Contributor’s Marginalia: Lee Upton on Traci O’Dea’s “The Body”

July 2, 2012

“The Body” is a gorgeous poem, start to finish, with an ending that springs the entire poem open. To appreciate that ending, so much matters in terms of what comes before it.

The poem is not “a momentary stay against confusion” in Robert Frost’s sense. It’s an immersion in something beyond confusion. What sweeps through the poem: the mystery of being alive in the midst of death and terror, and the permeability between the living and the nonliving.

The drama of the poem is immediate. A body—a corpse caught in waves, or a struggling swimmer—is observed. The ocean is rendered as engaged in an inevitable performance, while whatever is in the waves will “wash up eventually.” To wash up is not only to be driven to shore but to be cleansed, the imperative across multiple cultures for our bodies, especially women’s bodies. The woman who has watched the scene leaves the beach, choosing to take a path near a cemetery, a reminder of bodies that lost their struggle at the mercy of tides and time. When this observer pulls seaweed from her hair we may intuit that she is implicated in the desperate scene she viewed, as if her body, like the body she observed, has been caught in waves. The title of the poem, “The Body,” begins to resonate on cultural as well as physical levels.

Increasingly, within its tight confines, the poem grows strange. Each line alternately surges and draws back so that we slow our reactions, attentive to the poem’s internal clock. The form is technically intricate: a sonnet in which only three rhymes operate as end rhymes across triplet stanzas. Further internal rhymes and assonance keep the poem closely netted.

With the woman’s gesture of pulling sea moss from her hair we come almost to the poem’s end, that moment where so many other poems drift, or flounder, or drown in an author’s willful, breathless designs. And here, in Traci O’Dea’s poem, is where I fall in love. The concluding transformation in the poem is what floors me, what delivers the poem into another register. The walloping ending cuts across stanzas, shutting tight with a couplet.

And from her hair, her fingers pulled a strand

of sea moss—flossy, taut—like ones that grow
on seaside boulders, make them buffalo.

The image of the boulders as buffalo is so far out of the tight net of earlier references that the poem springs open upon a wild intruder: Look, the poem has caught a buffalo. For a split second, we teeter on the giddy edge of Edward Lear’s nonsense verse. But then the metaphor comes clear: the description is not arbitrary but exact and evocative. The plants draping seaside boulders actually do look like buffalo: shaggy, humped, red-brown and black, as crimped as a buffalo ‘s mane. The entire poem has been about resemblances, differences, and estrangement intertwined. What is less living than rocks? And what is more suggestive of brute living fleshiness than a buffalo? Even the once near total extinction of buffalo gives the poem a back draft of historical contingency.

But the ending of the poem isn’t simply conceptually rich. The poem unlocks an escape hatch from our fates through a defiant expression of imaginative power. And how comically too. Buffalo—noun, proper noun, verb—is one of those words that sounds peculiar to many of us. Think of the trick sentence, grammatically correct, used by linguists and conversationalists at a loss for a topic of interest: “Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo….. ” In the poem we experience a hint of the linguistic comedy and versatility of the word. And in a poem that itself is “flossy and taut,” we envision sea moss, “flossy and taut,” in a double-exposure with buffalo. The poem allows strangeness to crack through in a precise metaphor that momentarily widens our perceptions. The vulnerable, undefended body may be lost in the waves of time and tide and cultural expectation, but the imagination may rise above those waters.

“The Body” is a sly ars poetica, beach reading of the thrilling sort.

Thank you, Traci O’Dea.

Lee Upton

photo by Cece Ziolkowski

Lee Upton’s most recent book is Swallowing the Sea: On Writing and Ambition, Boredom, Purity, & Secrecy, forthcoming from Tupelo Press this summer. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Best American Poetry 2011, Ecotone, and The Literary Review. Her poem, “Tender Is the Night,” appears with Traci O’Dea’s “The Body” in 32 Poems 10.1.

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