The most unifying and (for many men at least) surprising aspect about the #MeToo movement was just how precisely the narratives mirrored one another. Women of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds were telling stories that could have been my own, could have been yours or your mother’s. There’s a sense of comfort in knowing that one’s experiences are shared— validation and empowerment in the sheer numbers of voices raised and bodies marching in the streets. Because the very bodies which make us vulnerable also bring us great strength.
This juxtaposition seems to be at the heart of Emari DiGiorgio’s debut collection The Things a Body Might Become. The collection takes its title from the poem “Of All the Things a Body Might Become—“ which is indicative of the poet’s scope and style. It exists at once in the surreal and the banal, a space we all seem to be occupying as of late. The body becomes not “an anvil, a bottle of bleach [or] a basketball” but “a container, the/ kind you might receive at the holidays, filled with shortbread or caramel/ corn.” And as we read on, we come to see that this body is necessarily feminine. Sweet, empty, waiting to be filled, made for “safe-keeping,” a vault susceptible to being cracked open and raided. But Digiorgio isn’t interested in ending her poem(s) with a violation or a mere reflection. Instead she presents a call to action: an “arrowhead,” a “match struck,” a recitation of “’The Lord’s Prayer,’ as if it were a/ curse. This is the last time I’m going to ask.” She says that she is asking, but she is not. These are poems that demand.
Touch me at your own risk, dares the poem “Electric Lingerie,” which is inspired by an electrified anti-rape bra designed by student researchers in Chennai, India. DiGiorgio knows why this insane invention is warranted: “Because a can of mace/ is never enough. Because a man cannot help himself./ The shine of a woman’s hair. The gash of her mouth.” And what else to do with the wound of a woman’s mouth, but finally listen? In “Mudflap Girl Speaks,” the poet takes on the persona of the iconic reclining naked woman celebrated by countless long-haul truckers. The urban legend of her invention has a young entrepreneur taking a photo of his bikini-clad mother as inspiration for the image. The poem then inhabits this mother/muse, and makes a kind of commercial American roadway of her body: “the slope of spine/ a dangerous curve at night, dark crease along hip,/ one-way bridge, flashing lights.” The woman’s body is dangerous— a temptation, a distraction. The woman has no agency: she is featureless, only a shadow of herself.
But DiGiorgio’s poems are at their fist-pumping best when her speakers fully inhabit their own bodies, their own desires. They resist predictability and sentimentality, relying instead on associative leaps and musicality to move the reader towards revelation. “My Skunk Hour” insists on the body’s pungency, celebrating those feminine smells that women are told to mask. It’s the scent of “fresh peat, something that’ll make/ the garden grow. Peach you want to eat now.” Though, it’s not all sweet, as the speaker dubs herself “Lady of the mercaptan/ rich musk. Medusa of the trash heap,/ a smell that hits you like a stone.” That last line is particularly affecting when we remember that Medusa is transformed into a cursed gorgon by Athena after Zeus rapes the beautiful mortal in the goddess’ temple. We can read the stone’s cold thud, then, as a warning—a kind of ancient mic drop— for all those foolish enough to get in the speaker’s way.
We feel the weight of stones throughout this collection. A stone stuck under the skin, stones tossed at angels, stones hurled at a woman’s body as punishment. But we also feel the delicacy of paper— as if we might finally challenge the child’s game that declares: paper covers rock. I never understood that one because paper tears. In “The Firing Point” DiGiorgio considers the Sandy Hook massacre, wants to “walk through that school, tap each child/ on the shoulder, fold their souls into strips of accordion// pleated paper, release them bullet-free.” But she can’t of course, and so imagines vengeance instead:
I want that man to suffer, want his mother
to lose her child, and when I learn that she lost him,
his whole life, I want to hold a gun in my hands,
to tear open the paper target, until wind whistles through,
until I empty the chamber, between the eyes,
into the same spot I’d kiss my daughter every night.
The body is conflated with paper because it is blank— it is fragile. This idea seems an obvious one for a writer to make: our love and attention is always directed towards the page. Though, DiGiorgio uses this extended metaphor in more surprising ways, and we see how the body is like paper as it rips, burns, and bends. For example, “Origami Woman” reads as directions for how to make a paper doll, but it also reads as instructions for subjugation: “Keep her center stationary.” The poem is formatted in columns so it, too, opens and collapses, becoming three poems in one. We see again “all [the] things/ a woman might become”— all she needs to do is succumb, fold.
Yet even as this collection is bursting with bullets and sexual violence and school shootings and drowning refugees, Digiorgio doesn’t leave us without hope. Because of all the things a body might become, perhaps it might also become a mother who lets her daughter “pee where she must,” or a subway burlesque dancer— “Every woman’s face . . . a tasseled pasty”— or the “ocean and/ ocean floor: fluid, rising/ ridged.” In fact, the collection closes with its most hopeful poem: “Interrogating the Archangel, or in Defense of the Dark.” It contains the kind of earned joy that can only come after some living, some heartache.
The morning of most tragedies, the honeysuckle
trumpets are silent and wild berries’ swollen
tongues are dumb. Yes, I’m looking for something
to tell me I’m on the right path. The white sign
on the substation’s fence says danger, keep out.
Tell me who wrote the story that pits us against
the dark—where love is made and a good fuck too.
After all of the tragedies and traumas inflicted on women’s bodies, what’s more powerful than a woman demanding pleasure for herself? Because, of course, the personal is political. It is an act of joyful resistance to end this collection with a woman’s body reaching out to another body, praying to be kissed, to be heard. As her body might become many things, so too, might the world that threatens her. Just maybe, DiGiorgio offers, darkness is capable of “wrapping its long arms around this fire we’d built.”
Danielle DeTiberus teaches creative writing at the Charleston School of the Arts. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2015, Arts & Letters, The Missouri Review, Rattle, River Styx, The Southeast Review, Spoon River Poetry Review and elsewhere. She received a poetry fellowship from the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 2016, and currently serves as the Program Chair for the Poetry Society of South Carolina. More of her work can be found at www.danielledetiberus.com.