Each month, Alexandra Barylski will offer a post on a single poem or a poet whose work draws attention to our embodied selves. She is fascinated by work that addresses ways we touch one another’s bodies in a progressively immaterial world directed by machines and how such an act helps us remain more human.
And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos is a collection of John Bergman’s poems and essays. As poet and a painter, he makes distinctions between poetry and paintings only to associate these different modes in another paragraph or section, and he most closely links poetry and painting when speaking of Caravaggio’s bodies. If you’ve not seen one of his paintings in person, there is very little one can say to make you experience them as Berger does and as I do. Bodies are almost always touching other bodies (human and animal) in his work, and most canvases give the impression that bodies are incapable of solitude. Continual touch, often taboo, is beautifully and strangely rendered because Caravaggio studies separation, which is another way of saying desire—the erotic, ancient separation of the sexes. For Bergman, Caravaggio’s canvases speak to what our sexuality promises, “a momentary completion…it opposes the original cruelty...and acknowledges the self…the one gift: to sleep together. Here. Now.” Berger, like many poets, speaks of poetry’s intimate power, its ability to remain attentive and close the gap, to gather what was been scattered, to juncture us at places from which we have been too long distant.
Charles Simic’s “The Body” holds out the promise of this connection. Conquest is not the right reading. Discovery here is not novelty, not the subjugation of one land under another’s invasion, though it would be easy to claim that if one body is a continent and another is a ship, then there must be colonization. But I can not read it this way. Perhaps because I have spent much of life on the shore and on the water I fail as a reader, or I am limited reader, one who sees a body’s separation from land as a deep desire to return to home—for isn’t there some original cruelty here, too, or at least an ancient separation? I think of water pulled back from firmament, I think of God speaking in poetry to Job, proclaiming he “placed boundaries on it, set a bolt and door,” the Lord who divided land from sea, who said “thus you shall come but no farther, here shall your proud waves stop.” Shore: water forever touching the lips of land.
But the lovers’ body as a ship can not do what water does. There can be no contact until the vessel returns to the continent, and in the poem that reunion remains potential: The scent of your body as it sleeps / Are the land birds sighted at sea. Close. So close, but not yet there. Although I have been on open water, far enough to feel disoriented without any sight of land, I have never been so far that birds were not present. Birds signal land, safety, and home. When birds are nearby, there remains the chance that you could swim to shore if you know how to work your body in the currents, a combination of effort and relaxation, and keep yourself from panic.
Simic allows anxiety in, but he couples it with hope, which makes the poem worthy of the metaphor. The ship does not arrive in the last stanza. It would be an altogether different and lesser poem if the vessel were to port. Who has not felt the anxiety of losing what is incredibly near, as if proximity to who or what we desire decrees loss that much more unendurable?
The body awake at four in the morning as the highest mast crying for a lantern to be lit / On the rim of the world. Dark and out of sight, land is near but invisible. The last lines of the poem beg for a sign even after the receiving one: birds. I think of Noah, and I recall the raven that never returned, how not coming back might have been interpreted differently, might have offered the people want they wanted: proof there was land. And I think of how we always want more, we want the dove that returns with a branch. I am that greedy. The light, I confess, is what I desire even as land offers me the smell of solid earth in the distance. In the darkest hour of morning I doubt what my eyes have seen and what my nose has smelled. In this poem, the gap remains, but I trust the lantern will light in the unwritten stanza, that it will ignite for me in my irrational pleading, that separation is not my future.