Essays and Reviews

The Body in Language: An Anthology, Edited by Edwin Torres

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.


AGAINST WRITING

AGAINST WRITING

In Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, there is a poignant exchange between the nameless master of the novel’s title, and the everyman-poet Ivan Bezdomny:

“What, don't you like my poetry?” asked Ivan with some curiosity.
“I hate it.”
“Which poems have you read?”

Cries and Whispers

Cries and Whispers

In light of the month-long centennial retrospective of Ingmar Bergman’s films at Film Forum, I am excited to share a piece I wrote as an undergraduate on Cries and Whispers as seen through a prism of Feminist Literary Theory.

Sparrow reviews Paul Beatty's "The Sellout"

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (written by Sparrow)

This is the funniest book ever written about slavery.

 

The narrator, a guy named Me, is a species of black superhero, growing abnormally sweet watermelons and power-packed marijuana on his small farm in Dickens, an urban ghetto just past the border of LA. Also, Me’sa surfer! His actual superpower – which he inherited from his father – is “nigger whispering,” the ability toconvince a suicidal African-American mother of two to step back from the ledge and choose life. (His secret weapon: excellent weed.)

The Sellout has a great beginning, or rather “Prologue.” Our hero sits in the United States Supreme Court, awaiting sentencing. His crime? Slaveholding! (Plus a second conviction for segregating schools.) But it’s not really his fault. His friend Hominy Jenkins, “the last surviving member of the Little Rascals, that madcap posse of street urchins who, from the roaring Twenties until the Reaganomics Eighties, flummoxed potbellied coppers, ditching school seven days a week and twice on Sundays on matinee movie screens and after-school televisions around the world,” insisted on becoming his slave. Also, Hominy demanded to be beaten every Thursday. But Me has no stomach for brutality, so he sent Hominy each week to a dominatrix.

Satire is the only tool to describe the post-racial racism that wallpapers every room in the modern USA. This novel is like The Simpsons if it were written by an African-American philosophy major. Like all books set in LA, it could easily become a movie. (I see it as a rebuttal to 12 Years a Slave – one possible title: Please Enslave Me!.)

All white guys fantasize about having an African-American best friend who’ll reveal to them the secrets of being black, and in this book Paul becomes that friend. But is he telling the truth, or is he “pulling our ass”? (In 1971, I worked in a mailroom with a Jamaican guy named Jake who’d constantly say, “I’m just pullin’ your ass” – meaning that he was kidding. “I’m just pulling your leg” is the gentle, archaic, White Man style of speech. “I’m pullin’ your ass” describes exactly how it feels to be jerked around – because, for chrissakes, black people know what it’s like to be jerked around.) For example, Paul suggests that the famed virility of African-American men is a myth: I’m frigid… I’m the deadest of fish. I fuck like an overturned guppy. A plate of day-old sashimi has more “motion of the ocean” than I do. Or is he just pullin’ my ass?

One day I met the poet Michael Perkins on the UCAT bus coming out of Woodstock, New York. “I’ll tell you what’s really bothering me,” he offered. “Okay,” I replied. “I read that physicists have discovered that there are no real colors. Everything is actually shades of gray, but our brain misinterprets this data as colors. I find that really troubling.”

Imagine if this scientific breakthrough were universally accepted. Black people would be off the hook! Color is no doubt an illusion – and the color of people even more so. The four “races” – the Yellow, the Red, the White, and the Black – are neither yellow, red, white nor black. Most humans are the color of tea steeped for three minutes. Looking at my own arm right now, I’d call it “light bronze” with accents of pink and blue (blue being the veins) – and it’s not even mid-summer! [Full disclosure: I’m a half-Jew.]

Until my daughter was about 6, she couldn’t see black people. The slight gradation in shading between an Italian with a suntan and a light-skinned African-American was meaningless to her. Sylvia’s gorgeous African- American kindergarten teacher Candace – the mother of Wynton Marsalis’s children – didn’t fall into a separate category from the Mafia guy sitting on our stoop. How could I explain to Sylvia: “Now, 150 years ago people with this range of skin tones kept people with that range of skin tones as slaves…”?

The meaning of “blackness” keeps changing, and so do the words we use to describe it. There’s been at least three terms within my lifetime – and the famous Harvard Afro-American Studies Department reinvented its name in 2007, because “Afro-American” was a brief phase in our national linguistic evolution, and now sounds like a hairstyle.

After finishing this novel, I happened to read James Baldwin, and it was disorienting to move from Beatty’s ubiquitous use of “nigger” to the elegant, capitalized “Negro” – though they’re quite similar words. (Southern racists of the 1960s would employ the compromise term “nigra,” which cleverly merged the two.) Reading the N-word so many times, I was afraid I’d reflexively use it with the checkout clerk the next time I went to Gristedes: “How’s it going, nigger?”

Race has become sacrosanct in America, like religion once was. Everyone has to exercise extreme caution upon entering that territory, even African-Americans. We find ourselves describing people to strangers: “That short guy, with glasses, who wears striped shirts a lot” – using every adjective except skin color. Only Paul is having fun with the fake-duality of black vs. white. He plays with it like a five year old kid sculpting his mashed potatoes.

Gangsta rap permeates the book, with its rejection of neo-Marxist Black Power absolutism. The 1960s was a Romantic era. It was clear to Leftists, black and white, that an ideal world was possible – was even hovering directly overhead, like the Mothership hypothesized by the Nation of Islam. Gangsta rap was a realist reaction to this romanticism, describing the world that actually exists. “Off the Pigs” was a political program; “Fuck tha Police” a cry of despair. The Sellout questions the myth of racial progress, suggesting the Taoist paradox that a “step forward” can itself be oppressive. Perhaps a return to segregation – to the Negro Leagues, for example – would be salubrious for African-Americans today.

Me is an entrepreneur – in fact, a drug dealer (but one who grows his own superior marijuana strains, giving each variety an overeducated name like “Aphasia”): he’s a gangsta with a BS in animal sciences.

African-Americans, like Jews, have almost completely lost their traditional ties to agriculture. In the American South, slaves functioned as robots for an industrial-level plantation economy. Many had gardens, but none had farms. The most radical action for a black person today, Beatty suggests, is to grow corn.

From reading some post-structuralist essay in the Village Voice, I learned that a novel’s plot is always a metaphor for the book itself. In this case, Me’s farm is the novel Paul’s writing: meticulous, verdant, experimental – also extremely local. Beatty’s book is a love letter to LA: When I was in grade school, I knew from how the taste of the pomegranates would bring you to tears, from the way the summer sun turned our Afros blood-orange red, and from how giddy my father would get whenever he talked about Dodger Stadium, white Zinfandel, and the latest green flash sunset he’d seen from the summit of Mount Wilson that California was a special place. And if you think about it, pretty much everything that made the twentieth century bearable was invented in a

California garage: the Apple computer, the Boogie Board, and gangsta rap. “So you’re writing a novel?” I asked Paul one day. “Yeah. I wish it would go a little faster,” he answered. And no wonder – he spent seven years on this book.

No one invests time in anything anymore. You can feel today’s novelists multitasking, especially once you get to the second chapter. (“Wait a minute; Jonathan Lethem wrote this entire scene while checking his email!”)

The Sellout has the effortless flow of a work painstakingly written. (In the same way, a farmer toils and toils to produce an innocent turnip.) I can imagine this novel having an index; it’s an informal encyclopedia of American “race culture:” Booker T. Washington, Rodney King, Kunta Kinte, Uncle Remus, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, George Wallace, Topsy, Sammy Davis Jr. – plus, of course, the African-American members of the Little Rascals: Farina, Stymie, and Buckwheat.

It’s funny, I reviewed Paul’s first book, Big Bank Take Little Bank, for the Poetry Project Newsletter in 1992. At that time Paul was the hot young poet who’d creamed everyone else at the first Nuyorican Poetry Slam. Now he’s a distinguished novelist, Columbia prof, and “cultural commentator.” But he’s still a poet, down deep. Only a master versifier could have written this book, a monologue where every syllable counts.