The American Poetry Journal

Book Review Special Feature ~ March 2018

Physicality and Embodiment in Saunier’s Poems

Review by Carolee Bennett

How to Wear This Body

By Hayden Saunier

80 pp. Terrapin Books, 2017

Price: $16.00

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Near the halfway point in Hayden Saunier’s full-length collection How to Wear This Body, the narrator describes her desire to crack an unnamed assailant’s spinal column and then “scrape what’s left of him off [her] good shoes” (“Hard Facts: Vengeance” line 6). Even though she wants to “grab-the-knife, / stab back repeatedly” (11-12), she rough-chops vegetables (13-14) instead. It’s the moment in the book where I realize I have been feeling the narrator’s actions in my own body. As the reader, I am making a stabbing motion. I am taking my anger out on the onions.  

 

It’s appropriate, of course, that a book called How to Wear This Body creates this sensation of being one with the narrator in her body. Saunier achieves this through a clever choice for the opening poem, her use of a generalized second person that invites readers to participate in some of the poems, and her deployment of strong opening lines. To push readers even deeper into the body of the poems as well as the body of the narrator, she also gives the poems their own kind of physicality, using details that are both primal and dramatic.

 

Saunier begins this process from the beginning poem’s very first line. “Performing Heart Repair Surgery at 2 A.M. While Asleep” opens this collection with an invitation to readers: “See, there’s no blood” (1). This opening reassures readers that they can handle what they are about to witness, coaxing them safely into the room where a dreamed open-heart surgery takes place.

 

Next, the narrator calmly describes to readers the “patient’s” chest as it begins to open. Saunier writes, “The skin is a smooth waxy placket / that softly unbuttons” (2-3). The lines that follow surprise but convince readers by using the second-person pronoun: “Your breastbone splits neat // as a squeeze-open coin purse” (4-5).  You, reader. You are the patient. And then another revelation follows: you are also the surgeon. Saunier shows how this patient-surgeon duality is possible through a reminder about where this all takes place:

 

dream doors

allowing your hands to hold your chest wide

 

you sit up in bed

and dump out the small frightened fist

 

that's your heart

in your lap. (“Performing Heart Repair…” 9-14)

 

Your hands, reader. Your hands are the rib spreaders. And once the heart repair is complete, you will essentially sew yourself back up. The poem continues:

 

No wonder hearts hammer their hurts at the dark water margins

of sleep—it's the weight of repair over years

 

and this lightness

you feel once you lift your heart

 

back into place, seal your bones,

smooth your skin: that's the dream. (“Performing Heart Repair…” 25-30)

 

With these lines, Saunier does more than sustain readers’ involvement in the poem; she also enlists readers in the book’s primary pursuit: the hope that repair is possible. In other words, narrator and reader share in the poem’s expressed physical desire: to feel lighter (“this lightness / you feel … that's the dream”). This opening poem establishes that readers aren’t simply listening to what comes next as a narrated experience. They are, instead, inside a body on its journey and inside this book as a physical vessel.

 

Saunier uses this generalized yet convincing “you” only in a few of the poems, but they echo the gestures made in her opening poem and continue to place readers in the thick of it along with the narrator. Like the opening poem, “How to Move In” begins with a command—“Bring in the bed first” (1)—and uses the second person to keep readers engaged with the book’s pursuit of space and light. Saunier writes, "Allow time for your books to adjust their spines / in light of a different dust sifting the air / and the deep sighs sounded by floor joists" (“How to Move In” 7-9).  The poem continues with additional commands: “Let the books and the light in the room / settle in” (11-12) and “allow emptiness / to work its little acre” (20-21). Although this poem explores a new apartment, not the body seen in “Performing Heart Repair…,” it reminds readers about what’s being sought—a way for interior spaces to achieve the feeling of space and light—and uses the generalized “you” to keep the reader in the middle of the action.

 

Echoes of “Performing Heart Repair...” are subtler in “Shape Shifting,” even when employing the second person as a device for engaging readers. In fact, the pronoun “your” is used only once:

the amphibious

crowd at marsh and creek

match the murmurs and leaps

of your own underwater heart.

Every single thing's

like every other single thing –

beneath skin, exoskeleton, carapace,

we might even be each other. (“Shape Shifting” 10-17)

 

Here, Saunier is shifting the emphasis from the interior worlds of “Performing Heart Repair...” and “How to Move In,” focusing on the exterior instead. By continuing to cast the “you” in the poem (albeit in a smaller role), she does so without sacrificing readers’ sense of participation in the book’s central themes. The mention of “your own underwater heart” not only reminds readers that it is as much their hearts at stake in How to Wear This Body as it is the narrator’s but also revisits the premise that it is possible to be both patient and surgeon,  reader and participant. The outright claim, “We might even be each other,” further stresses the possibility that reader and narrator share this embodiment.

 

Saunier continues to lure readers into these poems through their opening lines. Like "Performing Heart Repair...," many of Saunier’s poems have first lines that announce something curious. For example, “Hard Facts (My Cat)” opens with the declaration, “My cat’s not coming back” (1). Immediately, readers want to know why, and so they commence the descent into the poem’s treatise on mortality. Since a natural human instinct for solving mysteries is often personified as a detective meticulously combing a scene for clues or as a scientist manipulating and comparing substances, readers’ exploration of the poem's mystery—why isn't the cat coming back?—is experienced more physically than intellectually as they are urged to investigate.

 

Other poems’ opening lines rely on direct requests to bring readers into the action. “Dear Friend Since Childhood,” for example, begins with an invitation: “Let's set the scene” (1).  Here the reader is part of the action. Perhaps this kind of directive is most prominent in “Hard Facts (Do Not Resist).” The command—“do not resist”—strikes the reader immediately by announcing imminent danger. Followed by another use of the generalized “you” (yes, you, reader), the poem creates an urgency that can’t be handled casually. Attention and involvement are a matter of life and death as Saunier writes:

 

To stay alive do not resist

that's what you're told

 

as if it were a simple act to make yourself

be only meat. (“Hard Facts (Do Not Resist))” 1-4

 

The poem involves readers in the attempts to resolve what seems unbelievable—that a person must endure a kind of violence that both reduces the body to a piece of meat and forces victims to participate in their own dehumanization.

 

Opening lines aren’t the only way Saunier insists on the active presence of readers in the poems. She also utilizes vivid details.  Consider, for example, the following specifics: “a pre-verbal corner of my bone marrow” (“Fox Cry” 1), “the nightly scar-sound // of huge plows scraping the iced roads raw” (“The Winter” 6-7) and “shiny black pinecones of scat” (“Snow after Snow” 7).  These details are primal and elemental, felt instead of intellectualized, reinforcing readers’ physical connection with the poems.

 

A more obvious way Saunier uses vivid detail to evoke physicality is through images that achieve a kind of drama through contrast. By swinging wildly from one image to another, many lines in the poems of How to Wear This Body compel readers to try and keep up. It can be a physical act to hold contrasting thoughts and to race from one possibility to another. In “Hard Facts (Defensive Wounds),” for example, Saunier writes about the manner of cleaning a fish:

 

She picks up a bone-handled

blade from the workbench,

scrapes guts into buckets,

flicks bits of shine from her

Fingertips. (14-17)

 

There is nothing glamorous about this cleaning, and yet the poem introduces into the process the word “shine.” Juxtaposed with “guts,” “shine” is unexpected. By placing the two in such close proximity, Saunier requires readers to make the leap from disgust to beauty very quickly. The speed of the jump makes the experience of the contrast more active (physical) than intellectual.
 

Contrasts ask readers to traverse a vast distance in “Nostalgia” as well. Watch here how Saunier varies volume and intensity so much in only nine lines:

 

crouched down in a howling

cellar corner, promising the gods of screech

and shrapnel anything they want to make it

Stop. In times like these, I reach back

into my store of recollections for a green idea

that conjures up July's feathered grasses

brushing childhood's fingertips, the air

pungent with each meadow mint-crushed

step. (“Nostalgia” 14-22)

 

The feel of “feathered grasses” and the subtle scent of mint do more than engage readers’ senses; they give readers a chance to catch their breath after the wild ride of “screech” and “howl.” These kinds of contrasting, vivid details offer texture and establish pacing; both effects keep the reader physically engaged in the poems, in their bodies, and in the journey.

 

And readers do make the full journey with the narrator in the vessel Saunier builds, helped ultimately through one final contrast that lands them all in a more satisfying place than where they started. Both the opening, poem, “Performing Heart Repair…,” and the final poem, “Epiphany with Trashcans, Ice Pond, and Four Hemlocks,” are in couplets, but they have little else in common. Though the body in the opening poem dreams of lightness, it is in an agitated state and weighed down with clutter. For example, its narrator has stashed several tools in her chest: 

 

pocket knife, pliers,

a glue gun, two shrimp forks, electrical tape,

 

black and yellow, wire snips, needles and twine. (“Performing Heart Repair…” 21-23)

 

In contrast, the body in the final poem, achieves the weightlessness and simplicity it has been seeking. It opens with the narrator “late-day-tired” (“Epiphany with Trashcans...” 1), looking “dead west” (7) in the “bone-ache cold” (7). However, the crux of the poem is a kind of calm, a realization about “what little we are made of— / water vapor, temperature, hard clean curve of stone. / So little and so much” (15-17). Here, the narrator approaches the kind of freedom she dreams of in the beginning. And since the narrator’s burdens—physical pain, fear, anger and mortality—have become readers’ burdens through their participation in these poems, the narrator's revelation of “what little we are made of” is a moment that buoys readers as well. 

 

From the opening poem’s clunky heart repair to the final poem's quiet epiphany, the narrator and her readers inhabit this collection as a shared vessel. Saunier makes this possible by constructing poems with many entry points for readers, including the physicality of her elemental and dramatic details, her selective and powerful use of the generalized “you,” and so many hard-hitting opening lines. As a result of these direct and repeated invitations for readers to climb into the scenes and feel the journey of the narrator’s body, readers wear these poems, not like garments, but in the way they wear their own bodies. 

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