“I thank the bowl of my hips,” says the speaker, “I thank the soft edges of my skull / my sternum, big bone presses down / my liver wraps itself around and breathes out toxic / smooth wood and green upholstery . . .” Part furnished room, part garden, part stage performance, the body in Petra Kupper’s Gut Botany is—for better or worse—known, explored, touched.
In this beautifully designed book of experimental and surrealist poems from Wayne State Press, a reader is both tantalized and tortured as the disabled speaker uses language to revel in a lover’s affection and eroticism, even as it also reels with memories of hands that “pressed down there, and over,” as a man hired to massage the muscles of the disabled body takes advantage. “[H]e does not care,” the speaker laments, “and presses, inches / not the finger down and into tender / my breasts mine again now really / spots sore inside bruises.”
As a reader, we are made privy to the courtroom where testimony is given concerning the abuse, and the victim must relive the horror: “I can hardly feel where the hand goes, / around my pubic bone, my leg joint, / femur cracks in its orbit, / there was a hand there, and fingers.”
The body, disabled in these poems, seeks expression—not only as disadvantaged and abused, but also as dancer, interpreter, and sexual; a force among forces. Kupper leads us scene by scene into a surrealist experience, wheelchair bound, yet wheeling—a force. In “Wind Tongue,” the speaker writes:
I try to try to try again to try to reach to my childhood,
play, to lean, to be
all natural, open, to be open to be to be to live to breathe and to
be and to cycle through land and forest is open is open alive is
try is bridge is memory spur is a spear is an eye and a socket and a
yell and a muscle and a bow a bow a weight a tremble a sleep and
a dark dark wind and a bridge and a dark and now it’s too much
and it hurts and I feel all the pinch all pressure all the all the all
the all the leave it let it drop this and why.
So I set down and write, palm tingling with the bark’s rough tongue.
In these poems, we feel the playfulness of the human spirit both bound to circumstance but entirely free, the way a lover discovers and unleashes the soul’s dervish with
Pulse. Your feet
t-shirt up trails
bride’s bouquet where soft
white belly blinks.
The contours of this body are celebrated, its limitations are debated as its “feet reach straight out / gentle arch takes them through / just beyond the windowsill,” the body on a swing during a performance for Grand Rapids ArtPrize.
With language that draws from anatomy, biology, nature, and a number of tactile objects, Kupper creates a strange felt world that blends the body into its landscape leaving little room for anything between. This is the work of a poet who has examined self, coming to terms with, struggling against, and even admiring their organic structure. You will feel when you enter these pages. You will be inspired to wander the path, scorn bodily shame, and enter a dance.
Subverting ableist expectations, Kupper delights in the body, defying any sense of supposed lack so successfully that the narrative only hints at what we, culturally, call lack. A performer, Kupper’s speaker is agile and lithe, ascending and spiraling—yards of fabric, acres of grass, dream-scaped and longing. The poems come in many forms from almost haiku to long free-verse, full of linguistic texture and adaptive to oral expression.
Audiences concerned with ableist narratives, body politics, lesbian eroticism, and trauma will find these poems deeply moving; as will poets drawn to strong themes and imagery, poetic lines that seduce and mesmerize.
Review by Kimberly Ann Priest