review by José Angel Araguz
In his chapbook To My Body (Glass Poetry Press), Steven Sanchez brings together a series of poems that explore the ways in which the body learns what it means to be present. In unpacking moments of conflict and joy, To My Body becomes an ode to both the physical body and the body of experiences lived through.
One of the main engines in which this work is done is imagery. Sanchez’s eye for building up to apt and compelling images that speak volumes is evident throughout. In the opening poem, “Homophobia,” for example, a childhood memory of being shamed by a father for being “afraid // to let go” while hanging from monkey bars, ends:
… you fall
in the sand and I hear
You grab sand and squeeze
your hand, each grain
through your fingers
This image of moving from “sniffle” to the image of a hand squeezing a fistful of sand works on two levels. First, the grabbing after sand is an act of reaching for and wanting connection; that what is literally close at hand, sand, is something gritty and difficult to keep hold of, however, evokes how distant and unavailable that connection feels. What is being depicted is no less vivid for being a memory; time itself, evoked through the image of falling sand, creates its own grit. Secondly, the speaker interprets this image as moving “like water,” a simile that fruitfully juxtaposes disparate elements. That something rough and solid like sand can move and evoke water places in the reader’s mind a symbol for how fear works. The distance fear creates between people – here, the father and son, but also the son and themselves – often forces people to live parallel lives. The speaker is being asked in this moment to understand the hardness of difference, to let go of the hurt they feel while it is undeniably physically and emotionally present.
Similar image work occurs in the poem “Paleontology” whose opening lines set up the following scene of domestic violence:
My father threw second hand encyclopedias
at my mother’s back and she blanketed me
between her and the mattress…
This image of a mother protecting her child with her body is then unpacked by the speaker through further connections as the speaker recalls:
…the book splayed open
on my bed where a Tyrannosaurus Rex
assumed a fetal position, her spine
and tail arched into a semicircle,
skull tucked between claws
and into what was left of her chest. Her ribs
pierced the eye sockets of her offspring.
When that six-mile asteroid plummeted
from the sky, did the mother devour him whole
protecting him the only way she knew how
or did she fall onto him after impact…
These lines do a great job of unpacking the complicated implications of the opening image. Present day violence and protection is reframed here and placed within the wider context of existence, which is essentially what is at stake. Through the parallel image of an extinct species in a pose of bodily protection, Sanchez makes clear the dire nature of this moment between mother and son without any loss of the risk, danger, or love that existed simultaneously.
Ultimately, the poems of To My Body present a poetic sensibility able to honor and understand what it means to live through physical and emotional circumstances, to render them for both their darkness and light. In the poem below, one sees this sensibility in the service of coming to terms with one’s self. The speaker’s narrative develops through images of bodily knowledge (“skull’s tenor,” “the dense beat of a palm”), and through these images comes to an understanding, not to say peace exactly, with what it means to live with the dual nature of difference. Where the earlier image of sand falling from a child’s hand evoked conflicted and hurt emotions, this poem’s speaker presents its closing image of shark gills with an edge. To be in possession of “two halves of a sonnet / that can turn an ocean into breath” is to be in possession of a whole expression, two parts of an argument that can both overwhelm and sustain life.
The Anatomy Of Your Voice – Steven Sanchez
Only you can hear the rattle of bones
inside your voice, the skull’s tenor
tucked around the alto of your vocal cords
like the drumhead of a tambourine,
the dense beat of a palm striking skin.
At ten years old you hear yourself
on an answering machine and realize
why kids call you fag–your vocal cords
aren’t strings on a cello and aren’t steel
braided cables suspending a bridge,
they’re membranes slit in your throat
like silver zils in a tambourine ringing
whenever you speak.
Remember to inhale
as if through the gills
on either side of a shark —
seven and seven, two halves of a sonnet
that can turn an ocean into breath.
Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?
Steven Sanchez: I’ve never had much patience. When I was little, I’d untie my shoes in a hurry and usually end up with a tight knot I couldn’t get out. Sometimes my parents helped me out, and sometimes I cut it. While I’ve gotten better at untying my shoes, there’s still this knot I feel inside my stomach.
Up until a few years ago, if you’d asked me what I wanted more than anything in the world, I would’ve told you two things: to be straight and white. I didn’t learn the terms for these desires until grad school, and that’s when I realized how much society had made me internalize homophobia and racism. But the knot I have isn’t learned self-hate, it’s the effects of that prolonged self-hate, and it’s also anger. When California passed Prop 8, it was the first time I felt that knot in my stomach—not so much because of the prop itself, but because everybody around me, at best, was nonchalant. And as time goes on, as more headlines point out everyday injustices, people remain calm, and the knot gets tighter.
The knot never leaves and that was the hardest part was about writing To My Body. I wanted to unravel that knot, to get rid of it so I could move on to something else. I was hopeful that these poems could be something like a spool, winding up my experiences so that somebody else could use them, but more often than not, the poems ended up tightening the knot. I started becoming frustrated.
Part of my frustration was because I definitely wasn’t ready to write these poems; the other part was that I felt like I kept failing because people said my poems were “political,” which people often used as a euphemism for heavy-handed. What really helped me work through that was reading Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. They taught me how the personal is political, that simply existing is a political act, that every poem is political. I struggled so much with the negative connotations of “political poetry” that I’d forgotten how empowering it could be.
Changing my perception about the term political wasn’t enough. I knew that my poems still didn’t do what they needed to; they didn’t surprise me and they didn’t feel natural. At a craft talk, Eduardo Corral mentioned that coming to the poem with a pre-set message you want to convey doesn’t work because you’re not allowing yourself to be caught off guard. Also, Adrienne Rich wrote about the two kinds of political poems: good and bad. Bad political poems create an argument. Good political poems create an experience. I started realizing that because I had a pre-set message I wanted to convey, I approached them like an argument—here’s my statement, here’s my image supporting that statement. Instead, I tried re-creating formative moments in my life on the page without worrying about making a statement, without worrying about resolving those moments, and the knot started to loosen.