“The body is a multilingual being. It speaks through its colour and its temperature, the flush of recognition, the glow of love, the ash of pain, the heat of arousal, the coldness of non-conviction. It speaks through its constant tiny dance, sometimes swaying, sometimes a-jitter, sometimes trembling. It speaks through the leaping of the heart, the falling of the spirit, the pit at the centre, and rising hope. The body remembers, the bones remember, the joints remember, even the little finger remembers. Memory is lodged in pictures and feelings in the cells themselves. Like a sponge filled with water, anywhere the flesh is pressed, wrung, even touched lightly, a memory may flow out in a stream.”
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
In my 20s, my body was life-giving – literally. For most of that decade, and into my early 30s, another body depended on my body for survival. My body was the very definition of creativity and sustenance in such a way that in the decade that followed, it felt like a stranger, like returning to an empty nest. For so long, it had spoken to me in the language of housing, of nourishment, of comfort for my children.
When I turned 40 last July, I looked at every inch of my body and stopped long enough to listen. I discovered that my body had anthology of poetry waiting for me.
The body is a poem. It searches for meaning beyond the senses. It organizes itself according to emotion of the insides. It beholds the mundane as miraculous – the beating of the heart, the rhythmic breath, the birth and death of every cell.
If the body is a poem, then I am guilty of misreading it. I am guilty of assuming it was speaking a language I would never translate into understanding. Alienated at times, I did not pay attention to its regular cadence and comforting verse. I only heard fragments of a once familiar vocabulary. My conflict with it echoes that of James Baldwin’s with the English language, and in particular, his initial annoyance with Shakespeare which he describes in his book The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings:
My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.
What I began to see — especially since, as I say, I was living and speaking in French — is that it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience.
My experience of my body can only shape the language it speaks. If I experience it as wounded and sick, then this is the only language that I understand. If I interpret the skin as supple instead of flabby , or my breasts as resilient instead of sagging, or my graying hair as catching the light of the moon, my experience of my body changes.
If my body is a poem, it bears my signature. There is no separation between the poet and poem. The only separation comes when I begin to forget.
This reminds me also of how body and poetry both intersect with politics and science. The politics of power and sovereignty and the reductionist and mechanistic theories of science. But the body is as personal and intimate as one can get. Whether we like it or not, we are a species of language. And the primary and most primitive dialect is that of the body. If we choose to see the body as something to be owned or controlled or manipulated, through censorship and reckless disregard for its poetic capacity, seen solely as a machine, we lose sight of what it means to be human.
- In what language does your body speak? Dramatic prose? Tragic soliloquy? Poetry?
- How would seeing your body as a poem affect your experience of it? What string of words would your body write?
- Choose a poem that your body resonates with. The two below are two of the ones I have chosen for myself.
won’t you celebrate with me
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
- Lucille Clifton
ARS POETICA #100: I BELIEVE
Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said
“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”),
digging in the clam flats
for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?
- Elizabeth Alexander