reviewed by Dan Magers
What undid the house for us
above your porcelain chest?
What has the body left me?
The scope and thesis of Machlin's Dear Body: is as old as language: to what extent can humans solve, or at least question, the mind-body dichotomy? With a subtly pervasive title, Dear Body: at once evokes the physical attributes of the body through sensual experiences and instances, and invokes the mental and metaphysical operations that one might assume to be responsible for propelling the body and the consciousness through space and time.
The book is physically divided into three sections, “Dear Body:”, “Antebodies”, and Beautiful Linear Bodies”. The first and third sections contain loose poems, typically written in an implied epistolary form, embodying the salutatory “dear” of the book's title. The second section may be looked at as either a long poem of roughly forty pages, or forty individual poems of identical length. These six line movements (as the first poem states) might suggest the author's view of these forty pages: “Writing a poem in six lines / is a miracle—come now!”). Taken as a whole Dear Body: is a formidable eighty-five pages of poetry that relies heavily on the non sequitor, or the fragment, in an interrogation of the essence of human existence; a question whose definitive answer is temporarily out of the reach of philosophers, artists, and scientists. Is it the physical, the metaphysical, or the physical-metaphysical that determines the human?
The first section of the book is overtly epistolary, featuring poems that have “letter” or some other type of correspondence-related terminology in their titles. And, appropriate to the title, one can assume these are letters to, and responses from, the body. Entering the book is hard to do as the reliance on fragmentary expression yields only a slightly impressionistic understanding of the substance of each poem individually. For instance, the first poem begins,
If this is the year of clarity, it is the year of the priest's death. I must kill him to become his—a cluster bomb of a man… I have word clusters to give you—prayers hung from flowering trees in Japanese panel painting. Suppose if this is snow, I am never with you. We were in this house see and living our separate lives but never meeting If only I could give you the accident And you could give me your non-acceptance of the event. — from Letter 1
Insistence on the fragmentary in this case belies the nature of the body, as one must assume these poems are in fact being written to the body. But, in a sense, insistence on the fragmentary suggests a more schizophrenically operating mind. As the poem continues, “I know how we can do it. / Fuse the nuclei—no plant bulbs on the terrace.” Here, a proposal is already made to solve the dichotomy, the hindering separation of the mind and the body: “Fuse the nuclei”. Is the answer to the dichotomy to bring together the mind and the body into one whole element? And if so, thus,
No missed opportunities: to run, to sunbathe, run & sunbathe.
Unfortunately, the actions of running and sunbathing are hard to figure in relation to the proposed fusing of mind-body. In such lines, a more controlled sequence of imagery would substantially strengthen Machlin's thesis.
But the aforementioned three lines do bring up a stylistic matter at hand in Dear Body:. Consistently throughout the book Machlin wavers between finely grammatically wrought lines and grammatical missteps. The manipulation of the infinitives “to run, to sunbathe” into imperatives “run / & sunbathe” again seems to mimic the erratic wavering of the mind when it might attempt to communicate with the body. As far as communication between the mind and body goes, it can be erratic and unclear. Nonetheless, one can easily be confused by not only grammatical manipulations but also by the fragmentary nature of Machlin's poetry; but, when taken together and done with authority, the results are expert. Two such examples are “Letter of Intent” and “Misplaced Letter”, the latter of which follows:
The lost body and tomb of Alexander the Great Nabi Daniel—the Soma Heuresis—finding the lost body of Osiris Cé́saire's Corps perdu: “to the point of losing myself falling” Electra: “not ever/to be there/with your lost body/ not ever/to wash you for the fire” Mary Magdalene's “We do not know where they have laid him”
What works so well with this poem is how the proper names, mostly obscure and/or heavy in substance and meaning, overwhelm the motif of being lost. The lost bodies of such famous elements of history is undercut by the words, either directly spoken by or put into the mouth's of, the women Electra and Mary Magdalene. The latter, one can assume, is speaking of Jesus; although, following the words of Electra, one is softens the assumption and may become a more general “him”. Electra, speaking for her father possibly, speaks in obscured verse about the lost body in wonderfully exacting linguistic turns.
The beginning poems (or lines, depending on how one reads this section) of the second section, “Antebodies”, displays just how self-conscious the book is of being written. “Antebodies” begins:
Writing a poem in six lines is a miracle—come now! Do you believe we can learn truths about one another through a series of mundane exercises? I think not. *** If I were to say to you seven syllables—this is my calling. A dance perhaps or a liquid sentence—some sentient being leave-behind dark to the preparation.
Aside from the wordplay on the word “antibodies”, it is difficult to grasp the urgency of these lines' meta-nature—too many questions persist. Is the “you” still the body? Does one need to know the practicality of six lines, each line consisting of seven syllables? Are the “truths” the shared, abstract truths that the mind and body share? And, if so, what are they? And, aside from questions one can definitely feel the slightly slapdash quality of having to conform to six lines, seven syllables, notably in lines 1-3 of the second part (the dash proves to be something that must be leaned on in order for the poet to conform, and the syntax of the sentence does little to clarify meaning). A more in media res beginning, a more get-to-it-already start would probably set the reader on a path that doesn't begin with confusion and insubstantial lines. Altogether, one can't escape the feeling of a writer imprisoned by seemingly arbitrary limitations of form.
Taking into account the play of “antebodies” (or, “before bodies”), there are moments of discovery. The progression from the idea of writing to the body to the idea of a sense before the time of body is how one should read such sections. Midway through the forty pages of six-liners, two sections stood out (pages 48 and 49):
Suddenly I was no one. Not the loosely held ribbon; or sand pouring through fingers; or an uncle's beard I pulled. Not my father's immense grip— but the coolness of the sea. *** As if forced into this form, you can not afford to fret. Every modernism falls perfectly into place. I can't explain why structure is good for man but it is.
And as the evolution continues into a more substantial and familiar world (page 56):
Dark-green, late-blooming, subtle trees, cars, wind, lake, apartments, go, sit, bark, execute, sing, congregate, trap, vaporize hopes, intangibles, theories unsubstantiated, vague.
This “no one” is the before-body. As the human species came from the sea, as fish, there is nothing but this “form”: this “coolness of the sea”. One can forego the sense that the poem may be speaking of itself again in the second quoted section above; this “form” is actually the life and reality into which the mind-body dichotomy is being “forced”. In contrast to the prior section, where there was little form and little substance but to rely on the origins of the body, man has been forced into the world in which he now lives; thus, the third section emphasizes the present reality through a list of adjectives, verbs, and concretes and abstracts.
And, towards the end of the long poem, in an invocation of the workings of the mind, Machlin writes:
How you took a particle and made it matter—always innocently confessing our lives were distinct in time— your thinking to my thinking —I have never forgotten.
A well-done manipulation of meter and line, again advocating for a successful combination, not the separation of the mind and the body through a personal and intimate approach to the problem. Dear Body: is a fine first book from a unique voice in poetry. A mere twenty-page trimming, from the second and third sections, would have given more authority to a voice that has a lot to say about a grand subject.