Poetry is a body in pain



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 a body in pain. My whole life disciplines me in this course of study. I can read quickly and with precision the varying degrees of ache expressed in the lines of a mouth. I can interpret the agony that alters the steps of someone who should not be walking in the first place. I can demonstrate with clarity how a body moves in Whitman-like lines, how the long deep inhales of someone taken to their limit in prose will break into an exhale of poetry.


My father’s body is the poem that taught me how to notice, how to write. He taught me how to exist in my body with some of our shared diseases, though not intentionally. We have Lyme disease and several other bacterial infections living inside us. Our blood is dirty. We can not and do not share it with anyone. As a woman, I am told I will not make new life from diseased veins.  No one knew we would end up patients in the same doctor’s office or calling one another long-distance to talk about medication and protocol, to speak without speaking of symptoms and sorrow, of our anger and ultimately our relief that we are here, that we are breathing deeply, taking what might have remained dense and angry prose and refining it into the distilled language of a poem.


Mark Doty’s My Alexandria and Atlantis, Paul Monette’s Love Alone: 18 Elegies for Rog, and D.A. Powell’s Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys are collections that offer me bodies in pain, give me lovers whose love life is never beyond the gaze of illness, bodies who come together in sickness and in sickness. But it is my copy of The New Testament that is most worn.  Not one of those slim, partial books bound separately from the rest of the Bible, but Jericho Brown’s full-length collection. Brown nuances God, race, homosexuality, AIDS, desire, and class out of heavy marble; his lyrical style makes immovable weight appear effortlessly light to hold, which is how I end up believing I can come back to the text and escape the burden of those words that most reflect my own life. But I am always crushed. So it is fitting “Nativity” concludes the book:


     I was Mary once.
     Somebody big as a beginning
     Gave me trouble
     I was too young to carry, so I ran
     Off with a man who claimed
     Not to care. Each year,
     Come trouble’s birthday,
     I think of every gift people get
     They don’t use. Oh, and I
     Pray. Lord, let even me
     And what those saints say is sin within
     My Blood, which certainly shall see
     Death — see to it I mean —
     Let that sting
     Last and be transfigured



Once, I ran off with a man who said he did not care about trouble’s name or that I was sick, but there were no angels or dreams to keep me by his side. There was no future child holding us together. My heart’s been warped into thinking disease is a punishment for sin, or at least a metaphor. I’ve read that other New Testament, too, and my head knows that sin and sickness never kept Mary’s son from loving anyone. I am not yet thirty-three, not the age of Christ on every plaster crucifix, the first poem I was taught to meditate on. The body in pain hanging on my bedroom wall as a child; my father’s body nailed to our couch in agony; my own body crumpled on a sidewalk when my legs gave out and I could no longer walk. Poems.


There is an exactitude pain calls forth from the body, there is the precision pain demands of language and which language does not readily offer without the poet’s vocabulary, though even that can fail, or at least has the kindness to fall into silence, an empty space offered for mourning. So it is that vocabulary I trust to tell me about my own strange kind of dying and not-dying, it is that vocabulary that allows me to wrestle daily with the illogical hope of healing, some resurrection that might “last and transfigure” me.

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.