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Poetry and the Body

                                    Katrina Vandenberg

Always, the most poetically prolific periods of my life have come in tandem with deep immersion in the physical world. During one month of intense work in New Hampshire, I walked, twice a day, the mile from where I was staying into town and back, in addition to spending long afternoons tramping through the woods. There have been other instances: the evening I received what I think of as a “gift poem,” after spending the day with a glassblower in his studio and learning how he made, with movement and breath, the blue globe that hangs in my kitchen window. The morning of another gift poem, when I’d returned to the Berkshires where I’d once lived for a residency, driving through back roads lush with ditch lilies. And heady writing summers in Saint Paul that came complete with biking past Victorians on Summit Avenue, or walking around Como Lake.

Writing is the only art, to my knowledge, whose medium is not inherently sensual. Artists have oil paints and pastels, and pianists have 88 notes and an instrument with hammers and strings. But what writers have is language, an abstraction of the physical world.

I have to remind my body of the world beyond my desk when I am working, in order to make language mean. The first poets were inherently aware of the relationship between their work and their bodies, poetry being rooted as it is in theater, sacred ritual, music, dance. Maybe the physical movement I need to make me feel like writing is connected to that. Maybe I need the sun and the ground under my feet to remind myself that mailboxes, trees, and abandoned mills are image. Maybe I need to bike until I am breathless to remind myself that meter and linebreaks are body and breath.

Language tries to approximate the sensual as much as possible. Thumb through the OED and look at the origins of words, and you learn that they begin as clumsy and literal descriptions, approximating the physical as best they can. A boulder stone was first a bullen-steen, or a “stone that sings,” which I imagine to mean water flowing over rock. Even the letters of the alphabet began as word-pictures: A was aleph, an ox—it lay sideways, pointing left, an ox in its harness, pointing its nose forward. M is waves. D, daleth, faced backwards, a crude drawing of a door. Gradually daleth became a triangle, delta, a symbol we still use in chemistry to mean change. Now, D is simply its own D-ness. The progression makes sense: you can see why a door becomes a symbol for change.

This is, in part, what I imagine Jack Gilbert to mean in his poem, “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” when he writes, “My love is a hundred / pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what / my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this / desire in the dark.” Making metaphors is one of the greatest pleasures I find in writing poetry. Yet language isn’t just a tool for making metaphors, language is metaphor. Language and the physical world, tenor and vehicle.

During that time I lived in the Berkshires, I ended up writing a whole book of poems riffing off the metaphors inherent in the letters of the alphabet. I was aided by the fact that I had no one to talk to, and therefore walked, daily and incessantly, through Canoe Meadows, up Mount Greylock, past a place on the grounds of Tanglewood where Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house was supposed to have stood. That fall and winter were also the first time I’d ever bothered to learn, on more than a cursory level, things like the names of trees, and why mushrooms grew in circles. I walked, and looked, and felt as if I were learning to read all over again, the landscape of New England a crisp new book.

John Keats called this world a vale of soul-making, said that the world isn’t a place where we save our souls, but make them. Certainly it is nearly cliché for contemporary poets to celebrate the physical over some sort of afterlife. I have a bodyworker friend, Jim, who finds additional reason for this. Also a former member of a monastic order, Jim once told me that he believes that people now need to work at inhabiting their bodies to seek the divine—that through human history, people have sought transcendence by moving their bodies’ energy upwards, but now, having mastered that and created a world where we live in our heads, we need to work at coming back down.

I have no idea whether he’s right. But I think of him when I am walking, cooking, biking, sitting in the grass and watching my husband weed the garden, pulling my soul back into my body.

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