Being Bodies is an exploration of the complex circumstances of our flesh-and-blood existence. Our bodies dance; they’re inked; they contain prosthetics and implants. Our bodies are gendered, though not always correlative with how we perceive ourselves. Some use bodies for violence; some sacrifice their bodies for others. Our bodies are mortal, their days numbered. We do with them what we can and what we will.
Through innovative poetry, fiction, and narrative nonfiction, thirty writers consider bodies as subjects; bodies as objects; bodies as loci of politics, illness, nature, artifice, performance, power, abuse, reward, disgust, and desire.
Conjunctions:69, Being Bodies includes contributions from Rick Moody, Edward Carey, Carole Maso, Bin Ramke, Dina Nayeri, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Sallie Tisdale, Stephen O’Connor, Sejal Shah, Maud Casey, Samantha Stiers, Forrest Gander, Kristin Posehn, Nomi Eve, Rosamond Purcell, Alan Rossi, Aurelie Sheehan, Peter Orner, Gregory Norman Bossert, Mary Caponegro and Fern Seiden, Anne Waldman, Jorge Ángel Pérez, Jena Osman, Michael M. Weinstein, Emily Geminder, Elizabeth Gaffney, Jessica Reed, Michael Ives, and Kyoko Mori.
About the Author
Bradford Morrow (b. 1951) is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, editor, and author of children’s books. He grew up in Colorado and traveled extensively before settling in New York and launching the renowned literary journal Conjunctions. His novel The Almanac Branch was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and for Trinity Fields, Morrow was the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Academy Award in Literature. He has garnered numerous other accolades for his fiction, including O. Henry and Pushcart prizes, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. Morrow is a professor of literature and Bard Center Fellow at Bard College.
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The Extraordinary Life and Historic Adventures of a Servant Called LITTLE, Written and Drawn by Herself
IN WHICH I AM BORN AND IN WHICH I DESCRIBE MY MOTHER AND FATHER
In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact same year in which the melody for "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761, whilst in the city of Paris, people at their salons told tales of beasts in castles and men with blue beards and beauties who would not wake and cats in boots and slippers made of glass and youngest children with tufts in their hair and daughters wrapped in donkey skin, and whilst in London, people at their clubs discussed the coronation of King George III and Queen Charlotte, many miles away from all this activity, in a small village in Alsace, in the presence of a ruddy midwife, two village maids, and the terrified mother, was born a certain undersized baby. Anne Marie Grosholtz was the name given to that hurriedly christened child, though I would be referred to simply as Marie. I was not expected to live long. I was not much bigger at first than the size of my mother's hands put together. After I had survived my first night, I went on, despite contrary predictions, to breathe through my first week. After that my heart still kept time, without interruption, throughout my first month. The pocket-sized thing was pigheaded.
My lonely mother was eighteen years old at my birth, a small woman a little under five foot, marked by being the daughter of a priest. This priest, my grandfather, made a widower by smallpox, had been a strict man, a fury in black cloth, who never let his daughter out of his sight. After Grandfather died, my mother's life changed. Mother began to meet people, the villagers called upon her. Among the people she met was a soldier. This soldier, remaining a bachelor somewhat beyond the average age, possessing a somber temperament brought on by witnessing so many appalling things and losing so many soldier friends, took a fancy to Mother because he thought they could be happy, so to speak, being sad together. Her name was Anna-Maria Waltner. His name was Joseph Georg Grosholtz. They were married. My mother and my father. Here was loving and here was joy. My mother had a large nose, in the Roman style. My father, so I would come to believe, had a strong chin that pointed upwards. That chin, so I would understand it, and that nose seemed absolutely to fit together. After a short while Father's furlough was over and he returned to war. Mother's nose and Father's chin had known each other for three weeks.
I was born of love. The love my father and mother had for each other was forever present on my face. I was born with both the Waltner nose and the Grosholtz chin. Each attribute was a noteworthy thing on its own, and nicely gave character to the faces of those two families. Combined, the result was a little ungainly, as if I were showing more flesh than was my personal due. Children will grow how they will, some proclaim themselves prodigies of hair growth, or cut teeth at a wonderfully young age, some are freckled all over, others arrive so pale that their white nakedness is a shock to all that witness it. I nosed and chinned my way into life.
CONCERNING MY EARLY YEARS
I remember the village a little. Small houses, people who seemed bred to fit inside them. I recall sharp hedges, I see snow, berries, crabapples, dogs, rabbit meat, rosemary, holding hands with another village girl whose name I no longer know.
Since girls of my stamp were not schooled, it was Mother who gave me education through God. The Bible was my primer. Elsewise, I fetched in logs, looked for kindling in the woods, washed plates and clothes, and cut vegetables, fetched meat. I swept. I cleaned. I carried. I was always busy. Mother taught me industry.
"Discover," she would say, "what else you can do, you will always find something. One day your father will return," she said, "and he will see what a good and useful child you are."
"Thank you, Mother. I shall be most useful, I wish it."
"What a creature you are!"
"Am I? A creature?"
"Yes, my own little creature."
Mother brushed my hair with extraordinary vigor, sometimes she touched my cheek and patted my bonnet. She was probably not beautiful, but I thought her so. She had a small mole just beneath one of her eyelids. I wish I could remember her smile, I know she smiled.
At the age of five I had grown to the level of the old dog in the house next to ours. Later I would be the height of doorknobs, which I liked to rub. Later still, and here I would stop, I would be the height of many people's hearts. Women observing me in the village were sometimes heard to mutter as they kissed me, "Finding a husband will not be easy."
On my fifth birthday, my dear mother gave me a doll. This was Marta. I named her myself. I knew her body (about a sixth the size of my own) so entirely as I moved it about, sometimes roughly, sometimes with great tenderness. She came to me naked and without a face. She was a collection of wooden pegs, which could be inserted together in a certain order to roughly resemble the human figure. There were seven pieces that made up Marta. Marta, save my mother, was my first intimate connection with the world; I was never without her. We were happy together, Mother, Marta, and me.
THE FAMILY GROSHOLTZ
Father was absent during those beginning years, his army finding ever more excuses to postpone his next furlough. And what could Father do about it, the poor dandelion seed was sent wherever they blew him; he was absent but he was not forgotten. Mother would sometimes sit me on the joint stool by the fire and instruct me about Father. I took much enjoyment in saying the word "Father," and would sometimes when Mother was not about, in my private way, address the stove as "Father" or a chair or chest, or various trees, and bow to them or hug them, in rehearsal for my father's return. Father was everywhere about the village, Father was in the church, by the cowsheds. Father was an upright man, said Mother. And he would surely have remained so in our minds had he never come home. But then he did return.
Actual Father had been forced into retirement. He was not even forced into retirement by a battle, because there were no battles in Europe that year; rather, in fact, he was forced into retirement as a result of a malfunctioning cannon during a parade. The cannon had been damaged at the Battle of Freiberg in 1762 and its repairs must have been shoddy, for the single appearance of the faulty instrument caused irrevocable change in my life. One Sunday parade, the cannon's last, it was lit to mark a salute but it was somehow tremendously blocked, and it sprayed, backwards, sulfur, charcoal, saltpeter, and scorching pieces of metal in a wide arc. Father was within that wide arc, and because of that he was finally allowed home.
Mother was beside herself with worry and with joy.
"Your father, your father is coming home to us! And soon he will be quite recovered. I feel certain of it. Your father, Marie!"
The man who entered the house could not enter it without assistance. The man was pushed. The father who arrived was a father in a wheelchair. Father's yellow eyes were moist, they did not seem to recognize anything in the wife who stood before him, nor even did they show any change when the wife began to tremble and moan. There was no hair on top of Father; that erupting cannon had scalped him. Most of all, though, what was lacking about this poor bundle contained in a wheelchair was the inferior maxillary bone, largest bone in the human face, most frequently called the lower jaw.
Here and now I must make a confession. It was I who pronounced my chin as Father's. Otherwise why else would I have such a proud, rude thing about me? I had never seen Father, but not seeing him I desired to have his presence upon my person, so that it was daily understood that I was his and he was mine. I cannot now say for certain, these early years being so far away and the other actors in them being no longer upon the stage, whether it was in a spasm of longing that I declared my chin to be his only after his arrival, or whether I had always believed in it. But it not being there was the thing and I longed to understand and to make a fuller picture of the man who was my father in distress. I wished to see him complete and fancied my face could complete the portrait, because the portrait before me was such an unhappy, ruined one.
The man in the wheelchair may have been lacking his lower jaw, but in its place had been fitted a silver plate. This silver plate was molded into the shape of the lowermost portion of a very average human face. This silver plate was taken from a mold, and so it could be estimated that several tens of unfortunate people had exactly this same silver chin that Father had now. The silver plate could be detached. Father came in two pieces, which could be fitted together with a little pain.
Poor Father had no idea where he was, he was incapable of recognizing his wife, nor could he tell that the little girl silently watching him was his own daughter.
The midwife was hired again, a fond, breathless lady with very thick arms, who adapted herself to any paying occasion, and there was the doctor from the nearby village, Doctor Sander. Father was put in the small room beside the kitchen, he never left that room, he just lay in it all day, sometimes looking out of the window, sometimes at the ceiling, but never, I think, exactly focusing on anything. I sat with Father long hours, and when he did not talk to me I gave him some words, and imagined all the things he would want to tell me.
After Father's arrival, Mother climbed the stairs to her bedroom and closed the door. She spent more and more time in bed. Doctor Sander said that my mother was in a state of pronounced shock and must be slowly encouraged back to calm. Her whole body changed after Father's arrival, her skin grew shiny and yellow, like that of an onion. She gave off new smells. One morning I found her outside barely clothed lying on the ground, in winter, crying.
I went from one parent to the other. From Mother upstairs to Father downstairs. I read to them both from the Bible. I had the joint stool, my extension, which I positioned at various stations around the perimeter of Father's bed, depending on his needs. I was present when Father was cleaned and washed. The midwife was affectionate to me, she sometimes held me fast to her and in those moments I was surprised at how big bodies could be and held her back with all possible force. We ate many meals together; I think she must have given me some of her food. When she spoke to me of my father she frowned in concern; when she spoke of my mother she shook her head.
One morning as I sat beside him, Father died. He shook a little and rattled, only a tiny bit, and then was dead. It was a very small death. I watched carefully. It was even gentle. Father quietly, barely noticeably, left us. The last small noise was the sound of the last Grosholtz thought in his Grosholtz head making its way out. I still sat beside him holding his hand when the midwife came in. She knew immediately that Father was no longer to be numbered among the living. She gently put Father's hand back on his chest and moved the other one beside it. She took me to the house of her daughter; I must have slept there the night.
Father was buried. The matter in the box, which we were invited to throw earth on top of, was not complete. Doctor Sander had given me Father's silver plate, which, he said, was worth money. It had a certain weight to it, about that of a tin mug filled with water. I could not help wondering if Father would miss it, and that it really would have been better remaining with him. I wanted to dig up the earth of his grave and slip the jawplate in. How on earth otherwise was he going to talk in heaven? But then, when I thought it through, it was not Father's chin, not really, it was modeled from someone else. I was sure that I alone had Father's chin, keeping it always about me a little beneath Mother's nose.
Father had left behind him a military uniform, a silver plate, a widow, a half orphan, and penury. Father's army pension would not suffice. For Mother and me to survive, Mother needed to find work. Doctor Sander, active on our behalf, discovered through his medical connections that a Doctor Curtius of Berne Hospital was in need of domestic help. Employment, usefulness, and business, said Doctor Sander, would save my mother's health. Mother, with unhappiness displayed throughout her shining body, sat down to write to Doctor Curtius. Doctor Curtius wrote back.
Shortly afterwards, sometime in 1767, Mother and I found ourselves on a cart being driven towards the city of Berne. I sat next to Mother in the cart holding on to Mother's dress with one hand and on to Father's jawplate with the other, Marta lay in my lap pocket; the Family Grosholtz was on the move. We rattled away from the village of my birth, away from the pigsties, and the church, and Father's grave.
We would not be coming back.
IN WHICH MY MOTHER AND I ARE INTRODUCED TO MANY WONDERFUL THINGS, SOME OF THEM IN ROSEWOOD DISPLAY CASES, AND I COME TO WITNESS MY SECOND DEATH
A Berne night consists of gloomy rising buildings, narrow and unlit medieval streets, shadow people moving about them. Berne Hospital appears helpfully enough, looming above its preceding streets. We were set down in front of the hospital, our single trunk, which had once belonged to our priestly antecedent, placed beside us.
There is a great black gate in the center of Berne Hospital's front, wide enough for two carriages to pass at once, a great titan's mouth that swallows patients into its vast and mysterious insides. It was towards this black gate that Mother and I approached. There was a bell. Mother rang it. The noise echoed all around the empty hospital square. Somewhere nearby someone was coughing and spitting. A tiny square of wood in the gate opened, a head appeared, we could barely see it.
"No thank you," said the head.
"If you please —," said Mother.
"Come back in the morning."
"If you please, I've come for Doctor Curtius. He's expecting me."
"Doctor Curtius. We're to live with him, my daughter and me."
"Curtius? Curtius is dead. Five years since."
"I had this letter from him," Mother strained to insist, "a week ago."
A hand stretched out, taking the letter, the hatch was closed again, we could barely hear people talking behind it before it opened once more, the head reappeared. "That Curtius, the other Curtius. No one has ever come asking for that Curtius before. He doesn't live on grounds, he's off on Welserstrasse. You don't know where that is? Country people, is it? Ernst could guide you, I suppose." There was another voice behind the gate. "You will, Ernst. Yes, you will if I say. Ernst will show you. Go round the corner, you'll find a side door, in the side door will be a lantern, waving. Beneath that waving lantern will be Ernst."
The hatch closed again and we shuffled on towards Ernst, who came out to greet us. Ernst had a nose that twisted in the opposite direction of his face; his nose set forth one way, his face quite another; he had clearly been in many fights during his young life. Ernst was dressed in the black porter's uniform of the hospital. "Curtius?" asked Ernst. "Doctor Curtius," Mother said. "Curtius," Ernst said once more and off we went.
Only five minutes from the hospital was a small, mean street. This was Welserstrasse. Walking down Welserstrasse that night I thought the houses seemed to be murmuring to us, "Don't stop here." "Keep moving along." "Out of our sight." Ernst finally halted at a house thinner and smaller than all the rest, squeezed in between two bullying neighboring residences, poor and neglected.
"House of Curtius," said Ernst.
"Here?" Mother asked.
"Even here," confirmed Ernst. "I came here once myself. Shan't ever again. What's inside, I won't say, but I will say I never liked it. No, I don't do Curtius. So you'll forgive me if I go back now before you knock."
And off he went, with his contrary nose, at a much quicker pace, taking light with him. We put down our trunk. Mother sat on the trunk and looked at the door, seeming perfectly content for such a door to be closed. So it was I who stepped forwards at last and knocked three times. Four. And finally the door opened. But nobody came out into the night. It remained open, and nobody came to meet us. I waited for a while with Mother, until I tugged on Mother's hand and she at last gathered herself up and we, with our trunk, stepped inside. Mother quietly closed the door behind us, I took a good handful of Mother's dress. We looked about in the shadows. Mother suddenly gasped: she had seen someone. Over there! Someone was lurking in the corner. It was a very thin, long man. So thin he seemed in the last terrible stages of starvation. So long his head nearly touched the ceiling. A pale, ghostly face, the meager candlelight in the room trembled about it, showing hollows where cheeks usually are, showing moist eyes, showing small wisps of dark, greasy hair. We stood by our trunk, as if for protection.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Being Bodies"
Copyright © 2017 Conjunctions.
Excerpted by permission of Conjunctions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- EDITOR’S NOTE
- Edward Carey, The Extraordinary Life and Historic Adventures of a Servant Called LITTLE, Written and Drawn by Herself
- IN WHICH I AM BORN AND IN WHICH I DESCRIBE MY MOTHER AND FATHER
- CONCERNING MY EARLY YEARS
- THE FAMILY GROSHOLTZ
- IN WHICH MY MOTHER AND I ARE INTRODUCED TO MANY WONDERFUL THINGS, SOME OF THEM IN ROSEWOOD DISPLAY CASES, AND I COME TO WITNESS MY SECOND DEATH
- Dina Nayeri, Pedalo
- Bin Ramke, Four Body Poems
- WHAT WAS THOUGHT THEN
- BROTHER AND SISTER SILENCE
- BODY PARTS
- THE SONG OF THE THREE HOLY CHILDREN
- Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Body Politic: A Tenso
- Sallie Tisdale, Traditional Chinese Massage Number 1
- Stephen O’Connor, Little Rooms
- Carole Maso, Beauty
- Sejal Shah, Skeleton, Rock, Shell
- Rick Moody, Notes on Lazarus
- Maud Casey, Two Inclinations
- THE INCLINATION TO BELIEVE
- HER GODLY IMAGINATION
- Samantha Stiers, House of Virgins
- VENUS OPPOSING SATURN
- HOME REMEDIES
- SUGAR-CUBE DESIRE
- TRUE STARVATION
- UTERINE FIRE
- TOURMALINE CRYSTALS
- CLINICAL SIGNS
- PREGNANT WITH THEMSELVES
- STRUM OF JOY
- A WEDDING UNDER AN ASPEN GROVE
- SCAR TISSUE
- FOR THE SAKE OF SCIENCE
- WITCH BURNING
- GLOWING IGLOO
- STERILIZED IN FLAME
- AT THE RESCUE
- THE WEDDING
- SPRING AGAIN
- Forrest Gander, Ruth
- Kristin Posehn, Playing the Whip
- Nomi Eve, The Body of the Great Writer and the One Hundred Yiddish Writers Who Kept Watch
- Rosamond Purcell, Dirty Old Town
- Alan Rossi, Another Way the Universe Communicates Its Presence to Itself
- Aurelie Sheehan, Ten Body Stories
- THE TRANSIT OF VENUS
- SEX WORKER
- HEAD GEAR
- A CASE OF MOTHERHOOD
- PANCAKE FLOWERS
- THE MAUVE NOTEBOOK
- THE POWER OF SEX
- THE OPTIMISTIC WALK
- Peter Orner, My Uncle Dave Reads Spinoza as His Cookie Business Collapses Due to a Rise in the Price of Sugar in the Dominican Republic
- Gregory Norman Bossert, Left Hand Jane
- Mary Caponegro and Fern Seiden, Winter Levitator, Three Iterations of Venus
- Anne Waldman, Clytemnestra’s Body Polis Ticks
- Jorge Ángel Pérez, Slum Melody (translated from Spanish by Rebecca Hanssens-Reed)
- Jena Osman, System of Display
- Michael M. Weinstein, Three Poems
- AUGUST 25
- THE CIVIL SURGEON
- Emily Geminder, Dead Girls
- Elizabeth Gaffney, An Impacted Fracture of the Distal Radius
- Jessica Reed, Three Poems
- FIELD OF VISION
- I ONCE WAS DRY LIGHT
- HYPOTHETICAL FLAWLESS
- Michael Ives, The Flesh of Suddenness
- Kyoko Mori, Runner’s Body
- NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS