In Review

Leave Your Body Behind by Sandra Doller. Les Figues, 2015.

cover of Leave Your Body Behind

Reviewed July 1, 2015 by Jay Besemer.

Consider the word “overwhelming.” There are many ways to be overwhelmed; being taken out of oneself by an experience can be pleasurable, even beneficial. Don’t hesitate to reel in disorientation from page to page of Sandra Doller’s new book Leave Your Body Behind. Unlike the experience suggested by the title, these pieces—here called “poems,” though the book is classified “prose” on the Les Figues site—actually offer a very embodied reading experience. It’s not a body with fixed borders, though, or stable parameters of existence or identity.

If some orientation is desired, first read the epigraphs that demarcate and flow between sections. There are over forty of them, which makes one wonder if “epigraphs” is the right word. Leave Your Body Behind uses a loose prose-poem form to contain a multi-voiced conversation on memory, bodies, gender, identity, absurdity, pop culture, the “poetry world” and other things worthy of poetic examination. The cult of celebrity, procreation culture and brain function are all important “trending” ideas throughout the book. The flow of ideas in some places resembles channel-surfing, or something a little more palimpsestic. This excerpt suggests what I mean:

Where are you these days? Here. Where are you? Thataway. I went thataway. The difficulty of telling a story is never said. Never saying what the story is. If you tell the story then the story is killed. We had an image in front of us of a dapper oldie and his homberg wasting by the side of a bridge his hand on his hips her hands in the doorway her arms raised. Which relative of yours do you hold the picture of. Which man seems like a woman in her own time. Which turbulent beauty is yours. She had a scarf across her lap like a lie, like a keeping. He has published his “mem-wahs” several times by now.

Someone might decide this is a sort of stream-of-consciousness thing, as if James Joyce had access to a second-hand smartphone and wi-fi pirated from a neighbor. But James Joyce had fixed borders (or at least he does now).

Coming to the book with expectations of gendered writing will frustrate some readers, unless those expectations embrace something fragmentary, static-filled and unstable. In fact, the body most referenced or inhabited in the text seems to be an implicitly vague poet’s body, not quite “one-size fits all” or entirely genderless, but rather a poet’s body that is pragmatically simultaneous to suit the needs of the work. Is “poet” its own gender? Doller is adept at problematizing the subjective and the poet-as-subject using the very tools and material of subjecthood. This poem is a good example:

What kind of questions is this, are these? Someone stole my notebook and wrote “Pooty West Virginia.” I didn’t write that. Though I can accept Pooty West Virginia as my own. Own thought. Own child. Is that normal? On Craigslist there’s an ad “looking for Normal Human to share house.” There’s always that ad. That’s the seek. The demand is never maxed for Normal Human. So, no. Because poetry is something pre-demand or supra-demand or ex-demando-facto. Poet does not fulfill demand like order. The poet demands. The Maria Callas in every room.

The poet—as a character or persona—is certainly problematic in this book. Readers will immediately notice iconic poet-names checked left and right. Many of these are authors of epigraph material, giving Doller’s texts a further conversational feel. It’s hard not to connect an epigraph-quote by Bernadette Mayer, for example, with a Mayer name-check in Doller’s concentrated language, hard not to see the name signaling some kind of response:

So you “perform.” A good way to say I didn’t “mean” it. I don’t “mean.” Anne Waldman can talk about it. Fanny Howe can talk about it. Bernadette Mayer can talk about it. Charles Bernstein can talk about it. Leslie Scalapino can talk about it. Could. White people in a black room. You’ve got nothing “new.”

But it’s also hard to imagine that being all there is to it. We can’t help but wonder who the “you” is, and whether these named poets are actually playing themselves in Doller’s text. The scare-quotes around “perform” and “mean” are also big clues that we would do well to resist the face value. This passage concerns permission, the authority to speak, whether earned or assumed. Yet in the powerful act of naming, a complex magic of honoring, usurpation and self-proclamation occurs.

Doller stakes a claim with the use of names, places and quotation. Any poet working now cannot do so outside of a context. Doller builds her own context, and the uses she makes of names and quotes is arguably a way to control her relationship to that context. Shout-outs can be backtalk, or print-medium hashtags. They’re keys to absurd shared obsessions and pet peeves (Terry Gross, yoga pants, babies, baby yoga pants). But they’re also reflections of the way we tend to become our influences, somehow, and our desires. All this naming also reflects the dilemma of the contemporary experimental poet—maybe a poet over 30, say, but under 55—figuring out which of our elder living heroes might stand next to us, and which remain resolutely above. It’s not a comfortable relationship; some of it hits rather close to home. “Everyone’s specific mother is getting sicker and older.” If these “mothers” are our mentors in code, what are we feeling when we consider we might lose them?

Problems of subjectivity, and the poet-as-subject, are hot these days. Theory-inflected poetics meld uncomfortably with actual-factual bodies—and the poets wearing those things. How does a non-narrative poet claim a theoretical support, a lineage of prior experimenters, and a subject position without being forced back into linear narrative “about” oneself? This terrain is not yet mapped, but following preset navigation won’t necessarily get us where we need to go. Doller suggests a complex engagement with identity, with context and relevance: “I don’t ‘mean.’” Discard ideas about the way an identity (or a life) unfolds: “It’s a doll named Jessica! A real live girl! A Cabbage Patch fantasy of narrative reality.” Complicating the poet as subject may lead to the paradoxical move of—you guessed it—leaving the body behind completely. But abstraction is its own trap and nothing is resolved by outright denial. So how can we leave the body behind?

Put another way, how can a marked poet be asked (or ask hirself) to switch off that part of the self that is marked? What poetics could be complete—or even possible—that demands such a thing? Instead, Doller’s poetics enlists poetry itself in the task of determining what the marked body is to the poet—how, in fact, it functions poetically, how the marked poet hirself functions with/within the specific body. This exploration is vitally important, and it must continue.

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Jay Besemer is the author of several poetry collections. His critical essays appear in many publications, including Rain Taxi Review of Books and PANK. He is currently serving as guest-editor, with Joel Allegretti, for a special issue of Nerve Lantern: Axon of Performance Literature. He tweets @divinetailor.