The Rewards of Re-Reading Body Bereft

2015: My Year of Re-Reads

Every year I try to read 52 books in 52 weeks. This has been my New Year’s Resolution for more than a decade, and most years, I’ve kept it. I love to devour fiction and poetry, and so far, I have read something new each week. This year, however, I am only re-reading. I am doing this for several reasons—to return to beloved texts, to teach myself patience and reverence for good works, to see what I’ve forgotten, and to try to figure out just how my favorite books work.

This project inevitably brings back memories of where I was or whatever else I was experiencing during first readings. It can be a pleasant experience—like falling in love all over again. Or, it can make me see how blinded, or damned young, I was when I first came into contact with an author or a collection.

Nothing has demonstrated the importance of rereading works for me like one particular poetry collection. I saw poet Antjie Krog speak at a release party for a new collection called Body Bereft when I was a junior in college, during the last month of a semester abroad in Cape Town, South Africa in 2006.

capetown3The collection is about aging—from the frustration and fear of watching your own body decay, to mixed feelings about being a grandmother. Though I never would have recognized it then, at 20 years old I was far too wrapped up in my own experiences to let anything too different in. I had just ended my teen years and was excited to be “an adult,” which to me primarily meant living far away from home. I had interned for six months at a children’s home for kids who survived parents because of HIV and tuberculosis. I was moved by the idea that life could find a way to thrive in the face of impossible hardship. I loved watching young children develop, grow and change. I fell in love during that semester abroad, too. Everywhere I looked I could see possibility and a chance to get better. Newness, freshness, opportunity—these were the things I sought out. I only wanted those ideas reflected back at me.

And so, I could not have been a worse audience for Body Bereft.

Upon my first reading, the only pieces I connected to were “Mountain Rondeau in Four Parts,” a breathy tribute Cape Town’s famous flat-topped mountain and every culture that has named or honored it.

Each part (ostensibly written from a different location of viewing Table Mountain) begins:

“from inside   from outside
from in outside   from out inside
from innermost outside to outermost inside
from inner and outer namegivers to inner and outermost mountain”
I was drawn to this for its sense of mysticism. I had recently read Tao Te Ching for the first time and was only interested in poetry that could guide me in meditation.

The preceding 75 pages of Krog’s poetry are brutal, evocative, and important. I’d missed all of that completely.

The collection’s mission mandate is revealed in the poem, “God, Death, Love.”

The poem begins:

“God, Death, Love, Loneliness, Man
are Important Themes in Literature.
menstruation, childbirth, menopause, puberty
marriage are not”
This is bluntly a thesis statement, to be sure. Yet nine years after this collection was released, the criticism is no less merited.

The central philosophy of this work is given form in just a few lines of the poem “how do you say this”:

“I really don’t know how to write your aging body

I simply do not know how aging should sound in language.”

Krog admits perplexity at changes to her own body, then puts these changes into words. She also expresses anger that aging female bodies are so often sources of shame, and thus hidden away. She didn’t know what to expect because she was never allowed to see older women’s bodies before—they were hidden from view.

To remedy this, Krog bears witness to the raw, the ugly, the unexpected that happens to human bodies as they age. She gives us “when tight is loose,” which names the phenomena that women are often advised to keep to themselves:

“…here is the upper lip
plying the accordion and yesterday when
she pointed at something, her upper arm
flapped its own new suede purse—
her thumbs are crumbling away and refuse
to open bottles, taps or masturbate.
her stomach lies like a dish in her lap.”

The poem continues as an unflinching list of discomforts and indignities. I can see so clearly now that it is a rebellion against the tendency—in art and in polite company—to ignore the physical changes of aging women.

As a Reader, as an Audience

In the nine years since I picked up my copy of Body Bereft at Exclusive Books on the Waterfront, I’ve experienced more than headstrong change and excitement.

I’ve fallen out of love and into depression; I’ve watched mismanaged nonprofits fail; I’ve been advised that I should not leave a dental clinic because my infected tooth is surely killing me. I’ve played the wait-and-see game with a cyst and known that my body was aging and failing. No longer just an exercise before yoga, poetry has opened me up (Stanley Kunitz), devastated me (Olena Kalytiak Davis), and redeemed me (Mary Oliver).

I am sure of so much less than I was when I had just turned 20. Perhaps the only thing I can say with confidence is: I needed to reread Body Bereft this year, and will return to this work again in years to come.

 

Laura Eppinger graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA in 2008 with a degree in Journalism, and she’s been writing creatively ever since. Her laptop screen got cracked during a year in Cape Town, South Africa,  but it never stopped her from writing. Her full publications list lives here: http://lolionthekaap.blogspot.com/p/creative-writing.html