Review by Hannah Wood
With The Body in Language, Edwin Torres has compiled works that attempt to explicate the connections between the physical, the spoken and the spiritual, as well as the nature of creation itself. He delineates the works—spanning from poetry and prose, to essays, scripts, and visual amalgamations of all of these elements—into four categories of forces. Each of the chapters is meant to be a complete body, comprised of these combined elements. These are “Fire/Sulfur,” “Water/Salt,” “Earth/Mercury,” and “Air.” The “natural elements” are compared to “concepts of the body” like “soul/intellect/emotion/spirit” (Introduction). According to Torres, by combining these elements, “the origin of the creative spark can be given a shape, a nucleus for conversation” (Introduction). These categories are meant to help language find a body, and to locate connections between the similarities and differences of form, language, visuals and the physical.
The beginning chapter, called “Section I,” first features a poem by Patricia Smith called “It Creeps Back In.” The piece is labeled as “Air/Foundation.” It is a poem about a person who seems unmoored, who states: “I'm gulping gin and sitting water” (9). The narrator sleeps through the day, but “Depression/should never be ignored, the hers warn…” so the narrator looks around “finally opening my eyes” and observing the surroundings (9). It is fitting that discussing opening one’s eyes to what’s around should kick off the anthology, as the diverse array of pieces attempt to capture the various methods that humans use to express their world.
The next piece is a more specific short personal essay by Susan Osberg called “Dancing the Talk” (Fire/Creation). The essay is about Osberg’s lifelong connection to dance. In fact, she begins the essay by mentioning that her mother danced on the day that she was born, and once she herself was born, Osberg could not stop dancing. She was a member of the Junior Ballet in Norway, and then became a choreographer in New York City. “It is a mistake to think we dance to music,” she writes, referring to the fact that she hears words like music and gestures as sound (11). She suggests that painting, writing and drawing indicate a unity of body, mind, and spirit, bringing us back around to the themes of the anthology.
Will Alexander’s reflection piece “Out of the Ethers” (Earth/Emotion) explains this unity by providing actual drawings to go along with his musings. These abstract drawings of flowers and a hummingbird contribute to Alexander’s argument about beginnings, the birth of life on earth, and the construction of paradigms via a structure-less, but “in-convivial ballet” that began it all (12). He analyzes his origins, both chemical and natural, stating that he comes from the “‘zero-field,’” a hidden place full of the mysteries of the earth. In fact, everything seems to emerge inexplicably, including multiple suns. This seems to be a comment about the way that life developed, slowly, chaotically, inexplicably, but with a unique brilliance.
Urayoan Noel also discusses the emergence of the body in his “Uneasy Bodies” (Water/Thinking). However, he uses his essay to explicate the uneasiness of being in a body that has already been created and born. He mentions his book, In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam about Nuyorican poets and the Puerto Rican diaspora, saying that he thinks that when looking at his study now, there needs to be more exploration of bodies within the work. He writes about how our bodies can fail us—whether his own body or those of his parents. This not only happens in terms of health, but also as a result of body politics. Noel admires the flaneur, or urban explorer and wanderer, but suggests that in modern day New York City, “city bodies are often uneasy” (16). He mentions Eric Garner and Occupy Wall Street as examples of how for non-one percenters and for minorities, urban space is often contested and fraught, even unsafe. Body politics is also an inadequate term. In fact, “multi-ethnic transnational histories are part of what gets elided when we simply riff on body politics in their immediacy” (17). Bodies are more than one thing. They carry a diverse array of memories and experiences that combine the personal and political. They are “neither and or” (20). We are literally tied to their idiosyncrasies, but we are also constantly reinventing the way we move through a city that is constantly changing, and our lives are all about that negotiation.
The anthology features more than poetry and reflective essays. There are academic studies included, as well. In “The Body Speaks Whale” (Air/Foundation), philosopher David Rothenberg writes about his project involving putting musical notes to whale sounds and how it allows humans to see what they cannot hear. The sonogram images that were turned into music are pictured in the book. They look like small, curving blotches (84-85). These sounds are also turned into vibrations that Rothenberg uses to help two deaf boys sing along to the whale sounds, allowing us to “…reach over the border from one species to the next” (90). The boys are thrilled to be able to feel what they could never hear, and in internalizing it they are able to make sounds themselves.
The poet, Bob Holman, also does in depth analysis of sound, structure and image—in this case of his own poem. “What You Can’t Understand is Poetry is Connected to the Body Again” (Air/Foundation), is about a woman, Jean, who encounters a dead body. This reviewer originally thought the body was that of her dead lover, as in the second stanza, “She was remembering her lover’s face (230). However, this lover turns out to be the corpse of poetry. First, Holman parses out how he says the title in performance, with an emphasis on the “is” in “What you can’t understand is poetry…” He determines that this emphasis occurs because the existence of poetry, and of language itself, is a great mystery. The benefit is that these elements are “a mix of sound and meaning. Body and song, all together, what makes a poem a poem” (231). In this poem, Holman uses Jean’s predicament with the dead body to explore how poetry is connected to that physical presence. Through his discussion of his own work, he manages to link how these connections between language and sound appear in poetry, while also humorously satirizing the process of poetry analysis.
The final piece in the anthology, Lila Zemborain’s “Materia Blanda/Soft Matter” (Fire/Creation), translated by Christopher Winks, shows another type of reflection, one more focused on the inner self. It begins with fifteen lines of successive “1’s.” This might indicate the connection between a person and the universe. On the next page, Zemborain writes, “Stretched out on a bed is a body that does not want to die. It’s a corpse, that is, it was” (342). Perhaps then, these “1’s” represent possible corpses that are trapped in uselessness. Eventually, Zemborain comes to the idea that we can center ourselves via a square, which is drawn on the opposite page looking like a shaded square with white outlines of a puzzle piece inside of it (347). This square will allow us to “Enclose oneself in a limitless space” for contemplation of “the flarings of the self” (346). Zemborain seems to be saying that only when humanity is confined in a safe space where all outside distractions can be banished, can we contemplate the meaning of time, and the body—ourselves. In fact, many of these pieces attempt to put readers into such a space where they can ask how it is possible to unify all of these core elements of life and language into one body.
At its core, The Body in Language is an exploration of the connection between the body and mind, the body and soul, and bodies with other bodies. The pieces within, though at times abstruse, all employ various philosophies, genres and formats to discover what it means to have a body and to use it to negotiate the world of sound, language, movement and imagery. Wide in its scope, the anthology explores the methods humans have at their disposal to describe the idiosyncrasies of language and the nuances of living.