Saturday, April 17, 2021

Flesh and the Diseases that Shoot across Generations and the Poems We Try to Create

I have always joked that I'm a medieval mind trapped in a modern body.  And what I've meant by that statement is that I'm queasy when it comes to bodies, that I see myself as a soul trapped in flesh, flesh that is out to betray me in any number of ways.  I'm queasy when it comes to fluids and all the ways the body wants to ooze.

I want to be a hip mind trapped in a modern body.  For more years than today's hipsters have been alive, I've been thinking about queerness and all the ways that term is adequate or inadequate.  When  commentators on transgender issues tell us that we can't possibly understand what it means to feel like you're trapped in a body that's wrong for you, with outsides that don't match insides, I say, "I'm a women with flesh that's expert at storing calories for a future famine.  I'm a woman in a deeply patriarchal society that insists we strip every bit of fat from our bodies except for our breasts.  I'm deeply familiar with the feeling of feeling trapped in our flesh.  

I've spent decades trying to change either side of my own binary equation when it comes to these questions of the flesh.  Change my brain:  gratitude for all that my body can do, even with its insistence on storing calories in these extra pounds.  Change my body by monitoring calories, increasing exercise.  My inner medievalist eschews it all.  My inner medievalist asks, can't we just focus on what really matters?  Will we lose our mortal souls in this mad pursuit?

I'm versed in ways of gender expression, but I feel queasy about harnessing the power of surgery for those purposes.  Of course, I'm queasy about surgery regardless.

And now my poetry brain has the last word:  I seem to be writing a series of poems about breast cancer.  I'm a woman who has tried to deny the power of the flesh, only to be reminded again and again, in ways both affirming and terrifying.

My thoughts keep returning to my medical sleuthing, looking for diseases in the family tree.  I think of my grandmother and her sister, who had breast cancer that did not kill them.  I think of their aunt, who took a train from the Tennessee farm to Johns Hopkins but nothing could be done about the breast cancer that would kill her.  I think of breast cancer as a runner, that shoot of mint that shows up in a different part of the yard, far from the mother plant.

My grandmother told me stories about this spinster aunt but never mentioned her breast cancer or the train trip.  Until my medical sleuthing, I had always had this idea of my grandmother as the one who achieved escape velocity, the only one who left the family farm with the others never leaving the farm at all, since my grandparents always went back to visit, never the other way round.

I have inherited the cedar chest made by the older brother Andrew, filled with quilts made by the spinster Aunt Jenny.   I'm thinking about chests and breast cancer.  I'm thinking about cedar and trees, the newish research on trees, how they communicate to each other in subterranean ways, how they nourish each other.  My thoughts often go to this article in The New York Times which introduced me to the arboreal work of Suzanne Simard.

This morning, I have spent hours trying to twist/weave/braid these strands into a poem.  At this point, I don't even feel like I have a tangle, so much as strands that don't want to come near each other.  Let me go for a walk to ponder what's next.  


Dave Bonta said...

I just pre-ordered Simard's forthcoming book - hoping it arrives before Mother's Day, ideally a week before so I can read it myself before giving it away!

The mind/body dualism you write about is fairly alien to my own experience, but it does resonate with the lyrics to one of my favorite metal songs, "Flesh and the Power it Holds" by Death, the unimaginatively named band of one of the most influential electric guitar geniuses since Hendrix, Chuck Schuldiner.

laura grace weldon said...

I resonate with so much of this, Kristin. Thank you for bringing words to what seems impossible to fit into language.