Since childhood I’ve thought a lot about our relationship to our bodies, and even more so over the past year amid a plague and some medical challenges of my own. To even call it a “relationship” that “we” have to our bodies is curious—it presumes there is some essential “us” that is separate and distinct, perhaps floating inside these containers. Is the body something we live in, carry, try to steer around the threatening objects, creatures, and invisible contagions of the world?
We’re told there is a “mind-body connection,” that in fact the two are inextricable from one another. If the mind is us, then the body is also us, as much as we might wish to depart from it when it causes us physical or emotional pain. But Susan Sontag also warned, in Illness as Metaphor, against interpreting maladies as something we have brought on ourselves (through negative thoughts, corruption, mental weakness.) “Nothing is more punitive,” she wrote, “than to give a disease a meaning - that meaning being invariably a moralistic one.”
I wrote a novel called The Nobodies about two friends who discover they can swap bodies. Their consciousness travels back and forth between them but their bodies remain the same. So I suppose I do tend to think of the body as just a container for something like a spirit. Maybe this fantasy began as a child, when I severely burned my foot and learned viscerally that my body was something I couldn’t escape. The pain felt like punishment for my carelessness. Later, when I was 20, I donated my bone marrow to a man with leukemia. My body was also something that could potentially heal, though this was hardly something I had worked on or manifested intentionally. Lately I’ve found my body to be uncooperative. It refuses to do something I want it to do. So while my separation from it may be an illusion, only a story I’m telling myself, I can’t help but tell it.
Today’s poem and story—actually, a personal essay, the first piece of creative nonfiction featured here—consider the functioning and malfunctioning of the body, and the body as a vessel bearing us through time. They may alternately disappoint, terrify, and delight us, but there is no question our bodies will ultimately ferry us all to the same place.
Picasso, Le Rêve, 1932
Scheduling the Bone Scan
The word “bone” tolls in your ear,
a bell. What tolls? The word, the bone?
The drum in your ear moves the hammer
like a lever, a bone moves
the word “bone” through your ear.
You repeat “bone,” your voice droning—
not silver: bronze. A duller thud.
nothing ringing—instead, a buzz—
the devouring sound—the insect, time.
Who is this person?
Katie Farris is the author of the hybrid-form text boysgirls, as well as two chapbooks; she has also translated several books of poetry from the French, Chinese, and Russian. Most recently, she won Beloit Poetry Journal’s Chad Walsh Chapbook Series for her collection A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving. She is also an Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and her work has appeared in a number of literary journals. I was lucky enough to meet Katie during a residency last year at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and get to know her as a brilliant writer as well as a killer poker player.
The Resurrectionist (Excerpt)
Here is what happened:
I was cut apart.
The liver of a dead person was placed inside me so I might live again. This took twelve hours and thirty-three units of blood.
But who was I afterward?
I could still recall the body I’d had when I was ten, the body in which I carried what I called “myself,” walking along the C&O Railroad tracks or crossing the divided highway that separated our house from the woods; a heavy, modest body, dressed in husky-size jeans from Monkey Ward and a brown corduroy car coat that my mother chose, identical to those my uncles wore back in the mining towns they lived in. I could recall the body I’d had, nervous and tentative, when I first made love at seventeen. But these bodies were gone, as was the body into which I’d been born, these bodies I’d called “mine” without hesitation, intact and separate and entire.
Three months after my liver transplant I flew to Nashville to visit my mother in the nursing home. She sat in a blue housecoat at a folding card table, slowly spooning a Dixie cup of ice cream to her mouth. “Marie, your son’s here,” the nurse kept telling her. But my mother wouldn’t look up except to look through me. She’d begun her own metamorphosis since the last time I’d seen her, withdrawing into the form of a bony old woman who only sometimes recognized my brother or me.
“Is this your son Richard?” the nurse asked, a grade-school teacher prompting a forgetful pupil. My mother shook her head: no, no.
At night I sat at her bedside. “I’m here,” I whispered as she slept. “I made it through. I’m here.”
I didn’t know if she could hear me. For a while I tried to work on the letter of gratitude I was planning to send to the strangers the transplant coordinator referred to as my “donor family,” though I knew nothing about them or their loved one whose liver I’d received. I couldn’t figure what to write to them that would seem neither too rehearsed nor too intimate, though I planned to repeat some remarks I’d heard in a support group meeting, thanking them for “the gift of life” and assuring them that the highest form of giving occurred, as theirs had, when neither the donor nor the recipient were known to one another.
For a moment my mother shifted beneath her blanket, murmuring in her sleep. I put down the pencil and closed my eyes. In just a second, I thought, she’ll say my name.
“Mother,” I said, though she said nothing further. I wanted us back as we had been, restored to what I felt were our real and original bodies, my mother smoking a cigarette on the stoop of our old house in Silver Spring and me beside her with a bottle of Pepsi in hand, though I knew if my mother were able to ask what had happened to the liver I was born with—the one she’d given me, I sometimes imagined, for it had once been a part of her as well as of me—I could have told her only what the surgeon had told me: “It was sent to pathology and burned.”
—Richard McCann (Read the rest here; you’ll need to create an account to do so, but it’s free and well worth it)
Who is this person?
Richard McCann was a professor of literature at American University, my alma mater, where I first read and was astounded by his essay “The Resurrectionist,” published in the Best American Essays of 2000. A writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, his story collection The Mother of Sorrows was deemed “unbearably beautiful” by Michael Cunningham. He also wrote the poetry collection Ghost Letters, as well as poems, stories, and essays in many journals and anthologies. He received several honors from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and more. He passed away on January 25, 2021; his obituary can be read here.
Outsider poet Albert Huffstickler wrote:
I was born
into a body
and set out in it
to learn who
I was. I saw
Use this poem as a prompt for a poem, story, or essay.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org