But where is the body, asks Salt-N-Pepa. It’s the rare question that can be asked both while dissociating and voguing. Sometimes if I catch a glimpse of my face in a window at night, I am certain the reflection I see is of a dead woman, my skull shining through my eyes. My dissociation stems from the usual suspects: illness, gender dissonance, sexual trauma. It can feel like flashbulbs going off, stumbling into bad lighting — where is the body — flash — where — is — the — flash — body?
When my head and my torso are more firmly held together, I also ask this question when reading poetry. Maybe it’s because I’m an air sign, maybe it’s because every day feels like I’m suturing my body to myself like Peter Pan and his shadow, maybe I’m born with it, maybe it’s dysmorphia, but I turn to poetry more often than not asking where is the body in hopes of finding a map. Dickinson wrote that she knew poetry was poetry when she felt like the top of her head came off; I know poetry is poetry when I can say, aha, “there is the body.”
If your experience of being in your body is a mostly traumatic one (and whomst amongst us, etc), I recommend Sappho, and I recommend Marilyn Hacker, to help reconcile yourself to your flesh form. Their poems are about being verklempt, the Yiddish word for being clutched so tight by feelings that they squeeze out of you. If you’re verklempt, you can’t keep your emotions in because if you open your mouth you are more likely to puke than to speak. Here is Marilyn Hacker on the subject:
Didn’t Sappho say her guts clutched up like this?
Before a face suddenly numinous,
her eyes watered, knees melted. Did she lactate
again, milk brought down by a girl’s kiss?
It’s documented torrents are unloosed
by such events as recently produced
not the wish, but the need, to consume, in us,
one pint of Maalox, one of Kaopectate.
My eyes and groin are permanently swollen,
I’m alternatingly brilliant and witless
—and sleepless: bed is just a swamp to roll in.
Although I’d cream my jeans touching your breast,
sweetheart, it isn’t lust; it’s all the rest
of what I want with you that scares me shitless.
In this sonnet, Hacker moves from a gut feeling Sappho described to one shared “in us,” before admitting that it is the speaker’s own affliction. A gut feeling is intuition, sure, but it’s also something that announces HERE is the body, NOW is the body, RIGHT NOW. Deny the body at your own peril. Writing about the body isn’t just writing about desire, as the speaker points out. It’s also writing about need, immediate and often numinous.
This is a poem for when you are so in love that, even though the feeling is as brutally immediate as an attack of lactose intolerance, shame escapes you. You need the other’s body like you need your own, and, if the dysmorphia isn’t hitting too hard, maybe you know theirs like you know your own. Do they drink coffee to stay regular? Do they need to pee twenty times in a row when they get nervous? Do you tell them when you’ve had a particularly impressive shit, and are they thrilled for you? Weather a stomach flu with a lover and you will know if your love is true. There are more ways to relate to someone else’s body than lust, just like there’s more than one way to sweat up your sheets — get sick and stay in bed all day and you’ve got “a swamp to roll in.”
Hacker is Jewish, so she writes about what we Jewesses often endure: breast cancer and, to add insult to injury, lousy stomachs. (Was Sappho also Jewish? I can only speculate.) Critics have generally said two things about the poetry of Marilyn Hacker: she writes about the body, and she is a formalist, writing ghazals, villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets. Her two interests are intertwined. Hacker’s poetry upholds form like a spine keeps a body upright, like skin holds us in. Bodies and forms offer recognizable shapes and organize what’s inside into interdependent systems. When those systems start to fritz, when fluids leak out of you, when cells start to cluster, we see how brittle these bodies are, how permeable their forms.
Hacker writes about desire, yes, but she also writes about bodies that leak, that shatter, that attack themselves. Lust and IBS can overtake you just the same. We queers can be a nervous yet lascivious bunch who know that having an internal map of the city’s bathrooms is crucial for our survival for more than one reason.
This sonnet doesn’t end with a perfectly rhyming couplet (“rest” and “shitless”). But when everything inside of you must come out, it’s rarely tidy. Neither is getting up in them guts! But as Salt-N-Pepa and Sappho and Hacker all remind us, when you do find the body, it is beautiful.