Well when it remembers to rain it certainly remembers how to do it! It’s been storming off and on here in the spring of early-twenty first century Brooklyn and just now the birds are whistling hosannas to the sun.
This is the fourth iteration of my newfangled blog here at BAP; the old fang, long in the tooth, deep in the truth, was about poets equally established, Dickinson, Bishop, and Szymborska, Keats, Yeats, and Stevens; the new fangs, familiar with fresher truth and bluer truth, are poets of my age, era-wise; wise beyond error.
I pick the poem first, for the slinky pleasure of it, then ask myself why and type to you my answer. This one is so goddamn dead-on real about where so many of us actually live a good part of our painful inner lives that I want you to read it before I say more. It’s by the wonderful poet Tom Healy, whose deep and compelling book is What the Right Hand Knows.
What do we do when we hate our bodies?
A good coat helps.
Some know how to pull off a hat.
And there are paints, lighting, knives, needles,
various kinds of resignation,
the laugh in the mirror, the lie
of saying it doesn’t matter.
There is also the company we keep:
surgeons and dermatologists,
faith healers and instruction-givers,
tailors of cashmere and skin
who send their bills for holding
our shame-red hands, raw
from the slipping rope,
the same hands with which we tremble
ever so slightly, holding novels in bed,
concentrating on the organization
of pain and joy
we say is another mirror,
a depth, a conjure in which we might meet
someone who says touch me.
- Tom Healy
Isn’t that brill? Being American is such a weird endeavor. First wave first world. For most of history every generation knew famine. Rich or poor, you saw people starve and you either starved too, or at least did without. Food was just not there. Letters home from the New World didn’t only describe what people ate here, they described the shops themselves and sometimes said things like – “There are ten kinds of fruit at the market and five kinds of meat – while you in the old world count as a market a slab of wood balanced between two rocks and displaying three wilted carrots, some sad greens, and a short pile of slightly putrid chicken feet.” They worried over their poor emaciated bodies and dreamed of heaven as an endless feast.
Then within a generation of the first people to have enough food across their lifetimes, we started worrying about the sad avoirdupois of bodies, and fantasize about ourselves as trim as a sail. Thin as a rail. Humanity has a genius for despair. I’ve got a lot to say about this in The Happiness Myth, just fyi.
Then too, fat isn’t our only beastly burden, though it is the one that chases me around the table. There are those who hate their faces, bemoan their feet, decry their dimples, abhor their pimples, lament their foreheads drifting ever up and over, hate their flatbread bosoms, resent their unwieldy ample hills (as Whitman described Brooklyn’s terrain). Then we all die and except for Taft and Eleanor Roosevelt, nobody much cares what we once looked like. Can you imagine Gertrude Stein eating Lean Cuisines? Socrates (often called ugly by his contemporaries) consulting surgeons for a fresher face?
I love Healy’s poem here for its compassion, its sympathy for the human agony of being befleshed. I also love the ending wherein our escape from this horror is in literature where we find, not quite a mirror but at least something we call a mirror, and there find ourselves inhabiting a better body, and asked by someone lither to come hither.
Let us tattoo this poem to the inside of our skulls and when in line for swimsuits or squash-blossom quesadilla, or confronted with dance-class mirrors, let our eyes roll back until we can read the words and see our kinder inner side.
Don’t kill yourself, and I shall return to encourage you yet again.