Do you ever have that eerie out-of-body feeling when you look into a mirror, think Is that really me? Your own face can become unrecognizable—it is, after all, something we’ll never see straight on without some sort of mediation, whether it be our bathroom vanities, home videos, or a parking lot puddle on our way into the grocery store. Our own bodies must be translated—we are blurry and unrecognizable even to our own selves.
Claire Donato, in her first full-length collection of poetry The Second Body, knows this. She is embedded in the work of bodily translation, whether the transfer of first body to a multitude of seconds, or through the translation of language itself. Donato fixates on the possibility for multiple bodies, for a second body. She takes on the compartmentalization of self, not in a way where the parts can be shoved into drawers, but rather as if the parts are two large armoires, impressive and independent, standing next to each other. These poems stalk chronic pain, kidney failure, the want for child as if these concerns are “A cave of sleeping lions / A pack of wolves on a tour-de-force,” and, while these things are orbiting the poems, the speaker is “standing outside of myself, a cage outside of myself,” not just inhabiting one body, but many. The writing moves beyond these subjects: chaos, violence, desire, and the erotic motivate the progression of the book.
If the question is What is the second body?, and that question were multiple choice, the answer would be a resounding “All of the above.” The second body is on one hand presented as the self, but different. In “The Second Body is a Shield,” the speaker introduces the first body nude, touching “her skin, and her mind grew / Diseased with eroticism.” In this interaction with the self, the second body is created, one that the first body
carries…in her a brain, a second body not unlike
The first, whose material form encompasses every facet of
The world, yet is not the world, and her desire rises and falls, rises and
Here the erotic nature of the body is separated and categorized: a fissure takes place that is at once divided and indivisible. The first body creates the second to displace certain desire, but in no way escapes this desire completely.
Chaos takes hold: the poet is writing and writing and writing over and again with little concrete conclusion. In “Order and Kinetics” there is little order: at once “my body is not soluble in water, a fungal sort,” then later “a swimmer’s limbs grow soluble in water.” The set of three poems, each titled “Chopping with Blue Down” is less triptych and more palimpsest. In the third, the speaker asks, “Must I continue inhabiting my body?” I wondered, at first, if perhaps “Which body must I continue inhabiting?” would be a more accurate place to press, but the poet’s original question gets at the base desire of imagining what the body can translate into. Why split the body if not because the singular body is inhospitable?
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the female body. Well, not just the female body—I do that at every second and every juncture as a person with a body that is recognized as female. More accurately, I’ve been thinking about the ways we talk about the female body, especially in terms of childbirth. A uterus as inhospitable, a cervix as incompetent, a body as fertile and “plow”-able. This collection obsesses in the womb; at times the image of the second body is inside—or desired inside—the first body in the form of a child. “Someone Else’s Body” addresses the difficulty in this particular woman’s desire. As her body swells (“The body may retain water inside for weeks: / Hours make the body denser.”), her friends still ask, “Is there a risk you may be empty?” She answers: “Still, it continues to grow…” But what grows? This fetal second body or the desire for it?
In a different way, the political violence that surrounds the female form in “Off To The Nervous Museum” is tangible.
Any object may be used
to injure women
in my mind, in my book, in this
manuscript you are reading
Here the second body is not a vessel of desire, but rather a vessel with ominous possibility of being broken, abused, used in a way that it doesn’t want. The desire is this poem’s extended utterance is to no longer be desired. In its swarming ending, Donato writes:
I am tired of women sprinkling
poisonous gases all
over the lawn I am sick
Of selling pepper spray
at dawn, grabbing and touching
women who walk by
Themselves; women with long
hair—common targets, can be easily caught
Here, as in most of the collection, there is space for interpretation—some sort of translation needs to take place. The language invites a reading where the speaker is more sinister than we might think; we believe her when she claims, “I have a gun, will / shoot.”
With this translation, to me, one of the most compelling second bodies is the second body as language. The translations that take place here are not just language to language, but how we translate our own language, how we interpret it consistently and with immediacy. “Can a sentence assume the guise of a body?” muses the speaker of “Grief Interlude.” Though she is playful and affectionate with language (“Second, I burst out laughing, kissed language on the neck”), she continues later with,
I care in different meanings, none of
Which are paraphrasable
Which are plainspoken, repetitive or admirable
Which are, decidedly, unreadable but nice
Language is a poor scapegoat for meaning—a body that is weak, but nice. In the surreal opening of “Feigning Self,” the mind releases light as a cracking egg,
Lifts and separates
Language from its multilingual origins
Notwithstanding itself, the egg places demands
Upon language’s multilingual origins
The second body—here language—is incomplete and dependent on the workings of the mind of the first body. Language mediates thought (for which light serves as metaphor), but cannot fully encompass, do the work that the mind does.
In a different light (no pun intended), this lack is made violent in “Epistolary Beast.” Writing, and specifically here in regards to an epistolary form, is a fraud—it encourages the assumption that it can hold all voices and perspectives. It’s violent in its erasure, it becomes an “organized terror” and that the
violence with which
we might not
come into contact
—depicted here in
the form of an email—
should be able
to stand on its own
Writing this review, I kept thinking that I was using the word “body” too much, that it was getting too loud and cranky being put to work in so many sentences. In Second Body, the word comes up in almost every poem, but it’s quiet, almost gentle, though don’t let that perceived tenderness fool you—it’s a sneaking force that ghosts the book. The language of this collection is rich in image and the surreal. At times it lulls the reader with its tone of authority, but at times it is sharp and clever: much like the content, nothing is as it seems. But to Donato that’s okay: “To the person who believes that light symbolizes all that’s good and draped across this world: One should believe ancient myths contradict the way things are.” The impossibility of keeping what is lost in translation is fine: what is lost is shadowed by what is gained. “Power is given to us when we accept it. And then there are people who argue this world is nothing,” ends this collection with hope and any minuscule shred of pity you may have felt for the speaker strips away. You can feel the poet radiating from the page: “I feel warm—overgrown—the way a person blooms when presented with a set of risks.”
Lucia LoTempio’s poetry has been or will be published in The Journal, Linebreak, apt, LEVELER, and more. She was named a finalist for the Black Warrior Review 10th Annual Contest and the Winter Tangerine Annual Awards. Currently, Lucia is an MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh and a contributing editor for both Aster(ix) and Gandy Dancer. She is a sucker for tiny animals and tiny babies.