Naked as a Jaybird
KWG’s newest anthology bares the body and the soul
by Jonathan B. Frey
The Knoxville Writers’ Guild’s seventh anthology of writing, entitled Low Explosions: Writings on the Body , edited by Casie Fedukovich with Steve Sparks, commences with an epigram from Walt Whitman: “I exist as I am, that is enough.”
As Fedukovich explains in the Introduction to this collection, “the Guild invited writers to tell stories of and about their bodies,” and hence the Whitman reference is apt—Whitman being a model scribe of the body. But in the 150 years since Whitman delivered such riffs as “O Hymen, O Hymenee!” much has changed. Medical imaging, CSI , the Human Genome Project, Our Bodies Ourselves , webMD—what Fedukovich describes in slightly different context as “cultural baggage”—conspire to transform our perceptions. As a result, Low Explosions contains less Whitman exuberance, less of his “chant of dilation or pride,” and more introspective lament.
Amid what at times can feel like a diary of ruination—coronary artery disease, eating disorders, severed limbs, cancer, aging, injuries, sexual violation, lost sensations—the celebrations stand out. DeeDee Agee’s “Childbirth,” for example, which commences with an affirmation: “It was 1968, and I was twenty-one, pregnant, and on the brink of life. For the first time I could remember I felt like a whole person with a reason for being on earth.” However, the compelling narrative develops into a narrowly overcome ordeal, clinical, complicated.
Another recollection of pregnancy, Alicia Benjamin-Samuels’ poem “A Flutter (Praise Dance)” is full of life and cleverness: “First, a flutter. / Then I felt her shake and roll. / She shimmied—vibrated her house….” Later, Benjamin-Samuels alludes to Billie Holiday, as do several others in this anthology. In fact, Holiday is the most frequently mentioned public figure in this collection, her tragic chanteuse persona emblematic of Low Explosion ’s overall tone.
To be fair, there are less ambivalent affirmations. Jessica Weintraub playfully captures a relationship’s complexity in “Stigmas”: “In fields they fall to their knees / and ‘make out’—a phrase he loves. / He shows her how to distinguish grasses, / whispers their Latin names into her collarbone, one palm around each breast. / She loves the things he knows, / which may or may not be same as loving him.”
Bill Brown’s deceptively effortless “Diviner” nods to William Carlos Williams while observing “Walking across campus / near the law school a student in pleated skirt / and black tennis shoes / uses her white cane / to survey terrain / before her cautious steps.” And most declaratively, Libby Falk Jones offers a paean, “October Tenth: For My First Son,” celebrating her son’s birth, the concluding stanza resounding “there you sat, upright / in the doctor’s palm, your arms / circling the universe.”
Nevertheless, the more representative epigram for Low Explosions is its third, taken from the movie Deconstructing Harry : “The most beautiful words in the English language are not ‘I love you,’ but ‘it’s benign.’” A mechanized medical awareness prevails, as in Heather Wibbles’ “Extended Warranty,” the final stanza of which concludes with a service department order for the self: “Recondition fused muscles, replace / cracked belts, patch leaky lines and / flush the transmission to get / the old girl running smooth again.” Similarly, Rebecca Efroymson’s account of trauma recovery, eerie and fascinating, conveys equally the nature of medical institutions—their rituals, stereotypes, and setting—as the repair of her body and mind. The most extreme example of what informs this anthology as a whole appears, appropriately enough, centrally in the volume, on page 156: Janée J. Baugher’s “At the Körperwelten Exhibit, Köln Germany”. That poem sequence, reflections on an exhibition of plastinated human corpses, shocks the reader with the body’s inevitability, the absolute impossibility “to quit the fibrous, physiology of meat-to-bone….” Voyeuristic in essence, the sequence is—as one suspects the exhibit itself to be—too lurid for sustained consideration, but too mesmerizing to look away.
Low Explosions contains some awkward moments, passages of uneasy metaphor and word choice. Examples include orthotics as “stiff and unbending as the soles [sic] of the righteous,” breasts that sag “like the leaf crown of a strawberry too long on the vine,” lips “barely parted, like threads in unraveling string,” “amorphous moths,” screaming boot strings, and memory that stretches like a Persian cat. More happily anomalous, however, is the inclusion of L.A. Hoffer’s short story “What We Were Wearing,” a stand-out for the assuredness of its writing and plot despite its non-conformance to the anthology’s theme. This agreeable thematic flexibility as well as the broad range of the 100-plus entries (including photographs, which were not featured to best effect in the copy under review) ensures Low Explosions rich opportunity for corporeal reflection.