I agree with those who hold that one of poetry’s major ambitions should be to refresh the language. Through engagement and interrogation of words shared in common, poems can bring us closer to meaning what we mean. An example of the kind of interrogation I mean is evident in this week’s poem from fellow CantoMundo poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s new chapbook, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books).
In the poem below, Acevedo turns a “shitty pick-up line” on its head. The poem’s engagement with the phrase “the body is a temple” quickly turns a confrontation with a stranger into a meditation on language. This move opens up a rich territory of lyric meaning; in subverting the phrase, the speaker is able to both contradict its “pick-up line” intention while also raising the words to a higher meaning. By the end of the poem, the space of tired language and cliche is reclaimed by the speaker as a personal respite for “the pure / holy of instinct.”
Stranger Tells Me My Body Be a Temple – Elizabeth Acevedo
and so I show him where
I have stuck my fingernails
beneath this chipping paint
spat on the stained glass
used crooked backbone as scaffolding
knowing it won’t hold up a broken ceiling.
I tell him, I’ve glugged down
the church wine and given sermon.
Men flock but they never seem to come
for their spirits. If it were up to me
I’d burn this altar nightly
and dance alone in the rubble
pray that shitty pick-up line elsewhere.
Because if anything this body is the pure
holy of instinct
like closing your eyes
and guiding an earring
into long ago pierced flesh.
P.S. If you’re in the Cincinnati area next week, make sure to check out Elizabeth Acevedo’s performance at Xavier University:
Time: 7:00 PM until 8:00 PM
Date: Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Location: Xavier University, Gallagher Student Center
To find out more about Elizabeth’s work and upcoming performances, check out her site.