How to Wear This Body

By Hayden Saunier

Terrapin Books. 77 pp. $16 nolead ends

nolead begins


Reviewed by Frank Wilson


The phrase that serves as the title of Hayden Saunier's latest collection occurs in "Dear T, Who Overdosed." It tells of a "bone dry slice of bread / I find deep in the pocket of my good wool coat / as I walk into church for a wedding."

How does it come to be there, the speaker wonders - "until I remember your funeral lunch, / . . . No appetite then, / but I took the bread because I knew / my body would eventually knock / on its own door, ask to be fed . . .." So that "now it all comes back: / how no one knew to look for you / so four days passed . . . "

The speaker finds herself grateful for "this bit of bread I throw out / for the churchyard birds and for reminding / me how to wear this body and this same black coat / to funerals and wedding feasts."

The body, sometimes in striking ways, figures often in these poems. Take the opening of "Accrual":

Some nights my mind still tries

to peel away squares of blackened paper

from the old-fashioned kiosk,

of my spinal column, photographs

and placards posted by the body

behind the mind's back . . .

Imagine that: the spinal column as a display site for the body's furtive postings. This focus on the body brings to mind the notion of some existentialist philosophers, notably Gabriel Marcel, of how essential it is in life to move beyond the sense of self as a body merely to a realization that one is a self among other selves. In these poems, this often involves encounters with the selves among the birds, beasts, and flowers. There is nothing sentimental about this, as those selves can prove as pesky as any others.

And so, in "Losing It With Nature," the speaker tells of how she's had it "with turkey vultures / . . . in the bone-white branches of the buttonwood. . . . " Come to think of it, she's had it with "the buttonwood tree / that plays dead / into June then coughs fat leaves to life in time / to drop them burnt brown first thing / every fall when vultures / like to gather on the barn roof. ... "

On the other hand, the encounters of man and beast can sometimes blur the difference between the two, as "14 Degrees Below Zero in the Grocery Store Parking Lot" makes wonderfully plain. The speaker is waiting for a friend who has stopped to pick up some milk. Nearby, in another car, is a dog. Speaker and canine "stare at each other / . . . waiting for our people to return." The dog "watches doors slide open and closed, open and closed. / So do I."

The speaker wonders "who will come back first - his owner or my friend?" Then,

I look back to the doors, then the dog, and I see

a man in the driver's seat - his owner has come back!

He's won.

Only he hasn't. He's just moved over to the driver's seat. The speaker's friend returns, and, as they drive off, "I keep twisting, looking / back, hoping for a glimpse of the owner . . . because I need to know that he's all right, / because we were the same back there, / we were the same."

It is poems like this that leaven the grief, loss, and (sometimes) anger that some of the other poems address. The overall effect is to remind us of how poetry, with its metaphors and music, serves so often to console. As "Shape Shifting" has it:

Every single thing's like every other single thing -

beneath skin, exoskeleton, carapace,

we might even be each other -

were we only sound.

These are poems that demand to be reread, not because there is anything difficult or obscure about them, but because, like gemstones in just the right light at just the right angle, they sparkle so magically.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog "Books, Inq.-The Epilogue." Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.