Photo by Darren Gantt via Flickr.

Suppose you made a taxonomy of kisses in their vast variety: the kiss on the cheek of a child heading out for the day, the kiss on the forehead you give a friend departing after she’s unburdened herself in a long conversation, the complex vocabulary of kisses between the long-coupled, who signal through them a host of things. But those aren’t the kisses you really want to study.

Could you name the kisses of lovers, distinguishing their nuances, the shades of passion? You would like to do the research for this. But then you realize it’s what you have been doing, what you are doing, what you plan to do.


A catalogue, a collection of kisses, each one documented by a sentence, a sketch, or a photograph. It could be digitized, like Emily Dickinson’s herbarium in the exhibit at the Morgan Library; touch the stems or leaves you like on the screen and a new window shows you Latin and common names, uses, culture, references to the plant in her poetry. But in the great album of kisses, the master text, there would have to be so much room! The sorts of kisses which are invitations, their degree of fervor indicating greater urgency or intensity. The lips-shut small kiss you give to the shut lips of a man heading out your door in the morning when you don’t plan to see him more than just this once, and you know he’s already made the same decision. The different sort of closed-lip small kiss you give him when it’s his apartment you’re leaving. Is there room, in the imaginarium, for the kisses you’ve withheld? Because they wouldn’t have been welcomed? Or you were afraid they would be welcome, and promised too much, and then you’d somehow have to make room for that?  Or the kiss withheld because you knew someone wanted it, and you weren’t about to give him that?


When ____ used to kiss me I felt he was hitting my mouth, striking at me with the teeth beneath his lips. Why didn’t I stop him?


My mother’s kiss, when it came, always seem to carry with it a small disturbance of air which carried her scents: a floral soap from Mexico, lipstick, coffee, a bracing whiff of alcohol from the neck of a just-opened bottle of vodka.


The first time I kissed __ we were standing on a fire escape, at night, behind an old hotel, and there were freight cars moving on the tracks beneath us, tracks that spread in all directions into the snow.


You’re just warming up to the one kiss you really want to talk about.


When that kiss comes, it doesn’t matter that you’ve known him for a few years, in an easy way: lightweight, sexy, and pleasant, something breezy about it, as if he blew in now and then on a wind arrived from a climate where gravity doesn’t work as hard as it seems to in New York. He always seemed young, not especially attached, though perhaps that’s because he just hasn’t told you much. You always like him, his freshness and his enthusiasm for pleasure, which is why you keep seeing him again, though the expectation’s just for a few bright hours.

And then, as we say, out of the blue, out of nowhere, without anything obvious changing, something shifts, imperceptibly but clearly, like the atmosphere after a storm:

magnetic charge, ions, something in the clockworks.  There’s a newly opened space, an aperture in which the kiss can take place. You’re lying together, face to face and half undressed, you’ve done this many times, but the unexpected way your torsos fall into each other, unwilled, is the overture, and as your faces come together the kiss, before it’s a kiss, is a fuse that begins a long burn, a nearly visible black sparkle traversing more distance than you’d imagine, coiling through the space between you in two directions, into his chest as well as into yours. Hello, light and heat, hello next-ness, and then

his beauty laid out like an entire field of candles in yellow grass. You saw it before but never saw it, not all lit like this. Hello.

His beauty an explosion inside a clear room at the bottom of the ocean, the shock wave just now reaching you,

beauty the defining character of his body, but not resident there only, connected instead to something larger, above him: free-floating cloud, suddenly ours in common, spilling down into me until I’m lit up also, a cove of small waves crested by phosphorous.

The kiss is immense, although you understand at once—not a thought exactly, more a felt sensation—that its intimacy is what allows for this tremendous scale. Does the kiss even have an edge? It goes on, in every way; why would you want it to stop, except to take stock a second, to catch your breath so you can dive into that wave again?

And go under, and dive again.

It takes a while to know that the space in which you live, the element in which your body moves, has changed. From here on out? With each immersion, you are less contained. To be that desired, what is that? To have that opening, that entrance awaiting you, to know it’s there. To dissolve the edges of you, that it isn’t just the mouth, just the body that is opened by the kiss.

From the first moment you know that the kiss is a fact, as real as this table and chair, both utter promise and total trouble. If this is in the world, this possibility, if you know the address of such a place, where the flaming meadow and the glowing wavelets dwell in the late hours together, where his beauty is the solvent in which you both are dissolved and remade in the crazy furnace of the kiss, why would you want to be anywhere else? It’s an imperative, a summons, a bell. And what are you going to do about that?


The Kiss is a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner.

The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers is available from Norton in February 2018.

Mark Doty

Mark Doty is the author of more than ten volumes of poetry and three memoirs. His many honors include the National Book Award; National Book Critics Circle Award; the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction; the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; a Whiting Writers’ Award; a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award; and, in the UK, the T. S. Eliot Prize. He is a professor at Rutgers University and lives in New York City.

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