"On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous"

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.


Poetry is incarnational. A poem lays itself down on the page unlike prose. White space like a sheet focuses the contours of the poem’s presence. How lovely and unhurried a poem appears, a languid beauty the eye is less likely to rush over. The temptation to skim poetry as one might prose is often absent; the body of text invites the reader to slow down and stay, expressing a tangible grace from elsewhere. Poetry’s oral history keeps it close to our physical forms, for words that begin in air and take shape in our mouths are passed from one person to the next like an embrace. How fitting, then, that in an age of increasing digitalization and dematerialization poetry remains in love with the body, or at least aware that inhabiting our flesh well is fundamental to preserving our obligation to one another as more than amino acids captured on camera and streamed screen to screen.


Ocean Vuong’s poem “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a single, stunning poem in a tender collection that both asks and answers his own question: Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here? While the question is specific to his work, it is also, importantly, a question created by a culture that feels increasingly anxious about what people do or not do in their bodies. And it is the “not doing” that proves more complex since most of us engage in digital disembodiment. For example, I am in an American coffee shop, but I am “hanging out” with my friend who teaches overseas. I can hear her voice and watch her facial expressions as we chat, but I can not touch her for a year. While I am grateful our presence sails through the sea of ones and zeros to one another, I am also frustrated by an absence made more keenly felt by experiencing my friend as both near and not near.


At once marvelous and cruel, there is something godlike about that kind of presence. Even the deities know it, so in stories they come to us as something a little less scorching, something infinitely more touchable once made finite: human. As a poet and a critic, I am drawn to work that directly engages with god as physical, and more provocatively, as sexual.


The first poem in Mark Jarman’s “Five Psalms” remains a favorite in my personal cannon of god’s erotic body:


Then, let us think of kissing

       God with the kisses

Of our mouths, of lying with God,

       As sea worms lie,

Snugly petrifying

       In their coral shirts.


The image of embrace is at once sensual and strange, both transgressive and traditional (he riffs "Song of Songs"). We daydream of kissing God with our own mouths, and then we imagine lying down inside of him, and we are taken in as worms into coral and covered by presence. There is visceral revelation here, which is to say spiritual revelation. And spiritual revelation, like sex kept holy through the intimacy of deep friendship, is personal and subjective. So yes, touch is how we prove to one another we are still here, though not only “here” but distinctly human, which is to say divine and worthy. The revelation of our full-bodied humanity is still offered in poetry since poets are preserving their sacred inheritance.


Poets seek and sing of divine fragments scattered over a world that has forgotten how to notice, which is another word for love. If there is an objective truth, it is only that such a moment – the reading of a poem’s body or a lover’s body – can offer a powerful, inner shift in the lives of the participants. Potent in every meaningful act of connection is the possibility of coming to discern what, until then, remained indiscernible to you about yourself and another. Poetry is my daily reminder that embodiment is not the soul’s afterthought, and that, when we meet another in the sheets of books or beds, we are called to take seriously the task of reminding each other we exist in the loving limits of non-digital space.

Alexandra Barylski is a poet, a senior editor at Marginalia Review of Books, and an educational consultant. Her chapbook "Imprecise Perishing" was released last month from Finishing Line Press. The collection evolved out of her experience living with chronic Lyme and explores the renegotiations of identity, relationships, and faith that arise when the body is in a state of dis-ease. 

Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Ruminate Magazine, Phoebe, Minerva Rising, Ithaca Lit, and elsewhere. She won the 2015 Morton Marcus Poetry Prize. She was a finalist for the 2016 Fairy Tale Review Poetry Prize, the Yemassee Journal Poetry Prize, and the New South Poetry Prize. She is most drawn in by poems that explore the exuberance and exhaustion of the body, gendered desire, and the complex interplay of faith, reason, and technology.