A survey of ten recent, celebrated poetry books suggests that today’s poets have, in our unprecedented times, come upon an unprecedented discovery: each of us, it turns out, has a body. Actually, each of us has the body. While the corpus has been electric since Whitman at least, references to “the body” have, in our times, become something of an epidemic. In almost every book in my stack, “the body” looms portentously (but without clear intention) through poem after poem, leaving me to wonder, as I sit here on my own bodily butt (I’m pretty sure it’s not the butt), narrowing my eyes (deepening some crow’s feet that I hope don’t qualify as the crow’s feet)–what, for the life of me, “the body” is, other than, that is, a body.
My main problem with this tic of period style–which will probably one day seem as antiquated as Tennyson’s “woven copses” and “slumberous sheets”–is that it is both self-important and reductive. “The body” rarifies one of the most elemental facts of being human and the basic requirement of most poetic gifts: the ability to perceive the world around us through our senses. Often “the body” seems not a body at all but a by-product of the poet’s self, whose ego is always trying to take credit for the creation of the world, and the creatures in it, by coming up with theoretical formulations of them.
What complicates this is that “the body” is usually political in tone. The foregrounding of bodies brings to mind those harassed, objectified, or oppressed by society–particularly the bodies of people of color, LGBTQ people, and women. One would have to be senseless not to hear their cries for justice. Still, the reason that poets have always provoked authoritarian states is that a singular voice is intrinsically antithetical to an oppressive power. The more individual a voice is, the more it undermines the authority that seeks to oppress by denying the humanity of a silenced or victimized group. The ultimate expression of resistance on behalf of “the body” in poetry, then, is that of the most precise singularity.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Miller Oberman share this preoccupation with “the body,” but their sharp, faceted first books are full of poems that defy generality. Ní Churreáin is explicit about the political intentions of her poetry. As Dr. Sinead Kennedy (who, the book jacket tells us, is not only a professor of English, but also the secretary of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, which made abortion illegal in Ireland) puts it, “Ní Churreáin bears witness to the lived experiences of women … disregarded women who lived lives of imprisonment within Irish institutions; women whose stories are haunted by the ever present specter of the patriarchal Irish state.” The poet herself has a compelling personal connection to this history. In 1951, her grandmother gave birth to her father at the Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home and then was forced to give him up for adoption because she was a single woman. “It is at this point in the history of the State that poetry as a form of protest began like a code to write and rewrite itself into the DNA of who I am,” Ní Churreáin has written.
Ní Churreáin dramatizes her story in poems which, with economical epigraphs–like “Penance,” for a girl in trouble 1951–allude to the poet’s stake in the stories she tells, without allowing narrative details to compromise the music of her lines. She’s tuned to the wildness within the feminine, and her lines bristle and gleam with Irish names–Maeve, Breege, Emer, Niamh–which she holds up for us to notice just as she holds up discoveries from the natural world of her childhood, the “skimming / fuchsia, rag-ferns” that tug at her eye and ear, the child’s cut hair that’s “dead soft” as a “spear-thistle,” or the graying locks, “brown with bolts / of silver already / a chunk of bog-coins // muck-moon / pools.” She’s particularly aware of the way in which silences can intensify lines of inquiry, and her caesuras are often charged. Near the end of a litany of probing questions she’s posed to her absent, silent foremothers, she asks:
Doors if I stitch you a collar of lace all Spring
as I wait for the first-born
heat please, won’t you open and speak?
While the impetus to these poems may be revolt–the determination to reveal what’s been unjustly hidden–it’s often the atmosphere of hiddenness, and the possibility for revelation inherent in it, that provide the electricity. Poems like “Bog Medicine” reveal a secret source:
Drink these star-leafed nettles
and keep in your purse a fern.
To become invisible, say your charm
to the hill.
This is pagan.
This hill is Hill.
It will answer in bog-tongue
and occasional fire,
burning back at the earth
along the heather-stream
despite bald heels of rock,
despite the kissy mink,
despite a saintly air
until the stream runs dark
with what needs
to blacken out of you.
The lyrical discoveries here–the consonance between “nettle,” “invisible” and “hill”; the earthy, monosyllabic heft of “bald heels of rock”; the “kissy mink” whose luxurious pelt and piquant stink are married in one perfect adjective–arrive, as most convincing lyric does, as if out of prayer or conjuring. Yet these gifts are skillfully balanced by no-nonsense, confident craft: the commanding trochaic opening line; the monosyllabic line endings, and the hard “r” and “ck” sounds, which work their pumpjack all the way to the end, when they strike oil and “blacken out of you.”
In the second section of the book, the stakes become more public in poems that connect news items from the 1980s with more intimate worries. Ní Churreáin often captures a whole world of cultural and historical implications in a single, simple, but metaphorically rich image. Whether it’s an infant’s extra finger, “boneless and pointless,” that a junior doctor ties off with a thread, telling the mother to “wait / For the lot to fall away”; or “a foot, / thrown up out of the underworld, / as ceremonious / as a stone / one morning on the shore / of Fort Saidhbhin, 1984,” the image is often bodily, and terrifyingly real.
The most moving poem in this collection, to my mind, is “The Secret, in memory of Ann Lovett,” a fifteen-year-old girl who died, along with her baby, after she gave birth in a grotto near a statue of the Virgin Mary above the convent where she lived. Ann Lovett’s story shamed her community and ignited fury over recently passed anti-abortion laws. Here, Ní Churreáin finds her way to this narrative obliquely, with a sighting, “On the hill above Granard, a lamb / prong-legged and stray in the road.” In a haunted pastoral that evokes Richard Eberhart’s “For a Lamb” (“I saw on the slant hill a putrid lamb, / Propped with daisies. The sleep looked deep, / The face nudged in a green pillow / But the guts were out for the crows to eat.”), Ní Churreáin slices into the profoundly layered complexity of this image with clear lines of powerfully compressed feeling:
I stopped the car and watched it scuttle off
across the edge of the black sky.
Later, among the trees, I hold
the lamb in the center of my mind
as the Virgin yields her chipped eyes
to empty nests. The church bells toll.
Crows gather and swirl, crying out
an endless syllable: Ann! Ann! Ann!
Every town has a shame so turned in
upon itself that the creatures begin
to live it out. I can hear the lamb
in the distance. The virgin holds still.
The stone remains stone.
What can I do? Who to tell?
If I’m somewhat dubious of the more overt claims of these poems–what Keats might have called “a palpable design on us”–I’m won over again and again by their urgency, their resonant cries that break historical silences with song.
Miller Oberman’s work displays an uncommon faith in language and in the incarnational truths of the world–that is, in the ability of words to reveal meaning through objects, signs, and, yes, one’s body. Oberman’s body is that of a transgendered contemporary man, yet the insights it yields are often ancient ones. Using his knowledge as a scholar and translator of Old English, he approaches the poet’s vocation as a stone fitter, time and again finding the right word or sound to uncannily fit the connotations he desires.
Roughly a third of the poems here are translations or versions from the Old English. As translations, they’re excellent, bringing vigor to thousand-year-old works. What’s remarkable, though, is how these ancient shards–with their ruthlessness and restlessness, the might with which they wrest music out of ruin–complement Oberman’s own temperament. Oberman is fond of consonants, monosyllables, and alliteration; his earthy, masculine, Anglo-Saxon constructions sound freshly dug from the earth, perhaps retaining the afterglow of his having dug them out of the Exeter Book, thought to be the oldest book written in English. “The Ruin” from folio 08, we’re told in the notes, “appears to have been used as both a cutting board and a beer coaster.” Oberman’s delight at this arcane fact is evident in the translation:
Wondrous is this wallstone, broken by fate,
the city burst apart, the giant work crumbled.
Roofs are ruined, towers ruined,
rafters ripped away, hoarfrost on lime,
gaps in the storm shelter, sheared and cut away,
under-eaten by age.
The potency of the brokenness here, how actively it undoes matter, is what Oberman hears with fresh empathy, and with an ear for unexpected correspondences. In a pair to this poem, also called “The Ruin,” he gives us a newer kind of ruin: the rave, “where the sodium lights of illegal houseboats / bob in the current,” individuals break down, dancing, into “half lady liberty, half skeleton” or “Someone with hair made entirely / of peacock feathers.” In “My Brother Was Missing,” we’re at another rave, though this time language itself falls apart:
The names for tools had all changed: now you had to hit the nail with a
bangest, and weld with a blow-flame, and know the lengths of level
planks with a slam-box.
Here, grief and Rimbaudian aphasia offer a passage down to the source of speech–a source Oberman believes in so faithfully that he can tell us, of his fellow ravers, “They flew kites in the ware, they squawked.” Here the “ware” is not only the warehouse where kids dance and fantastical tools are imagined, but the Old English “ware,” meaning to “be on one’s guard” or “take care,” the etymological root of awareness.
Usually the correspondences between the translations and Oberman’s original works are less direct, hinted at by titles and epigraphs that both savor and recoil from the medieval brutality they contain. A translation called “Against a Dwarf” offers one bizarre spell and poultice after another for dealing with a person with dwarfism–offers everything, that is, except empathy. The book jacket, which draws “connections between translation and transgender identity,” suggests that the poet wants us to think about how such ruthless ancient attitudes still damage those whom society considers “other,” and the juxtapositions against his own poems are often bracing. However, we also see that a certain savagery–“Art is a savage mistress,” one might paraphrase on his behalf–is crucial to his own aesthetic. The medieval textures, with their bloody martyrs and lusty warriors and occult doctors, bleed into the contemporary poems around them. In “Good Sleep,” Oberman slays an oncoming enemy:
I grin at my army, run alone
at the other, cut them down
with my blade. They ripple
to the ground like gray silk.
The slashed fields green-soaked,
their armor green-black,
saturate as an oil painting
under the sun’s lamp.
Though this poem could be read as a fever dream caused by too much time in the stacks among Vikings, other poems apply the same kind of color-drenched medieval passion–the incarnate world, drenched incarnadine–to portraits of the contemporary poet:
Once he was alone and worked alone,
read alone, and cooked and ate alone
a red supper, a red celebration,
for when you are cut loose, drifting
as he was, not even trailing strings
behind, it’s necessary, sometimes,
to tie down to something central,
embodied, hot. A steak, skillet-
seared, bloody. A bunch of beets
roasted, green tops torn off.
A bottle of wine, garnet dark.
That was all.
Except to say
he ate in a cave by a pit of dragon-
scale coals. The stone hole glowed.
The coals spat sparks in their ash bed.
It’s moving to observe how faithfully Oberman applies ancient poetic wisdom to his own experience of transgendering, an experience that society has never before allowed to speak itself. Interestingly, the answers that he finds to questions about “the body” are usually formal: he finds sounds rather than theories. “Voyages,” an homage to Hart Crane, shows how contemplation of the body–which he, too, fears to be a construction of the self (“Too / private, too lowly to write?”)–can rise into another element entirely:
What my mother and father,
body together with body,
made, I can not. Can jet
no living material. Too
private, too lowly to write?
Rain into the ocean today,
queer yellow light dropping
copper liquid into liquid.
Lightning: the jagging
rip of torn ozone, fan
gusting rain into the room,
lapping at the window box.
Though Oberman’s poems tend toward logical, accentual-syllabic constructions with granite-like syntax, “Voyages” showcases his ear’s ability to go alchemical, to transform feeling into sound. The effect here, as in many poems in this collection, is that his technique, rather than elevating a brilliant creation of “the body” by the self, offers us the world. There is nothing novel or theoretical in such poems. They are new in the way that genuine lyric poems have always been new: the give us the sound of a singular consciousness in a singular body, alive and inextricable as long as the poem lasts.
Bloodroot, by Annemarie Ní Churreáin (Doire Press, 72 pp., $13.99 paper)
The Unstill Ones, by Miller Oberman (Princeton University Press, 96 pp., $17.95 paper)