Poetry Sunday: “You Are a Dark Body,”
by Natalie Scenters-Zapico

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

It is pure coincidence that this month’s columns feature two poems that both use the “first-person you” perspective in free verse couplets. The lines in “You Are a Dark Body,” like those in “Theodicy” featured last week, are unrhymed and unmetered and are also heavily enjambed, with sentences overflowing lines and the phrasing following the patterns of ordinary speech. In both poems, the speaker addresses herself as “you,” a point of view that can feel even more intimate than the conventional first-person “I,” but that, because it feels like a personal address, also necessarily implicates the reader.

Today’s poem is structured around repetitions of the phrase “You are a dark body of water,” whose first iteration appears in the title and continues on to the first line. In the body of the poem, it occurs again (with variations) no fewer than five times, with at least a portion appearing almost as a refrain, somewhere in every couplet. For example, “You are a dark body of water” morphs into “You are the only dark body // of water in a desert,” then into “you are this land’s only dark body // of water.” The most profound variation occurs in the last couplet, which interposes other words: “You cry for your body’s bed // of rock turned desert for lack of water.” Note that in all but the last variation, “you are a dark body of water” is broken across stanzas, so that its last two words always appear in a different stanza than the rest of the phrase. The effect is to proliferate meaning, for in each instance the line and stanza break forces us to consider “you are a dark body” by itself, without context and without the qualifying prepositional phrase (“of water”). The result is at least two possible interpretations: (1) the speaker as a “dark body,” perhaps in reference to being Latinx, and more metaphorically, to being something vast and mysterious as, say, a continent; and (2) the speaker envisioning herself as a “body of water,” something more mysterious that evokes a very different set of associations. In any event, the very careful parsing and arrangement of that repeated phrase forms the structural backbone of today’s poem.

Another word that recurs is “bed,” repeated nine times. Because the word “bed” rhymes with the first syllable of “body” repeated eight times in these lines, it sets up a resonance that sonically binds the poem as a whole. Here, the variations involve which preposition—“in” or “off”—precedes the word “bed,” creating an impression less of a static item of furniture than of the human activity that occurs on and around it. Another word, “desert,” occurs three times, first as “You are the only dark body / of water in a desert” in stanzas 1-2, then as “The man kicks you off the bed, covers you / with dirt & turns you desert” in stanza 9, and finally as “You cry for your body’s bed / of rock turned desert for lack of water.”

What is the effect of all these repetitions? As mentioned above, they lend structure and integrate and ground the poem sonically. But they also do something else: harness the immense psychological power of repetition in service of the poem. If the origin of poetry is in song, then the origin of both poetry and song is in repetition. “We are pattern-discerning animals,” Robert Hass says, and the urge to make and find pattern is as ancient and primal as heartbeat and breath [Hass, Robert. “Listening and Making.” Twentieth Century Pleasures. New York: The Ecco Press, 1984, p. 112]. Fundamental to all language, repetition figures in every kind of human expression, from the sequence of steps in a grand ballet to the notes in a musical composition and even the alternation of texture and color in an oriental rug. In writing, repetition has enormous potential, both as a constant against which to unspool the vagaries of human expression and also as a fruitful source of expansion and deepening of that expression.

All writing, in fact, relies upon repetition to organize and complicate the articulation of meaning. In prose, it tends to be conceptual, as a theme, event, image, or symbol recurs from section to section or scene to scene. Such repetition is also found in poetry. But poetry, maybe more than prose, seeks to use language to trigger the senses. In some poems, repetition works exclusively at the sensory level, for example, foreign-language verse that seduces the ear without being understood or a shaped poem whose raison d’être is the visual image it makes on the page. The sensory stimulus most often used in poetic repetition is sound, not just as perceived by the ear (in rhyme, for example), but also as felt by the body in the patterns of stress and unstress that we call meter. Phonemic repetitions, including alliteration and rhyme, are at the most basic level of sonic repetition and can powerfully add musicality and atmosphere to a poem, for example, in Poe’s famous “tintinnabulations” in his poem, “The Bells.” As the repeated bits rise to the level of discernable words with meaning, though, the mind becomes increasingly engaged; a baby’s “m-m-m” transforms into something miraculous when we hear “ma-ma.” Any repeated unit of sound can, like a meditative “Om,” have an incantatory effect, but lexical repetitions involving words, phrases, and sentences have a peculiar power, fusing sense with sensibility and thereby ensnaring the mind as well as the heart.

“You Are a Dark Body” opens with what seems to be the speaker addressing the landscape, or a literal body of water located in a desert, one lined with bedrock or a “bed of rock.” Things begin to get strange with the “bleeding cactus” that “litter[s]” the “desert,” words with negative connotations that suggest danger, injury, even death. When I read “At your collarbones” in line 4, I had to consider whether maybe it is not, in fact, a poem of direct address but instead the speaker talking to herself (or earlier versions of herself ) using the so-called “first-person you,” and that the “dark body” and other landscape elements are metaphors in service of T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” a literary device that uses landscape or scene to shed light on the inner state of a character. The basic idea is that nature becomes a repository for, and a way to express, a character’s—or the writer’s—emotions. It’s a good way to avoid melodrama and sentimentality, and when used effectively can amplify and deepen expression. It’s also helpful during the writing process, giving the writer a way to distance herself, and in the process, liberating the expression of feeling.

The many repetitions and rich metaphors make today’s poem feel and sound lyrical, and it is certainly expressive of strong emotion. As it progresses, though, the poem reveals narrative (if sometimes surreal) elements, and a story begins to unfold. Fiction writers like to say that there are only two plots in the world: a hero goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town, and here is an example of the first. We see the speaker—the protagonist or hero—walking for “days” through a brutal landscape, in an attempt to cross some real or metaphorical border. As in another famous journey-poem, The Odyssey, she encounters and interacts with a number of near-mythical characters along the way. First is “a woman in a bed,” who might or might not be a version of the speaker herself; in any event, the speaker takes her place in the bed, where she receives a dark lover. The next lines suggest sexual congress, perhaps forced: “He swallows your dark body / of water & gives you a woman’s body,” and ensuing images show a woman victimized, if not by actual rape, at least by the biological consequences of sex such as venereal disease (“he gives you sores”) and a pregnancy (“you give birth”) that results in a “stillborn.”

The next lines are mysterious and disturbing: “You kick the child off / the bed, but it returns in the arms of the woman whose bed / you stole.” What we’ve seen so far feels like metaphor (or dream), and that may explain the surreal quality. Rather than trying to understand these images literally, I interpret them as symbolic of feelings of guilt, regret, and fear of retribution—all part of the “dark body” of the mysterious and sometimes painful and dangerous act of living in a female body, especially the body of a person of color and especially the body of a someone living in a border town in these fraught times.

The feelings evoked by this poem are, like that body of water, dark and of fathomless depth, but they definitely involve aspects of both sides of betrayal—betrayer and betrayed—and of powerlessness, pain, loss, survivor guilt, and more. Whether the border being crossed here is a psychological one from childhood to adulthood, or instead the actual physical line between countries, the experience is laced with pain and complexity and involves a fundamental loss of innocence and hope, the bedrock of a lake transformed by a lack of water into an arid “desert” at the end of this powerfully sad and moving poem.


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