Two Kim Addonizio Poems About Desire

Kim Addonizio wants it. To hell with all the constraints and niceties, the prim and proper, the “Oh no, don’t worry about me”-isms, the good Christian girl’s reticence and restraint, bland wallflowerism reigning supreme.

Ditto Buddhist non-attachment. Bosh! on all that pretending not to care or hope or want because you might not get it, or might fall short, or it might not be that good anyway, or it will just make you want more, and then you’ll be disconsolate, sobbing quietly into your pillow in some corner of your upstairs bedroom so as not to bother Mom and Dad.

“Damn right I’ll want more!” Addonizio has been roaring, often in desperate, despairing, haunting, but rarely wordless and never quiet straits through a now long writing career focused initially and still on poetry, but also coming to include well-received fiction, short stories, writing guides and memoir.

A kind of resident bad girl of Bay Area poetry since her first volume was published in 1994 (six more have followed), Addonizio’s poems are always accessible, streetwise and unflinching, often startling in their raw depiction of raw emotion, of a body and soul laid bare in all their need and mess and (always transitory, because everything is) triumph.

No, she is not insatiable, but she knows and feels and writes all too well that no matter how full she feels today, she will be hungry, in every sense of that term, and on the prowl again tomorrow, and apologetic for none of it.



So we come to two poems from her 2000 volume, “Tell Me,” a finalist for the National Book Award, that richly illustrate the above. They show Addonizio not only as a poet drunk with desire to take all of life into herself, no holds or emotions barred, but also with an assured sense of craft and emotional pitch that allows her to layer inexhaustible texture onto whatever she addresses.

She may be a “material girl,” in Madonna’s song of that title, but Addonizio pursues intense immersion in the world not for status, comfort or treasure, but for knowledge and reckoning with mortality and the ever elusive notions of the ground of being under it all.

In that pursuit, she bumps up hard against the limits that always bring an end to the raucous night out, the passionate tryst, the salmon struggling upstream, the very effort to write poetry about it all.

And then, the snapshots: her former tennis star mother suddenly revealed as turning a corner toward feeble; her teenage daughter just as suddenly turning her own corner as a sexual being; the dark, barely discernible grace of a garbage dump; her own impotence in observing a desperate woman trying to get back into a house her man has locked her out of.

Here are a few others.

                                  FOR DESIRE

Give me the strongest cheese, the one that stinks best;
And I want the good wine, the swirl in crystal
Surrendering the bruised scent of blackberries
Or cherries, the rich spurt in the back
Of the throat, the holding it there before swallowing
Give me the lover who yanks open the door
Of his house and presses me to the wall
In the dim hallway, and keeps me there until I’m drenched
And shaking, whose kisses arrive by the boatload
And begin their delicious diaspora
Through the cities and small towns of my body
To hell with the saints, with martyrs
Of my childhood meant to instruct me
In the power of endurance and faith
To hell with the next world and its pallid angels
Swooning and sighing like Victorian girls
I want this world. I want to walk into
The ocean and feel it trying to drag me along
Like I’m nothing but a broken bit of scratched glass
And I want to resist it. I want to go
Staggering and flailing my way
Through the bars and back rooms
Through the gleaming hotels and weedy
Lots of abandoned sunflowers and the parks
Where dogs are let off their leashes
In spite of the signs, where they sniff each
Other and roll together in the grass, I want to
Lie down somewhere and suffer for love until
It nearly kills me, and then I want to get up again
And put on that little black dress and wait
For you, yes you, to come over here
And get down on your knees and tell me
Just how fucking good I look.

There’s much to like there, not only the raw appetite for life and more life that it reflects, but also the delicious imagery it uses to state the writer’s well-considered need.

From the “rich spurt” of berries announcing their presence at the back of her throat to her lover’s kisses beginning “their delicious diaspora/Through the cities and small towns” of her body, to her willingness to “suffer for love until/It nearly kills” her, we know we are in the presence of someone who does not and will not ever go gently into either the day or night, who is resolute about life not passing her by, about not spectatoring her way through even a minute of it, whatever scars and other burdens she will come to bear for the effort.

All ending with the hedonistic and ego-driven desire to be told how “fucking good” she looks.

Yes, that too…




I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

So: the critics proclaimed and audiences lapped up “I Am Woman” as a rebel’s feminist manifesto, did they?

In that 1971 anthem, Helen Reddy sang:

I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman 

Fair enough. But Addonizio would never think to bestride that stage.

Distilled, streetified, drained of all abstraction and middle class sentimentality, Addonizio’s same basic statement focuses not on lofty invincibility but on ferocity, on a “(goddamned) red dress…flimsy and cheap,” the words bathed self-consciously and assertively in material, working-class want.

Want of this very world and her very body, unapologetic about wanting it “bad.” A want and a dress so fierce that it would confirm an observer’s (most likely male, but female, too) “worst fears” about its wearer.

A dress that isn’t just a dress, but bespeaks a long and tragic course of human history, with all its oppressions and misogyny, its wearer walking down the city streets, bold, defiant, and not about to give it up for anyone or anything, ever.

And of course: red. No other color could possibly do.



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“For Desire” and “What Women Want” from the volume, “Tell Me” (2000), copyright BOA Editions 

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Fire and rose by Zach Vessels, Fort Wayne, Indiana

Want by Christian Lue, Stuttgart, Germany

Addonizio at home by Johnna Crawford, from the author’s website

6 comments to Two Kim Addonizio Poems About Desire

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I would imagine that a high school librarian who placed Kim Addonizio’s“Tell Me” on the school’s women lit shelf might find NOW and the school board showing up at her doorstep with tar, feathers and a pink slip. Figuratively speaking, it’s understandable. After all, in literature, women have had a tough time of it. Lady Macbeth receives more bad press than Macbeth, despite the fact he murdered King Duncan. Lady Chatterley found herself exiled from the public for thirty-odd years because she preferred sex with the gardener to her baron (possibly barren, too) husband. Twelve-year old Lolita receives little sympathy after being raped by middle-aged Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty. There’s more than a little trace of “she deserved it” mentality going on here. Clytemnestra, long considered one of the vilest women in literature, stabbed her husband Agamemnon to death in a bathtub. However, lest not forget that he sacrificed their daughter to please a god and committed adultery with a rather youthful Trojan princess. I suppose a good number of people might consider Ms. Addonizio’s raw imagery of a woman’s pent-up sexual desire a bridge too far. Drew, it’ll be interesting to see how your “fairer sex” respondents react to these poems.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Only one subscription cancellation so far, Robert, so not too bad! Thanks for the fine rundown of all the raw-deal female literary figures in history—now we just multiply that by the few billion actual women who have suffered similar fates and we get a better sense of the state of things, truth tracking or even outdoing fiction as it regularly does…

      Would indeed be interesting to see if Kim A. has been discovered and thus canceled by watchdogs from the right. I’ll try to find out. Want to emphasize, though, that her passion & desire go far beyond the sexual, into every other nook and cranny of life she comes across. The sexual is certainly part of it, sex being, you know—sex—but it’s also metaphor for great big other matters in which she and so many other women have had quite enough of constraint, guilt & oppression. A red dress is never, after all, just a red dress…

    • Marianne Sonntag  says:

      Andrew, yes, yes! Your beginning paragraphs describe so well the judgement passed on women who dare express themselves fully and artfully. I must read more from Kim, as I can relate to the poems you’ve shared with both smiles and tears as she evokes some sleepy memory of myself in much earlier times and wishing I had polished my rebellion as fine as she has. To unabashedly speak her truth with gusto, she doesn’t worry who would gasp in disapproval, but instead asks you to join her in greater appreciation of the feeling and sensing gifts women were given.
      To the mysoginistic and Victorian critics who call her shameful and embarrassing and too expressive (TMI), I call her courageous hero.

      • Andrew Hidas  says:

        Well, there’s a lot there to chew on, Marianne, including the line “polished my rebellion,” whoa yes, kudos for that! And before I completely leave the stylistic realm, the fine “gusto-gasp” alliteration, too. Messed around a little with poetry in your life, have ya?

        I sometimes hear young women today half-sneer at the word “feminism” as some sort of outmoded relic, maybe OK for the time but mostly comprised of stodgy old hags, too angry by half. Which would fall into the head-in-hand category of “No good deeds go unpunished,” to be sure. I always emphasized to my daughter, and still try to when the opportunity presents, how so very little in front of her life was even imaginable to women of not that long ago, and how many women before her risked and lost everything for the privileges women today can much too easily ignore, dismiss, or take for granted. It brings to mind that fine phrase, “standing on the shoulders of giants,” which is actually far more applicable to women than men, given that the inherent difficulties of every life have always been magnified 10 or 100-fold for female lives.

        My take on Kim A. is that probably her dominant metaphor for all that lies in sexual liberation, often of a, shall we say, extremely earthy sensibility. That’s her door-opener to everything else we’re talking about in terms of female empowerment, identity, assertiveness and self-acceptance. (Including the assertion of a much less overtly sexual identity than she presents—after all, tastes & preferences, turn-ons & amusements vary, and to each her own…) That’s why I suspect she’ll remain an important poet over time, rather than be relegated to someone simply preoccupied with sex. There’s an awful lot behind all that, as a good number of critics and her fellow contemporary poets have long realized.

        Thanks for this!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Her poetry makes for a good back-and-forth. It stirs up deep emotions on all demographic fronts. Still, there needs to be discourse in order to foster any kind of understanding & that is why blogs like this one are so essential.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Don’t know if you intended it, but that “back-and-forth” calls to mind her tennis champion mother: Thwack>>>thwack<<>>! :-)

      (Metaphor everywhere…)

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