What Space This Body by J. C. Todd, Reviewed by Robert Zaller
J. C. Todd’s first full-length book of poems is a work of deep and mature engagement with the world in each of the three ways it presents itself to adult consciousness: as external environment; as body; as self. The external world--what might be called the surround, and which includes the human other--is that which the ego learns to detach from itself. The body is an intimate borderland; in part it represents our surest and most immediate knowledge of the self, but it is also the beginning of what is not-self. The self itself is a voyager that seeks to remain in place, and that we fondly imagine in fact can do so.
The child only gradually learns to make these distinctions, which are necessary to cognition; the poet’s task is to loosen and in part unlearn them, so that self, body, and world become permeable to one another again. Yeats had this in mind when he asked how one could tell the dancer from the dance; the point is that, in poetry, one doesn’t, at least when the poem succeeds.
J. C. Todd is a most accomplished dancer. One of her best poems, “Pissing,” opens this volume:
Knees bent, you tip your pelvis slightly
toward the immaculate bowl
and with the same hand that stroked me last night
extend from its sheath the pink bud of your penis.
There’s a sacramental element in this most profane of acts as a husband relieves himself, observed by a speaker who wonders whether he is not in the self-concentration of his act a “Narcissus / looking at Narcissus, his vision forever grounded / on the shallows of that glance.” To be sure, the physical handling involved in urination mimics masturbation; but the poet decides that “the golden piss / arcing from your body what it does not need” is in fact the self’s generous projection of itself into the world, and that in accepting it the lover’s body is taken as it is offered, in full and without reservation. What is certainly occurring is the poet’s own generous projection, her embrace of the totality of the other. Can one really separate the perceiving agent from the thing perceived, though; distinguish the dancer from the dance?
The origin of this empathy--far too weak a word to describe the process, but it will have to do--is, as we learn later, that of a stillborn twin sister given life in the poet’s imagination (“Nightshade”). Guilt at survival is mingled with the sense of death’s stifling closeness, a closeness begun even in the womb; and when the poet must deal as an adult with her mother’s dying, it is deeply compounded. Something is knit together--“the tough muscle / some called heart” (“To Continue”)--but something else is severed, so that the poet, compact of too many selves, must always be an observer, too, of herself, forever “teetering on the cutting edge of dark” (“Hide ‘n Seek”).
The need both to set and surpass boundaries thus constitutes the terrain of the poet’s vocation; as Todd herself expresses it, “My restless desire to behold / the whole of it--inward and out.” It is his desire that drives her “onto the cold dome of rock / overlooking the home-studded valley,” that is, to the barren vantage point from which home alone appears. The particular complexity and ambivalence of Todd’s vision appears in these lines, and the dual nature of her envisioning. On the one hand, she grandly and avidly risks self in her encounter with the world; on the other, she holds herself at an almost clinical distance, observing the instant of turbulence in which matter changes state and the fearful, longed-for transmutation of the world’s elements takes place (“Instant of Turbulence”).
There isn’t any single poem that can sum up Todd’s achievement, but the one that perhaps comes closest is “On the Beach.” The poet observes an ebb tide that suggests, in its “Constellations of / seaweed and shell-bit scintilla” a reflection of the hidden heavens, but also the “scud and litter” of the sea’s detritus. A wind blows up; a war--Iraq?--impends. A factory ship goes by, not fishing but ‘harvesting,’ and Todd wonders at the individualized lives of its catch, whose waters she has shared and in whose destruction she feels complicit. Against this she can offer only a sustained perception of the world’s variety and value, but here, too, she convicts herself of “So many failures / of attention. Lapses.” In such a verdict, however, one cannot concur. What Space This Body is starred with a thousand acts of attention that draw the world’s beauty into itself, and creates new beauty in turn. I can think of no better way to repay the gift of existence.
J. C. Todd. What Space This Body. Nicholasville, Kentucky: Wind Publications. 2008. 78 pp. ISBN 978-1-893239-73-9.
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