Reading the Body
Our bodies are our first responders. Before cognition or language, our bodies sense. They communicate. Gestures – a shrug, a widening eye, a turning toward or away – speak as loudly as words. Our bodies carry our history. Trauma lodges in a held muscle, a tic of clearing the throat. Hunger and lust recall the pleasure of eating and sex.
Language reflects our common sense that our bodies portray emotional stances, including the phrase “common sense.” We bone up, back out, stand on our own two feet, and put our best foot forward. We keep a stiff upper lip when we face adversity and we have guts when we confront it.
The phrase native tongue speaks powerfully of one’s original language, calling up the bodily part that we must use to speak any language at all. The act of writing or reading can quicken the breath or bring tears, even though not yet fully comprehended by the mind. We touch someone, by our moving stories, poems, essays.
For this issue of the Bellevue Literary Review, “Reading the Body,” we requested writing in which the body speaks its eloquent, often unconscious song. The recent coronavirus pandemic has heightened awareness of our bodies’ vulnerability to an acute level for everyone, worldwide. Although submitted before the virus surfaced, the themes and metaphors presented in these pieces feel strikingly timely.
Several address fragility. “We are “at the mercy of pure chance,” Jeremy Griffin, a former faculty member at Virginia Tech, concludes in “The Next Bullet,” his courageously thoughtful memoir of the shooting there on April 16th, 2007, in which thirty-three people were murdered. He wrestles with our need to make sense, assign responsibility, and exploit tragedy.
“Some things happen over time. Others occur in seconds — and replace who you were with someone you never met,” Judith Weiss states in “Dispatches from Bewilderment,” a vivid depiction of the experience of brain damage, its terms, and disconcerting recovery process. Such damage occurs to someone ‘every twenty-one seconds.”
“By the Neck,” Laura Johnsrude’s gorgeous meditation on the neck’s structure and highways that “keep us alive,” is interspersed with language spawned from it and her adventures as a pediatrician with its delicacy.
When we change emotionally or spiritually, our bodies alter; when our bodies alter, out attitudes and spirit do too. In the short story “The Orchard” by Lauren Green, a fifth grade girl’s single mother has been assaulted. In a brilliant evocation of a child’s dependency–and the effects on both mother and child of such a horrific event–the girl’s own loss rules when she sees her mother: “Her entire body goes rigid as you sink onto the mattress…Say, Hi, Mama. Hesitate. A wet, scraggly sound rises in your throat.”
In “Second Nature,” a story by Lynne Stoecklein, a woman awaiting biopsy results sees a wolf while camping with her husband. “Its eyes held hers, and Maya felt a tingle move through her body…” Her husband denies that she’s seen it. He’s found no tracks. “How to explain to him” that her instincts lead her to “…unchartered ground. She didn’t have words for that.”
Such is the “animal body,” as the poet Viola Lee writes in “Caesarian Birth,” “this mammalian body.” Her newborn works “to speak that language… made of muscle, air, and all those thick consonant sounds.”
In the hauntingly beautiful story Spectrum, Ian MacLean evokes the inarticulate Joseph, institutionalized since a child, through his awareness of the sensual world, and elicits the dream-like, timeless state of being in such a place. “His vision rushed on, out of the room, past the window to the fields, as if his consciousness moved into the distance, or the world was growing, stretching. But he remained in his body, standing still.”
We desire to escape, to alter, and to reconcile ourselves with our bodies. With consummate fictional skill, Emma Pattee’s story “In Our Skin” depicts an overweight 40-year-old woman at a wedding in Hawaii whose husband recently left her, not because of her weight but because of her obsession with it. She grapples with that obsession and a weight-obsessed culture during a transformative nighttime escapade chasing a sea turtle. In his essay “Claiming Missing Inheritance,” Jack Lancaster confirms his genes’ inheritance and identity as a gay man. In the poem “Quininque Cordibus Vestris” Gina Ferrari envies the horse its “five hearts:” the four Frogs in the bottom of each hoof that “pump blood back up the leg to the horse’s true heart.” In the story “Committed” by Deidre Jaye Byrne, a mother recoils at discovering her daughter’s intention to do away with her body entirely and her subsequent hospitalization. In “My Mother’s Body,” the poet Thomas Dooley says, “
I dreamed your scars first. /The silvery gate/down your abdomen /from where I was lifted.”
Our bodies age; they die. The poet J.E.Robinson notes in “How Hair Changes Before Expiration” that we are “left with none/or none our mothers would recognize…” “But your hand knows that feel/brushing the hair back.” Self-disciplined, 91-year-old Dr. Edel, in Jonathan Penner’s splendid fictional portrait “Palindrome,” strives to stave off his body and brain’s inevitable demise through reading, participation in his retirement community, involvement with fellow resident Mrs. Kahn, and concocting daily palindromes. “‘Liver of yak okay for evil.’”
We writers often feel tongue-tied, we stumble over ourselves striving to utter through symbols on a page what our body-mind experiences. “Time and again I’ve attempted to write about that morning,“ Jeremy Griffin says in “The Next Bullet.” Now he has managed it.
We thank all the writers who submitted work and the authors within these pages who have translated the inexpressible into the printed word. In these times afflicted by divisions of race, gender identity, politics, and plague, we hope this issue inspires enhanced appreciation of the body, the bearers of our best and our worst impulses. We hope this body of work contributes in some small way to strengthening and uniting our frail, fractured collective body, including our body politic. The creation and consumption of literature could be thought of as a form of prayer. But “When you pray,” the African proverb says, “move your feet.”