TBT: On Craft — The Frontier of the Body
Originally published in 2017, this essay from our editor examines the previous year’s hit collections, Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, and Portrait of an Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar—and we’re so excited that both Kaveh and Ocean will be helping to judge this year’s upcoming Award for New Poets. Enjoy this throwback!
Think of what makes up the reader’s body: the wet mouth, the ears, the long limbs, the stomach and the small of their back, the muscles of their right thigh hooked above the knee—and all of it itching for engagement.
A large part of the ordeal of writing is trying to keep the body engaged and present throughout, but writing for the reader’s body, and from your own, is not a new idea. Authors have been pondering the relationship between words and bodies for as long as they’ve been pondering craft at all. Feminist writers in particular have elevated the technique of body writing to new levels in modern literature, using the body as a way to write in resistance to oppression. Helene Cixous’s The Laugh of the Medusa and Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal Writing take their place in that tradition, and even the prose of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me turns with great force upon the images of black bodies on every page.
Consider one of the best poetry collections of 2016, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Ocean Vuong feels a bit like someone smashed Sylvia Plath and Dean Young together—he takes associative leaps through his poems, large imagistic stretches. These lines from “Trojan” are very much like Young: “The dress/ petaling off him like the skin/ of an apple”. But he’s got the edge and punchy language of Plath, like this from “Queen Under the Hill”: “White mouth/ sticking out like a fist. I kneel/ at my beast”.
This may be Vuong’s particular genius: he uses long-distance associative leaps, often anchored in violence upon the body. Lesser poets would stumble where he soars, but Vuong’s images work because he earns the distance by grounding his language and imagery in the body. This is a book of body images, full of hands and teeth and tongues and bone. For example, a series of images from “Telemachus”, the second poem in the book:
“out of the water, drag him by his hair” …
“through the white sand, his knuckles carving a trail” …
“I kneel beside him to see how far I might sink” …
“the bullet hole in his back, brimming with seawater” …
“the way a green bottle might appear at a boy’s feet” …
“I touch his ears” …
“The cathedral in his sea-black eyes” …
“The face” …
“The way I seal my father’s lips with my own” …
Vuong can put a cathedral in his father’s eyes because our bodies are already on the page, gripped by the imagery of hair & knees & knuckles & feet & ears & backs with bullet holes. Every poem in the collection does this, includes direct speech to what the reader’s body knows, in its body way of knowing:
“Your hand/ under my shirt as static/ intensifies on the radio.”
—from “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”
“This belly full of blades/ & brutes.”
“& my face appears rippling/ like a torn flag”
—from “To My Father / To My Future Son”
Our hands know the static sensation of touch, our bellies rumble with blades after a bad meal, and our faces ripple at the sight of trauma, of loss & tragedy. The poems craft an intimacy with the reader’s body that sustains the more abstract language and content. A significant part of us understands exactly what kind of love the speaker means when he says,
“this is how we loved: a knife on the tongue/ turning into a tongue”
The knife is there in our mouth, rolling, crowded in between two tongues, cutting. We taste the metallic blade and the metallic blood and feel the press and muscle of our own tongue, and love is that, we realize: the press and muscle of bodies in a claustrophobic space, dangerous, bloody, ambiguously violent.
Also consider the opening line from the beautiful & popular chapbook by Kaveh Akbar, Portrait of the Alcoholic, published last year:
It felt larger than it was, the knife
that pushed through my cheek.
Immediately I began leaking:
blood and saliva, soft as smoke.
—from “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly”
Again, the knife in the mouth. Violence will always be a fascination of poetry as it will always be a fascination of the body. This is Akbar’s first official line of poetry for the book, and there is hardly a moment when the following poems are not trying to engage the reader’s body. Akbar’s bodytalk is always striving to involve a sense of the unreal, the fantastical. The poems crackle with a presence of magic.
the coldness like a diamond for years holding it close near as blood
until one day I woke and it was fully inside me both of us ruined and
—from “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)”
The image is almost childlike. Earlier in the poem, the speaker explains the coldness as a personal, ambiguous cynicism: “I’m less horrible than I could be”—as intangible a metaphor as a poem can take. The coldness, that pale temperature, is his sadness, his meanness, his low-ness, compressed into that “diamond” through all the “usual tricks” of life. As readers, we accept this simple image of sadness because it is validated by the body. The poem gives us a chance to hug his abstract interior reality to our own chests. The diamond is put inside of us by the declaration that it’s inside of him.
Although Akbar’s first official poem is “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly,” he actually places another poem between the table of contents and the title page. That poem, “Some Boys Aren’t Born They Bubble,” ends with these lines:
“afterwards the others dream
of rain their pupils boil they light black candles
and pray the only prayer they know oh lord
spare this body set fire to another”
We, his readers, his dreamers, become both the body spared and the body on fire, our pupils boiling. With this little prayer, Akbar sets up the rest of the book and the body’s relationship to it. This is what good poetry does.
Portrait of the Alcoholic is a book about faith, addiction, recovery, and the personal discovery of meaning. Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a book about relationships, about fathers and sons and the traumas of love. Neither is a book about the body, but both successfully collaborate with the reader in building meaning because the poems use language of the body so deftly. In order to produce a grip on the reader’s body, to get that wild child to sit still and pay attention to your words, you, the poet, must acknowledge the poem that the body is reading and craft it accordingly. If you don’t know where to start, just put bugs in the reader’s mouth:
“Back from the wind, he called to me
with a mouthful of crickets”
—from Ocean Vuong’s “Odysseus Redux”