THE FOLLOWING IS one of six pieces by former Emerging Poets fellows at Poets House in New York City. Each of the pieces engages with the Poetry Coalition’s 2018 initiative, “Where My Dreaming and My Loving Live: Poetry & the Body.” Poets House invited the fellows to select five items from the House’s 70,000-volume library that address the theme of the body, and to write a paragraph or two on each of these items.
When I think of poetry and the body, I immediately think of the body’s place in memory and what the body echoes and leaves behind. It leaves behind physical objects for an anthropologist to discover and it echoes various life experiences filled with joy, love, and pain. When you add dreams and what the body wishes to obtain, poetry arrives; the body becomes more than the physical, it embodies history, it personifies, it acts with its own agency, and limitations become irrelevant. I’ve picked a poetry collection and four poems where the reader lives through multiple experiences of the body and is better for it.
Body of Life by Elizabeth Alexander
This collection evokes bodies full of action, movement, and dreams. The black body is central, explored through the lives of historical figures and events, and through an autobiographical lens. In the poem “The Josephine Baker Museum,” the figure of Baker projects desire, and wonders if the public would ever want to see her real “nappy” body without the adornments and flash. In “Passage,” the slave Henry Porter ships his own body to freedom in “a box in the jostling heat, nostrils to a board pried to a vent / […] there was nothing to do but sleep and dream and weep.” Here, the author blends lyric and empathy as Henry repeats his wife and child’s name, and his own wishes for the future. This empathy for the body continues in the second half of the book. In the poem “In the Small Rooms,” a 10-year-old female body is abused, and you learn that the knowledge embedded in her silence relates to other little girls’ abuse. But this body grows and continues on to experience joy and love in a relationship with another in “L.A. by Night,” whose couple is “speed and light, flame / and fingers; all night.” The intimacy of these life moments jumps off the page, and by the book’s end you are firmly invested in the journey.
“I Am New York City” by Jayne Cortez
The line “look at my pelvis blushing” immediately draws the eye, and torques the poem on its ear. This follows a female speaker with her “legs apart hand on chin / war on the roof,” almost daring the city skyline. The poem can be found in Cortez’s book Coagulations where the poet personifies New York as a female body, and presents a love letter to the iconic symbols that represent the city, such as pigeons, police, and the “star spangled banner of hot dogs.” But the poem also marries such lore to a female body that is complex, confident, and strong; with tobacco teeth from smoking, plaited ovaries, a “marquee of false nipples” from the sideshows. The poem challenges the reader to approach it “through my widow’s peak / through my split ends my / asthmatic laugh,” its seven stanzas without punctuation giving each line the speed and agency of a city that never sleeps.
“I Am Now My Own Grandmother” by Nikki Giovanni
From the collection Acolytes, where memory of the body is explored and represented by the adornments left behind, Giovanni’s poem operates as an evolving list where the speaker gradually unveils life experiences through handkerchiefs, snuff boxes, white gloves, diamond rings, and “[t]hat Scofield Bible with the leather almost showing the human / oils of the hands that held it.” Through language, a type of anthropology is discovered. The reader can imagine family recipes and tradition with “photographs with faces but no names … friends … lovers / maybe … that one a wedding.” Giovanni’s use of the ellipsis and white space opens the poem to suggest multiple memories and a body well lived. The reader also gets a sense of time passing as we learn of Paris, lipstick, and face powder that gradually turns into medicinal rubs like “Vicks … McGawans Rubbing Lotion” for an aging body. By the end of the poem there’s a realization that the speaker is old and has turned into their own grandmother, but the regret doesn’t feel permanent because the items in the room depict a life that’s varied and present.
“Sixteen Years” by Ruth Ellen Kocher
In Kocher’s poem, time also plays a factor but is represented by a couple and the intimacy of their bodies together. From One Girl Babylon, the poem opens with “the silence in this room is not our sex sighing / but comfort in forgetting it, / losing it between the sheets, / reading the postcards it sends from distant places,” pulling the reader into an immediacy that is both quiet and vibrant, as if that moment contains years of dreams and wishes. As the poem progresses, the physicality of sorrow is expressed with the weight of expectations, what ifs, and the “child that wasn’t,” as if their bodies have betrayed them. But in these expectations their bodies become a solid unit that travels together, shakes off the day-to-day, and loves with papayas and the sun until it’s carefree and innocent, reminding us of Adam and Eve in the lush garden of Eden. The speaker never says the partner’s name and you only know of them in terms of the body’s experiences, but you nevertheless experience the “heavy moment / of return, of twisted limbs / and the largeness of us” as if we’re invited guests to a private bedroom.
“Anodyne” by Yusef Komunyakaa
From the collection Thieves of Paradise, the poem serves as a love letter to the Self, and connects the body to lore and nature. And with the lines “I love my crooked feet / shaped by vanity & work,” and “I love the lips, / salt & honeycomb on the tongue,” the Black body becomes an object of joy and appreciation. The poem operates as an unfurling, and each body part and organ is praised. The interpretation of how the brain holds plans and secrets and the hair protects the skin from bad weather is literal and functional, but this is balanced with an imaginative and distinct connection to the natural world of “fish & water hyacinth” and an ancestral history to West Africa. Komunyakaa also gives consciousness and aspiration to what the body contains with “the liver’s ten kinds of desire / & the kidney’s lust for sugar,” as if the biologic function is a side product of the organ’s ambition. By the poem’s end, you also commend the body and ardently believe the speaker when he says, “I was born / to wear out at least / one hundred angels.”
What’s Passed Down In The Making
Sometimes I smile just like
as if the skin and gums
remember the day I was born,
between thick thighs and
I arrived as a red-throated
ant hill, just as busy.
And maybe the moon
was in my half-blind eyes
but I felt what was handed down —
darkling skin luminous
grandmother’s brass comb, its
veins of an ancient path
stumbles into prayers to put me
on the side of right,
and the galloping heart
of a jukebox.
But what did my mother dream?
When she knew how much hunger
the dark could contain,
how close we are
to mindsets behind
plantation born juleps.
She saw a girl surrounded
by words and light,
holding the body’s stove
close like girls are taught.
the art of pepper oil,
feet striding a ground
bursting with fire
Cynthia Manick is the author of Blue Hallelujahs (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, African American Review, Callaloo, Kweli Journal, Muzzle Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere.