Poet Laureate of Kansas Emerita, Wyatt Townley, delves into the human form in her fourth collection of poetry, “Rewriting the Body” from Stephen F. Austin University Press. Her first book in seven years, “Rewriting the Body” explores how the spirit is captured and what shapes its form.
An epigraph from Walt Whitman’s 1855 preface to” Leave of Grass” greets us;
“…and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its word but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…”
Instantly, I am made aware that through words, the body is to be separated, dissected and inspected; piecemealed for consumption. “Rewriting the Body” is divided into four sections: I) Open House, II) Meanwhile You, III) When the Diving Board Ends, and IV) Rewriting the Body. The final section of the book is one long titular poem.
The first poem of the book, “It’s Easy,” invites the reader in, “to enter the room/ of this poem. Less/ so to say. But do/ until this line/ ends and begins/ again, dropping to the next stanza. / If you’re still here,/ have a drink, have/ the run of the place,…” The beginning of this poem is hospitality. I sensed the front door opening beside the porchlight. The porchlight, a symbol of consciousness, always on. The rewriting of the body begins. “…Inside this book/ are other rooms, / a whole house curled/ inside a tree….” This body has rooms. These rooms are poems. This book is a house and bound pages have become a tree in a yard of before.
Throughout the book, you will find concrete poems. These poems are rooms within a body, a meditation on form and content. My favorite concrete poem is titled “One Way.” The poem is short but powerful, “Descend: The poem is both/ basement and/ torna-/do.” The poem can be indicative of destruction or salvation. This fact is understood by any poet looking deep within; into the basement of our houses. In the second section of poems, the basement is once again revisited, “and isn’t this the project of a lifetime/ to live in one house/ bounding up from the basement/.” Throughout the entire text, I felt a winding upward; growth spiraling towards higher ground, the spine of the body and book as one.
The second section of poems titled, “Meanwhile You,” carried deep emotional weight for me, that seemed hard to pass as quickly as the page could be turned. The poem, “Meanwhile You While He” was my favorite succession of numbered poetry in a book to date. Alternate subtitles in this section are: “1/the architect,” “2/the musician,” “3/the actor,” “4/the stockbroker,” “5/the accountant,” and “6/the writer.” These poems felt like people who have come and gone. They were not capitalized. They were followed by the poem, “Rejection Slip.”
“Eclipse” was written for William Mervin and it reminded me of his poem “Good Night.” It felt like goodbye. He passed away this year on March 15. There is also a poem in the third section for Mary Oliver, who also passed this year, titled “In Extremis.” This poem was harder to turn. The first line of Townley’s poem for Oliver is the same as the first line of “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, “You do not have to be good.”
In the final section of the book, the titular poem states “…it’s so easy to lose/ your place in the open-/ ended story of your life/ that is poetry….” Townley rearranges these places for the reader. This book is full of poetry as rooms we are invited into. This book is vulnerability in print. Intimate moments that were piecemealed to be consumed. And as I read, the piecemealed became peacemaking and I realized this is about making peace at home, in a house, which is our body. And all of a sudden, I was “in the mind of another/ raising an eyebrow/ across the room.” I was brought back to the beginning, “Clink!” and my “House lights up.”