Sunday, December 22, 2013

Jennifer Tamayo’s Poems Are the Only Real Bodies

Jennifer Tamayo’s Poems Are the Only Real Bodies (Bloof Books, 2013) is a chapbook-length long poem framed as a series of paratactic letters (“e-pistols”) addressed to Harriet Tubman. I’ve read it about three times now and I really like it. It takes a couple readings, though, for its internal logic, or anti-logic, to begin to take hold. On first reading, the overarching metaphor — the poem/body equivalence — seemed heavy-handed: can poetry, language, really be so corporal; isn’t this something of a conceit? But with further readings, I started to feel that in many ways, yes it can, and that what initially seemed heavy-handed was exactly the point. The metaphor is exaggerated, reiterated in numerous different forms, almost to the point of baroqueness (in the dictionary sense of the baroque as “characterized by grotesqueness, extravagance, complexity, or flamboyance”). As Tamayo writes at the very start of the poem, “Please know that when I place these arms on you, dear reader, we both corrupt with pleasure. The guttural guh guh guh guh! of // what it means to experience the letter”.

Tamayo’s poetry is sensual, happily overwrought and “corrupt”; her poetry involves a connection between people (writer and reader, or poet and subject); and in its sometimes orgiastic intensity, it can paradoxically reduce expression to an almost wordless, guttural “guh.” She writes, “One of my poem’s fingers creeps in to my asshole. / & everything is there.”  And later:

Harriet,

my clit perks and waves to the sun!

it thinks it to be its own reflection

and it looks up the word ENTITLED

At your memorial, I dangle from your big hand like a metaphor: I’m the slobbery noodle.


The way out of this, Hurryet, is through language but I can’t stop narrating, guh, it feels so good.

There is so much here, much more than this review is able to take on. Tamayo’s work deserves further, article-length criticism/analysis than I can give at present. She engages with issues of race and gender, of course, but also of oppression and liberation more broadly, of history and subjectivity, of the role of art and language, and of how these issues might be centered on or expressed through the body. PATORB also seems to be kind of a manifesto in which Tamayo inserts herself, her own art, into these contexts. A page in the book is a photo of the poet literally “dangl[ing]” like a “slobbery noodle” from the right hand of the Harriet Tubman statue in Harlem — Tamayo’s own body has become the metaphor here. Superimposed on her hindquarters are the words “THE SENTENCE” (as I wrote earlier, the metaphor is exaggerated, blatant, reiterated in many different ways throughout the book, and this is just one of them). This technique of combining photograph and text is reminiscent of the visual artist Barbara Kruger, who the poet explicitly references, thus overtly tying her project to a particular comrade-in-arms (so to speak).

It further helps to see Tamayo’s work in the light of that of Harryette Mullen, another contemporary poet who is intensely enamored of wordplay and the materiality of language. Fittingly, Mullen comes in as a riff on the name Harriet, and the page that acts as the Mullen tribute is laden with double-entendre:

This is really hystorical

because when I said I was writing about guns everybody winced
because I forgot to mention they were just my metaphors.

I do believe the poet can act like a terrorist
with a guh guh guh guh!

Here the “guh” is transformed from an expression of the ecstatic inexpressible into the sound of gunshots. It is worth remembering that Harriet Tubman was no pacifist, having allied herself with the anti-slavery militant John Brown and later, during the Civil War, leading an armed raid into Confederate territory to free hundreds of slaves. Two pages later, Tamayo writes, “Moses [NB: a sobriquet for Tubman], // Language is a type-o-trash & I’m uncertain about the concept of nonviolence // as in, these letters are all arms”. Her epistles to Tubman are elsewhere rendered “e-pistols.” In case the NSA is looking in, however (“YOUR ART CONTROLS YOU BY DEFINING YOUR REALITY,” Tamayo writes, “THEY DISCOUNT YOUR EXPERIENCES AND REPLACE IT WITH THEIR TRUTH AND REALITY WHICH IS ACTUALLY A LIE”), she clearly is not advocating any kind of literal violence in this day and age; rather, she is interested in the capacity of language, poetry, and art to strenuously oppose the aforementioned forces of oppression that still face us all, their capacity to act as metaphorical “weapons.”

Tamayo foregrounds the contestedness of everything that her poem takes up, just as the Tubman statue itself is contested. Poems Are the Only Real Bodies is rich and (as they say in reviews) rewards repeated readings. It is heavy (in a good way) and almost goopy in its style (in a good way). The published chapbook is quite the material “body” itself, 7” x 7” square, machine-sewn at the edges with orange thread rather than having a fold-over spine, graphically appealing with bold orange and pink printed ink as a cover motif. It appears that it is now sold out (though available as a free ebook, here). Given the theme/s of this poem, it would be great if the hard copy version were to be made available again in the future.  In any case, Bloof Books is putting out some great work and is a press well worth supporting. PATORB is a remarkable example of what Bloof publishes and especially of what Tamayo is capable of. I look forward to more from her.

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