How to Write About the Body by Ceridwen Hall
Nearly a century ago, Virginia Woolf complained of the absence of writing about the body, as if “the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible and nonexistent.” In her nonfiction flash “How to Write About the Body,” poet and prose writer Ceridwen Hall questions the words we use to define our physical forms. How do we live in and speak and write about our bodies, she wonders, “without making a thing of it”? The word body, she points out, “has been strained by overuse and anyway tends to make objects or corpses of us,” failing miserably to do justice to the matter—brain, muscle, bone, and organ—that comprises all that we are. Even our metaphors for the heart are “candy-coated,” failed Valentine imagery for the beating pump that circulates our blood and oxygen and has nothing to do with romance.
Hall also deeply considers the challenges of writing about the bodies closest to her. She “listens” to bones and tendons, to cells and heartbeats. “I’m fascinated by the places and moments where words fail us,” Hall writes in her author’s note. Descriptions of the body are confined by diagnostic manuals, charts, and euphemisms. By moving “back-and-forth between words and flesh, language and experience,” Hall succeeds in lyrically expanding the vocabulary of the human organism. —CRAFT
The trick is to write about the body without deploying the body, which has been strained by overuse and anyway tends to make objects or corpses of us: the animals in question. And, we are such animals; my sister praises, after doula training, our skin and instincts. She is reverence, muscle, and laughter, my sister. I am sinew, breath, and wariness. But between us we manage to carry the armchair upstairs for our parents, whose knees no longer permit such rebellions. It is heavy, but mostly awkward, like trying a new sport, and the tendons of our wrists ache afterward as though we had written several pages only to arrive again at the problem of speaking in parts, of singular pains (the spare bone in my right ankle, for instance, which I am constantly stepping around), how this dissects—and violently, prematurely—the whole. Are we coherent without the body? We crook our necks pretending, already, not to be the body. Does the body sound a measure of distance or a call to return? I ask my cells. A pulse replies, but the rhythm’s untranslatable and subject to harp music, to near misses in traffic. And now I am describing the world around this animal, which after all does not belong to anyone and might prefer to drowse namelessly in the late August sun. But language has made living conditional with its past and future tense, its diagnostic manuals, and those charts you see at the hospital translating hurt and numb into several tongues (flesh and word entwined). So the body, once mentioned, becomes a dangerous intersection, an anxious terrain; adulting, they say, happens in the occipital ridge. Which leads us back indoors to our euphemisms and records. The body is prone here to clinical terms, which try to appropriate and explain things the animal has already said—and quite elegantly—in hush and symptom. For instance, the decades-long implosion in my throat for which I swallow a small yellow pill each morning to replace what the crushed butterfly of my thyroid does not produce; autoimmune (which ought to indicate a malfunctioning car feature) makes a statistical window of this little wreck. Blood knows better. My sister’s only cardiac irregularities occurred during races—before she quit running, but after she lost the joy of it. Heart though is worse even than body, coming to us candy-coated and misshapen and beating where the difficulty is: to live simultaneously in time, language, and yes, a body, this one, without making a thing of it—as when we are in the lake with our mother, throwing a ball back and forth, and treading water, talking—taking for granted, as we must, hundreds of firing signals.
CERIDWEN HALL is a poet and essayist from Ohio. She holds a PhD from the University of Utah and is the author of three chapbooks: Automotive (Finishing Line Press), Excursions (Trainwreck Press), and fields drawn from subtle arrows (forthcoming from GreenTower Press). Her work has appeared in TriQuarterly, Pembroke Magazine, Tar River Poetry, The Cincinnati Review, and other journals.
Featured image by Karl Groendal, courtesy of Unsplash.