Birthday weekend! I’m doing my best to celebrate, but I’m blessed with some fantastically flaky friends, so it’s like herding cats to get anyone to do anything. (And the Fellow is at work until 6. Hrmph.) Meanwhile, had some good submission news yesterday, which I’ll share when the poem is up: it’s one that I’ve actually sent to a different issue of the same publication before, for a different theme. (And I’ve sent it around elsewhere as well, to no avail.) The submissions this week remind me to pitch Khara House‘s challenge for next month to submit something every day, which I intend to try. I exhort you all to do the same!
This week: “body of work”
I was thinking about this phrase, and how bodies appear in poems. We often make myths out of bodies, as Shakespeare snarkily pointed out with his mistress’ eyes, etc.; by and large, I think we’re uncomfortable with being straight up about the fact that we’re meat, and oils, and saltwater, and musk, and electrical energy. (Mind and soul notwithstanding, that’s what most of the body is, not what it seems like.) And that’s okay — it’s a wonderful exercise in metaphor and simile to both come up with some description for our bodies or the bodies of others, and to avoid all the trite ones that have been done before. But I believe that to really be firmly grounded in truth on one side of a dividing line, you need to explore the other. So if your body and body-part poems tend to be clinical and/or mysterious, we’re going to practice coming to grips with this fleshy bag of blood we wear around.
Begin by brushing up on some basic anatomy. How many bones are there? What does blood consist of? Can you name ten muscles? Brainstorm for a little while, free-writing a list of factoids and questions about the body, yours or someone else’s. Try to keep this in mind: what are a body’s unique identifying features that you can’t see on the outside? And have a little fun: try lifting up individual toes, standing on one foot with your eyes closed, or doing ten jumping-jacks, to remind yourself of the interconnectedness of all your parts. Spend some time to get to know yourself.
Now pick out the three rawest things from your free-write. They don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) be lyrical, as that will come later, but simply true and interesting. Did you have a compound fracture when you were ten? Great. Born without a right pectoral (like someone I met at a party once)? Even better. Fascinated by the appearance of muscle tissue stretched under the skin? Awesome. For myself, maybe I’d pick the constant growing pains in my knees, sparse armpit hair, and the exact length of time it takes caffeine to hit me like a ton of bricks. Try to grab hold of things you never write about: if you have to do eyes, hands, and mouths, pick the parts that don’t get enough play (the sclera, the carpal bones, the gumline).
Now, peel apart the feature you have chosen. You may want to do some research on this, since I imagine most of us are not doctors or biologists. Learn about the nerves, muscles, bones (if applicable), and other tissues that make up the thing you’re describing. Make a list of these terms to use in your poem. But more importantly, look at the function of the pieces, and how they all fit together. This is what we want to echo in the poem, and where to expand the mind in a poetic direction. If the limb or organ in question has a muscle attached with contracts to do an action, how will your poem show contraction? If there is a nerve ending particularly sensitive to pain, how will you represent a pain threshold?
Let’s say I go with the knees again:
You can’t stop growing up, even when you try.
Even when you try, there is always something unlearned
learned by the secret compartments of the body.
Of the body, I’ve discovered a piece at a time: and I keep it all,
all locked up in knees and elbows, the secret of doubling,
doubling, duplicating, hardening until the weight of it,
it bends me backwards and I can’t stand straight.
The context of this is that, being rather tall, I had growing pains right up through my early 20s, which have (knock on wood) mercifully come to an end; they used to keep me awake at night. (Now I just have regular old run-of-the-mill joint pains as they arise. Thanks, yoga!) So there is the idea of growing, as well as the knees-and-elbows reference; I tried to link the lines together as well to give an idea of bones connecting, I suppose. (If I had more time with this, I’d probably try to do something more clever, but this is just an example piece, so there.) Developed further, I could try to drop more terms from the structure of the knee (the bursa, the patella, the ACL), and represent its function through the lines (how does a poem run, flex, and jump?), as well as maintain the imagery of growth and solidification that never seems to finish.
I don’t want to suggest that talking about bodily processes for what they are can’t be beautiful and interesting: the challenge is to find the beautiful and the interesting without resorting to any kind of obscuring language. And there is a difference between language that obscures and language that embellishes. If I talk about impatient cells dividing / until they seem prepared to burst their calcified levees, I’m animating them and giving some decoration to the words, but if I say something like I almost feel as though / I’m approaching a Malthusian crisis of the knees, what the hell does that mean? People are usually guilty of doing this kind of thing with the more sensitive body parts (genitalia, diseases, etc.), but watch out for it. You may surprise yourself with how much you obfuscate even something as straightforward as your hands.
So now that you have an idea of what to go for, you can take a couple different approaches. You can string all three ideas together and create an interconnected body, using some of the same structures of line and sound to give connective tissue to the parts. Or you can think about disease and injury and ways to tear these structure down, if you want to be melancholy about it. And of course, you don’t have to talk about your own body; you can meditate on the beauty, horror, or fascination of someone else’s. (There’s a retold story I’ve been meaning to steal and retell in poem form for a while that fits this mold; maybe this will be my chance.) Medical oddity can be a wonderful source of inspiration, provided you handle it with the correct sensitivity.
Play around with it. And somewhere in the middle of this process, stop and dance, get the blood moving around a little bit. Do some yoga. What good is writing about the subject you carry around constantly if you can’t stop and enjoy it once in a while?