The narrative arc occurs often enough in individual poems, and is not utterly rare in an entire volume of poetry, but what stories are being told? The reader will be familiar with a narrative poem that offers a protagonist, and the position of the protagonist as a hero is an established one. The hero takes a journey and the literary work that reports this journey is generally called an epic. Of course, there are dialectical uses of that word, but all inferences consider the journey to be iconic, to carry cultural weight sometimes for centuries. If that journey is a visitation of hell, of horror, of torture, then those who lived to tell are heroic by the fact of their survival. Amanda Earl’s Beast Body Epic (AngelHouse Press 2023) is such a journey.
Elegance is the aim of many an art form, and poetry is not a general exception; however, a binary of the macabre and the eloquent can have an elevated impact, and such is the case with this work. The book itself is trade-sized, perfect bound with a matt-finished, heavy and textured paper—it has a sense of physicality, its near one hundred pages have a slight weight. The cover image of a vispo graphic folding circle is repeated on page 39 as a section graphic; however, each of the eight sections in this volume begin with a vispo graphic. With endpapers of red heavy bond that echo the red and creme cover design, the book itself has a subtle luxuriousness.
The first of the eight sections is the most narrative in structure, with the protagonist being introduced as Rot. Harking back, perhaps, to Medieval theater, the second character met is Death, “the moocher”, with the third character being introduced by possessive case in the third stanza (and the work often maintains this possessive reference) of that of “husband”. The narrative moves quickly into a hospital, but the voice of the poem as a poem ought not to be swept past. The poems here keep careful tension from the get-go: “Death’s pub stank of onion breath and armpits” (6). The immediacy of the perceptions in combination with the contemporary setting gives the morality play of the narrative a steady energy.
Perhaps it is still taboo to talk of illness, of infirmity; certainly, vulnerability is not always a welcome guest in cultural discourse. When visions of the grotesque are the prosaic offerings of media, the viewer has to decide what aspect of this vicarious experience to take, and often the default appeal is to other the sufferer. These poems, however, are reports of the suffering, as experienced from the body in torment: “the nurse pulled the stained gauze/ out of me and kept pulling. I was a /hat with a trail of colorful scarves/but only one was red. It stung, its/string of scarlet bells ringing “(34). While the noun phrase of stained gauze is relatable enough, the stanza elevates empathy with the comedic metaphor, before the sensory and alliterative metaphor reminds the reader of pain.
While pleasure is often both easily called to memory and to the pen, pain exists as amnesia, as metaphor. The narrative’s perceptions are often ones of pain, “[...] I am/ destroyed/ I am vacant/ a light” (58) and this aspect of the work is notable in its dedication to that which we rarely speak. It might be said that work that centers disability is, in its very nature, tackling the taboo topic; Even more taboo is the acknowledgment of sexuality in disabled people. Yet, section five of this narrative has the plot of a sexual encounter. The protagonist has become “a warrior who refuses to die” (63) yet there’s no soft-focus mythology here when “he puts his hand on/ my stomach and winces at the ridges the staples/have made in my once smooth white skin or his// fingers meet the crater of the site where my/ colon once was” (63). This is not a distanced view, it is intimate, physical and specific.
In previous times, work about illness, work from the disability community tended to be marginalized overall. Realities of vulnerability were shadow banned in favor of the myths of conquering, super-strengthened anti-heroes. The realities of years of sickness and turmoil in our contemporary culture evaporate these weak myths, but their absence ought to encourage us to learn from those who faced a horror we cannot fully speak about, a horror from which we are eager to move away...move forward to the just society we dream about Yet, we cannot think ourselves just readers if we leave such work behind.
Su Zi is a writer, poet and essayist who produces a handmade chapbook series called Red Mare. She has been a contributor to GAS from back when it was called Gypsy Art Show, more than a decade ago.
Check out her author page on Amazon.