Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Lesson of Loss: Temptation by Water

Facebook Post yesterday:

My three poetry books arrived today, turning a Friday that was acting altogether like a Friday into a kinder, gentler day, something say in the Wednesday line. Diane Lockward, Luisa Igloria, and William Trowbridge. (Ren Powell I'm getting through a different channel.) Read the first section of Temptation by Water, and it has a massage poem in it!

And I went on with a comment:

True, it's titled "Why I Won't Have a Full-Body Massage," but of course the reasons why one will and won't are generally the same identical list, and the poem is one of those rich self-subversions we moderns specialize in. Lockward is a rather scary poet. Nothing chummy. We're here to do a poem, bucko, and don't forget it. I adore her.

So. Here goes.
Leaving in Pieces

One morning I awoke
And found myself married
to a bald man.

And I settle in comfortably for one of those rueful contemplations of mortality, and how the speaker loves her husband just as much (more than ever), and the compensations of wisdom and deepening intimacy. Oops.
The hairless head was yellowish-white
and shiny as a peeled clove of garlic.
I saw its imperfections --
wens and protrusions, moles and warts,
pimples and wedges of bone.

You're not supposed to actually describe that sort of thing. You're supposed to make a graceful gesture in that direction and move along. This is like the moment in a skating routine when a spin has gone on so long that you find yourself holding your breath. Surely she has to come out of it now?

But she doesn't. She buys a dog with lustrous hair, as a replacement. And then she she pulls her arms in closer to her body and, impossibly, spins faster: she matter-of-factly takes the dog into her bed, moves the husband to the doghouse, and listens to him howl.

It's brilliant, it's over the top, and it made me laugh aloud. And if Lockward actually has a bald husband, I really, really don't want to know it.
We hardly minded the howls
of our poor bald dog as he absorbed
the lesson of loss
and made mournful noise
throughout the night.

Why I Won't Have a Full-Body Massage

This doughy flesh
does not want a stranger's fingers
kneading it.

Well, of course, I have to respond to the massage poem. The speaker, here, doesn't want a massage like Mark Antony doesn't want to praise Caesar. The poem ends:
on fire again, all sparks and flames,
each muscle burning and rising
towards the familiarity of tender hands
kneading it.

But it's not simple. (I may be a tyro Lockward reader, but I'm already versed enough to know that.) Her body really does not want the massage, at the same time as it does, and this ambivlence is as central to massage, as I understand it, as it is to this poem.
This sorry sack of skin refuses
a stranger's gaze, my naked, dimpled sins
exposed . . .

The struggle is so clever here. Don't look at me, say the words, because I'm ugly. But the speaker is stripping herself, exposing the sin of her imperfect body, to the reader. After all, nobody forced her to write the poem. She could have kept all this to herself. She wants to be seen by a stranger: she wants not to be seen by a stranger. So do we all.

And the threat of a perfectly successful massage runs through the poem. The flesh made completely healthy, the body put into perfect balance: it all threatens annihilation. Pressure points, / points at which I might capitulate.

(Yes, yes, I know, to a massage person pressure points is wrong here, she means either trigger points or acupressure points, but we're poetry people right now, not massage people.)

What happens if you capitulate? The speaker doesn't say, but she's damned if she's going to do it.

This fear of being washed away by bliss and well-being is deep. I can't help but think of the people who resist meditation because they don't want their identities to go away. Oh my dear, my dear, if only we were really at risk! No experienced meditator can hear of that anxiety without a smile. And likewise massage. Things do release. Moments of pleasure and tenderness do arise. But there are tensions under tensions, shames under shames, lonelinesses under lonelinesses. You never come to the end of it, not in this world. Massage is always incomplete and unsatisfying: that's its nature. That's what it's for. Not to be bliss, but to raise the question of bliss, to keep it in play.

Without Words For It

Christ. I don't think a single short poem has ever done both to me at the same first reading: make me burst into laughter and burst into tears.
Infinitives remained behind,
still valued for the way they carried on, as in
to get out of bed.

See other posts on reading Temptation by Water by Dave Bonta and Kristin Berkey-Abbott. And my next installment here.


Dale said...

Hey Dave & Kristin, is there some particular place I link to or from to be officially in the party?

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

I *heart* you. :)

rbarenblat said...

Massage is always incomplete and unsatisfying: that's its nature. That's what it's for. Not to be bliss, but to raise the question of bliss, to keep it in play.

Beautiful beautiful. Yes.

Diane came to give a reading at Inkberry, back in the day. I haven't read this book, but in general I've liked her work very much.

Anonymous said...

One of this month's delights is the opportunity to read poems over Dave's shoulders at Today's even more fun with you doing it, too. I particularly enjoy your reactions to Lockwood as she takes on every detour sign.

Dave said...

Nothing official about it, Dale, but I've updated my post to link to you and Kristen, and you're free to do the same, if you like.
Thanks for joining us! I knew you'd have a pretty unique take, but you're right: Lockward doesn't take any easy outs.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Great review! I linked to you here:

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Whoops! That's your post. I linked to you here:

Dale said...

Thanks, Kristin!