its animal beginnings. The kiss—born of an empire of tongue and spit, of hunger and itch—is a break in the dam separating two beings that agree, yes, please touch me there. An insane gesture, at least on paper, to open our most necessary and vulnerable aperture and surrender it to another, to give over that place with which we eat and speak and breathe.

I didn’t know I’d found my wife yet and would not know for years what I had found, but my mouth knew.

For me, this long song leads to East Eleventh Street, New York. Nine years ago now, maybe ten. Leaning in her doorway, the taste of her mouth stained with the aftertaste of pomegranate tea. It was the first time I was close enough to see how shallow the divot at the base of her neck, to smell something of the city’s traffic in her hair. I didn’t know I’d found my wife yet and would not know for years what I had found, but my mouth knew. My tongue knew. And the creatures before me, they knew too. The whole aching chorus of them, all the way back to single-celled beasts who swallowed each other whole not to eat but to make what was two into one. That first night, that evening in December, our first kiss was already wired deep within. I am no scientist, but still, I try to count the ages that made that risk; I count and bless the thirty-four muscles of my human face that made that kiss.


Nickole Brown received her MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied literature at Oxford University, was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson, and worked for ten years at Sarabande Books. Her first collection, Sister, was published in 2007 by Red Hen Press, and Fanny Says came out from BOA Editions in 2015. She was an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years until she gave up her beloved time in the classroom in hope of writing full time. Currently, she is the editor of the Marie Alexander Series in Prose Poetry and lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville, NC.

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