by Julia Bouwsma | Contributing Writer
“Poets are interested primarily in death and commas,” wrote Ursuala K. Le Guin in Steering the Craft, quoting the poet Carolyn Kizer. The first joke of this truth lies in the obvious contrast of a weighty and universal fear against a concern that likely appears quite trivial to anyone not a poet. But this statement speaks, also, to the poet’s essential challenge—to construct a poem which is a true organic embodiment of its own message, language tied so closely to form that the two weave a basket in which the poem may carry itself, vessel and contents inseparable. Death: the ultimate lurking abstraction. The comma: a metonym for the poem’s physical body. This is the primal tension that has fevered poems from ancient times to modern, from free to formal verse. And so it is no surprise that for as long as there has been poetry, poets have also turned this struggle upon themselves in a multitude of ways, fascinated with the countless frictions posed by the problem of the human body—the conflicts that arise as the abstract self rubs up against the corporeal house of its own body, the body’s often fumbling attempts to root itself to the world’s surrounding physical landscape, the self’s perilous attempts to navigate its various and complex relationships to others and to history.
Two new poetry collections, Natalie J. Graham’s Begin with a Failed Body (winner of the 2016 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, selected by Kwame Dawes) and Brittany Perham’s Double Portrait (winner of the 2016 Barnard Women Poets Prize, selected by Claudia Rankine), offer a wonderful and particularly interesting opportunity to examine these critical questions of self and body. Though the books torque around a common obsession, they approach their subject through strikingly different formal and stylistic lenses and spaces.
Graham’s Begin with a Failed Body is composed primarily of physical, lush, sometimes ragged free verse poems—poems that speak both to the richness and ruin of history and teem with all that is earthy and corporeal: “goitrous squashes,” cages of rabbits “thumping their jumpless limbs,” “A tornado of flies,” “this heart like a greasy frog,” the “sick black willow body” that “weeps pitch.” For Graham, the problem of the body—specifically Black bodies, beginning with her own—is a relentlessly tangible lineage of trauma, held not only in her own body and in the bodies of her family members, but in the features that mark the landscape of the U.S. South, in biblical narratives, and in memory, which, as Kwame Dawes writes in the book’s foreword, “is both disturbingly persistent in its accuracy and profoundly unreliable in its details.” Graham’s is a landscape sculpted of the body, of the centuries of violence the Black body has faced: “Look at this flesh, this hand, this broken bone. / Make stone. Make stone. Make stone.” It is a world in which the act of creation is fraught with harm but is also the only way to survive, as in “Something Sacred,” one of a series of poems that chronicle a mother’s slow death by cancer: “the sheet is bloody / with ink; the pen threatens, // like an uncapped syringe, to prick her.” Throughout the collection, Graham moves us seamlessly from the human world to the natural to the mythic and back, following generational cycles of rupture and restoration repeated with the frenzy of the red-winged blackbird futilely and tirelessly building a nest in a willow tree: “Abandons, rebuilds, / abandons. Rebuilds to keep / young from nursing flies with blood.”
By contrast to the raw and resonant physicality of Graham’s poems, Perham’s Double Portrait seems postmodern and remote, almost sterile at times. Here we enter the book as if its pages were the exquisitely polished halls of a museum. Our first encounter is with an instructional preface explaining that the poems have archival numbers rather than titles, that the ordering of poems “is neither linear nor fixed,” and that “the way you proceed through each room is up to you, and may change each time you enter.” Each portrait is paired with another (though it’s up to the reader to make the connections), each displaying one side of a two-sided relationship—whether it be between lovers, parent and child, or body and spirit—an exercise organically reflected in Perham’s formal choices. She favors pantoums and mirror rhymes, and her poems are playfully musical—a mastery of repetition and echo. They ripple with a cryptic and intoxicating sing-song cadence, producing a mesmerizing energy that pulls the reader through the book as if gliding. Indeed, the physicality of Perham’s poems often lies as much (if not more) in her use of sound and in the poems’ resulting sense of movement than in imagery. She uses form to tease out and either blur or establish the boundaries in relationships, the borders where one body or life joins to another, asking in “DP.b.13,” a poem that suggests the end of a relationship: “If there is no rhyme, and no meter, how do you find the boundary / of the line? It seems now that every line should end with ‘you’…”
Central to both Perham’s and Graham’s collections are questions surrounding the idea of physical proximity, and the different ways in which they choose to employ and engage proximity are striking. Graham utilizes a nearly panoramic lens. The body may be the constant focal point, but it is always an inseparable part and product of its surrounding landscape. We see this from the first lines of the opening poem, “Junior Choir Recessional”:
This is where you wait among the filthy hills,
of sinking graves and broken stones,
sweating in a crimson polyester robe,
where you wait for water to make
you clean, wait for the hunger to come and pass.
Thus our very first view of the body in Begin with a Failed Body is of a small “you” pressed in among a terrain pocked by history’s scars. The body and landscape—both dirty, both shown as passive and waiting, waiting, waiting—are presented as parallels to one another. It is a theme we see again and again in Graham’s work: that there is a history of trauma that lives both in the body and in the land. That this history threatens to destroy the body, through generation after generation—to erase it, to erode it to rubble until it is surrendered into landscape. As Graham writes in “The Way of the Shrine”:
We become terrain. First a body
then a shrine,
then a road marker
furnishing a crowded landscape.
The Black body must actively fight this legacy of erasure in order to survive. At each turn the land—an overgrown and neglected embodiment of history—attempts to eclipse it. “I can’t heal myself without cutting down branches,” writes Graham in “To Hurt You (Reprise).” The struggle of the body not to disappear under the weight of its landscape is one that continues without solution throughout the book, ultimately withering into futility in the final poem, “An Element of Blank (Ophelia Reprise)” as “Night swelled while she shrank” and “Everyday grief multiplied, / vines in a wretched, lush garden.”
Perham’s poems, on the other hand, are indeed portraits—deeply intimate close-ups that seem to reveal as much about those taking them as they do about her subjects. Always the bodies in her poems are acutely aware of seeing and of being seen, as in “DP.b.10”: “With my two thumbs I opened her / Got darker got serious / She let me look as one who has been looked at / Can stand to be looked at can like it…” Often the moments Perham captures are sensual and private. At other times, they portray the daily messy and petty grievances of relationships—her fluctuating lines reinforcing the back-and-forth power play created by what lovers choose to offer or withhold, as in “DP.b.02”:
I leave my bowl in the sink
till you wash it you do it
so loudly it wakes me
up nasty you make
the coffee I drink it I’m a little
more with it so I make the bed
I’d like to be praised
You’d like some help
With the dishrack it’s molding
Yet even in the poems’ most intimate moments, there is frequently the sense that something is being held at bay—an element of subtle absence, of distance, or dislocation that is perhaps intrinsic to the very nature of the portrait, where each moment or emotion is ultimately mounted, pressed behind glass, archived, and preserved. This tendency toward dissociation seems to be one part the result of Perham’s playfulness and ingenuity and one part the product of a learned dissociation from living in a constantly mirroring, stylized, self-conscious world.
In Graham’s poems, erasure is a direct and continually looming physical threat—a powerful force laden with the weight of history that seeks to disappear the body, to swallow it whole into the landscape, a tidal current of destruction which each generation must actively fight against in order to survive. In Perham’s poems, however, the greater threat seems to be an intangible and gnawing neurosis generated from inside the self. Whereas in Graham’s poems mental and physical anguish are bound sinew to sinew until they are essentially inseparable, in Perham’s poems there seems to be a translucent wall placed between intellect and emotion, between body and self. We see such dislocation most agonizingly in poems addressed directly to the body such as “DP.agp.30” where the “I” attempts to control the body, ordering it to obey (“Lazy Body, / make the bed, I said. There was wine around the mouth.”), the speaker commanding and torturing the body for its resistance until “I dragged it from the bed and let my body / see itself in the full-length mirror … Stop feeling pain! I commanded…Body? / But it was the only thing either of us knew how to feel.” Here, as with the dissociative practicing self-injury in order to simply feel something, pain is the only thing that brings the self and the body back together. But more often the sense of distance in Perham’s poems generates a wry tone. In contrast to Graham, erasure seems to exist more as conceit for Perham, as a tool used for poetic emphasis, rather than as a tangible threat to one’s physical existence. In “DP.wor.99,” for example, a four-page poem featuring the repeated phrase “_____ people,” erasure becomes a device that simultaneously politicizes the body and distances it:
in this land _____ people may follow certain adj. + noun phrases with any
combination of verb prepositional phrase direct object indirect object to make
certain grammatical generalizations but for _____ people this is a risky matter
generalization about ______ people is a risky matter
generalization by ______ people is an especially risky matter
there are consequences for ______ people yes for ______ people!
Here the body is visually erased, silenced, excised from its landscape, reduced to jargon. Intellectualization, like a plate of museum glass, offers a safe distance from which to muse, a distance which, Perham seems to be showing us, is both a proximity of privilege and a suffocating trap.
If Perham cultivates distance, even as she exposes the body as portrait in its most intimate or awkward moments, then Graham seeks physical proximity, even as history’s surrounding landscape threatens to devour the bodies she loves. In both collections, truly seeing the body for what it is, including all of the hurt that it carries, requires a delicate and shifting dance, a continuous series of small and seamless gestures. And though they approach it quite differently—Perham through formal rhyme schemes and her luxurious and mesmerizing use of sound; Graham through sharply calibrated images, and the gentle, sweeping panoramic of her rich imagination—both poets are masters of this dance. And this is because it’s the dance itself they’re after, the process. It’s a futile undertaking after all—in the end there’s no saving the self from the body, no saving the body from the self. If there is redemption to be found, then this is where it lies: in the human form, its multitude of small pleasures ultimately so indistinguishable from its multitude of small griefs. “The body saves us, / even as we are dying, from the last futile pain,” writes Graham. And what happens then, after the body is gone, after it has failed? “Finally, wonder. / Wonder remains.”
Julia Bouwsma is the author of MIDDEN (Fordham University Press, forthcoming 2018) and Work by Bloodlight (Cider Press Review, 2017). Her work appears in Bellingham Review, Grist Online, Muzzle, Salamander, RHINO, River Styx, and other journals. She lives and works on an off-the-grid farm in the mountains of western Maine where she serves as Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and as Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.