Reviewed September 28, 2012 by Angela Hume.
“[Bodies] take place at the limit, qua limit: limit—external border, the fracture and intersection of anything foreign in a continuum of sense, a continuum of matter,” writes Jean-Luc Nancy in his essay “Aphallus and Acephale,” arguing that the essence of body is its limit, the point at which it is exposed to and touches that which is absolutely other, that which is outside of itself, and in the process comes to know itself. The poems of Hillary Gravendyk’s first book Harm (Omnidawn, 2011) reach toward precisely this limit, writing body, which, according to the poems, is always also a register of the enclosures and traversals of body. While speaking from the limits of embodiment, the poems also imagine forms of transformation, mobilizing simile and metaphor as a means for glimpsing worldly materials in all of their elusiveness. Gravendyk wrote Harm in the wake of major surgery, and in relating experiences of illness, the poems oscillate formally, from prose to fragment—sometimes dense, other times nearly weightless—conveying liminal states of consciousness that seem to emerge from the interstice between wakefulness and dream. And while one might read into the work a poetics of healing, it is perhaps more interesting to consider the ways in which the book thinks the implications of bodily violation, ultimately equating mortality with a condition of frightening, radical contact—of being in touch.
Harm opens with a narrative of transformation. In “Botanica,” Gravendyk situates readers in a dreamlike forest, vibrant even in its stillness, the “air stuttering with leaves.” The poet grounds readers in the particulars of her environment’s small flora and fauna—“Acutifolius,” “Candicans,” “Sylvaticus, Californicus”—naming the ecosystem’s varied components, where tangled materials touch and constitute one another: “Black air folds around low ferns.” At the end of “Botanica,” Gravendyk writes: “I laid my hand on the tree until my skin turned to bark.” Here, a kind of Daphne, Gravendyk’s subject seeks redemption by taking on an alternate form, the tree’s—a last attempt, perhaps, to escape an insatiate Apollo, who in this case, and in the context of the book, we might read as none other than death itself. Of course, the poem is an allegory, or fantasy, and Gravendyk suggests this fact in her use of dreamlike language and logic. But through narrative, the poem lends form to a key tension of the book: the human desire for transcendence despite the (oftentimes terrible) limit that is the body, the condition for earthly life. Broadly, we might say that Gravendyk’s interest lies with the condition of being creaturely. “Creature of occasion, remember where you have been,” writes Gravendyk at the outset of the poem, writing both from and to the situation of the earthly other.
To return to the book’s formal construction: the poems of Harm take on various forms and shapes, from prose poems to lyric couplets to short fragments. Comprised primarily of images—strung together via layered similes and metaphors—the poems are often mysterious and interior. The strongest poems (and there are many) are deliberate and absolutely distilled, achieving the kind of precision that is characteristic of Plath or H.D.’s work. Gravendyk’s poem “Harm” is a fine example of such precision:
Ahead the sky is winnowed to its smallest feature. Starred with damage,
the body. What was promised, what was revealed. A long staircase of
wounds. Behind: unseen error. Or accident. Harm winking on, a neon
sign that says closed. Pain glued to each window. The rooms shadowed with
harm. You offered anxiety, a harness made from care. Curved handle, in-
tention. Harm a kind of adhesive. Skin clusters around the opening,
ridged and thick. There are lighter and darker marks. They disclose. Pa-
per echo, gesture. Bleakness along the spine of narrative. Harm flat as a
swept floor. As a drawn planet. A bright story is requested. What will be
touched? Machines, that flashing support, a threaded needle. And the
body, sutured to harm.
In this poem Gravendyk mobilizes metaphor to bridge the conceptual with the emotional, with what is felt in and by the body: “Harm winking on, a neon / sign that says closed.” The concept becomes the emotion associated with the image: the image of a neon sign bridges and equates harm with rejection, loneliness, disappointment, even defeat. In this way, the literary device’s work of transfer is fully extended. “Harm” is not only a neon sign; it must be the object plus all of the feelings that the image of the object arouses. Notably, while Gravendyk often employs a vocabulary of the natural world, she insists here instead on a familiar image from social life, a commercial sign hanging in the window of a business. In this context, the image is odd, surprising, and by utilizing it the poet resists the organicism that might come all too easily in a book about illness. In this way she also situates her poem in time. Harm is a book of this time; it is about contemporary experience and contemporary life.
In “Harm,” as in many of the book’s poems, Gravendyk makes reference to “rooms” and other small spaces—a staircase, a window, and a “swept floor”—all of which are likened to harm, wounds, and pain. The poet repeatedly names these enclosures, underscoring the tension between interior and exterior and evoking the claustrophobic nature of illness—of living with a heightened awareness of the container of one’s own body. Importantly, the enclosures here—not unlike the interior of the body itself—evidence damage: “Pain glued to each window. The rooms shadowed with harm.” In this way, the border between inside and outside, the enclosure itself, the site of the harm, becomes the essence of embodiment. In other words, the only body is “the body, sutured to harm,” as this sutured-ness is the very condition for its existence.
Gravendyk complicates this claim later on in “Scar,” perhaps the most confessional of the poems in the book, in which she writes with reference to her own surgical incision: “That tender barrier—breached, so we call it cure. / But there is none, only different kinds of wonder…Call me cyborg, / call me monster, miracle. Read the line of my flesh aloud and I’ll listen.”
Gravendyk again dwells at the “barrier,” or limit, of the body, what has come to be for her the definition and condition for embodiment—“breached,” and so called “cure.” As in the first poem “Botanica,” here Gravendyk again reflects on the fantasy of transcendence, or “cure”—human desire to traverse the limits of the body. At the limit, though, there is only “harm” and “wonder”—the essence of what it means to be a body in precarious touch with the world around it.
As I have suggested, Gravendyk’s thinking is on par with Jean-Luc Nancy’s, who in his essay “Intruder,” written in the wake of a heart transplant, argues, “My heart became my stranger: strange precisely because it was inside…this strangeness binds me to myself. ‘I’ am, because I am ill.” And then: “this gaping cannot be sealed back up…I am closed open.” For Nancy, the essence of the “I” is the condition of being closed-open, finite yet exposed, strange even to oneself—a condition we might also call sickness. In an untitled fragment late in the book, Gravendyk writes:
There is a break under the skin,
forced up like a rough stone.
Someone threaded a loom
of nails, spelled gentle ghost.
What haunts us is our softness
When we touch the places our chests are closed
against each other.
Here, vulnerable bodies—“skin,” “softness,” “chests”—stand dangerously close to “a loom of nails,” under threat of puncture. Though importantly, one body is already broken from the inside: “There is a break under the skin / forced up like a rough stone.” The body here is “closed open,” per Nancy. Or, to keep with the logic of Gravendyk’s poem, open-closed: “When we touch the places our chests are closed / against each other.” Two bodies, in all of their damage, meet at and inhabit their limit, yet remain finite. The oddness of the line “When we touch the places our chests”—confusing in its lack of punctuation, seeming at first to equate “the places” with “our chests”—underscores the strangeness, even clumsiness, of body. The body’s limit is the site of harm, but it is also the site of intimacy, the other. And while (sexual) intimacy cannot prevent or eliminate harm, it can perhaps render it—sutured, earthly embodiment—however momentarily, more bearable.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. Corpus. Trans. Richard A. Rand. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.