In my recent microreview & interview of Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves: notes on a disability (Squares & Rebels, 2017), I spoke of her essays being driven by “a voice capable of insight and snark, as well as compelling honesty.” These three elements are in full effect in one of Davio’s recent poetry projects, a series of poems focused on the persona called the Unreal Woman. Through this persona, Davio brings together these same elements from her nonfiction essays to create a fulcrum to dig further into her experiences as a woman with a disability.
While the persona of the Unreal Woman takes center stage in Davio’s upcoming poetry collection, The Book of the Unreal Woman (Salmon Poetry, 2019), she is also an influence throughout the essays of It’s Just Nerves, as can be seen in the following from “Strong is the New Sexy”:
The product of a generation of girls who grew up with the specter of anorexia stalking our friends and siblings, I was told that “real women have curves” as though it were a mantra.
Our elders were trying. They wanted to flip the arbitrary concept of thin-body beauty on its ear. They wanted us to find self-acceptance, but when they tried to scare us with photos of undernourished bodies and with cautionary tales of the dangers of disordered eating, we learned that being skinny was one more way in which we could fail—one more way our bodies could be repellant.
With the onset of a progressive neuromuscular disease several years ago, my body’s relationship with solid food became a complicated one. I was never a curvy woman to begin with, but with each of the more feminine attributes I’ve lost, I’ve become, I am given to understand, less and less of a real woman.
I wonder at what point I will become unreal altogether.
In the poem below, Davio approaches similar ideas as here but in a more visceral manner. Where nonfiction allows for the unpacking of rhetoric in a meditative manner, poetry allows for moves that go for the jugular as much as the heart and the mind. By subverting the well-intentioned phrasing of “real women have curves” and creating the persona of the Unreal Woman, Davio pushes against the erasure of women whose experiences don’t fit into the neatness of this phrase’s logic.
This poem brought to mind Anne Sexton, in specific her poem “Her Kind.” Through the imaginative and interrogative space created by the Unreal Woman persona, Davio evokes some of what and who is left out of the “real women” conversation, and invites it in with the conviction of one who has been “her kind.”
Real Women – Kelly Davio
—“Real Women Have Curves”
They fit in size-Q panty hose, we’re told.
Their volume fills the special-order bras
built wide enough about the lacey bands
to suggest a well formed plentitude
in fully lined and double-lettered cups.
Real women give birth to multitudes
of Gerber-blonde babies in a continual
swell and retraction not unlike that
of a latex balloon, so quick to snap back
to size. Real women, after all, work out.
They repeat a mantra: healthy is the new,
but forget what was old. They raise dumbbells
and celebrate themselves. They know
what would fix you, Unreal Woman, disposing
of your sharps in the bright orange canister.
They have tut-tutted you, unreal woman,
when bottled prescriptions spill forth
from your open purse. They have watched you,
unreal woman, vertiginous and clutching
for the staircase handrail or shuffle-stepping
with a limp, your slacks dangling from meatless
hips, from bony kneecaps. And under the Lasik
clarity of their vision, Unreal Woman, you
become small as they expand, claim the space
you were never meant to occupy. They start
with your hair, thinning from steroids,
and thread it out by the root. They nibble
at the keratin of your fingernails, roll skin
from your limbs like wet paper, knock
your bones together in a jaunty tune.
Seconds are all it takes to absorb you.
Real women, they eat your heart out.
For more about Davio and the Unreal Woman poems, check out this 2016 interview and poetry feature at Easy Street. Also, visit her site here.
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