Jay Deshpande on “To Body What’s Around Me”
To Body What's Around Me
Stomach feels cloyed and trembling, often the day
is trembling, often I am small step on a branch pressing up,
then giving up, and still with walking on. These are the days
in which you come to me, not to say exquisite but no less
a vessel for it: you here, with amazingly attached arms. I am never
interior but a shaken thing. I remember
the field on top of the hill that approached a line, wooden
how it was not approached, and this light damage of childhood
is somehow meaning now. I know the grasses
I wouldn't walk on, and the more real ferns. Meaning now.
When partial I am somehow looking most directly at you,
and this happens to be frequent, and you'll never understand.
But you see a perhaps, and I, I hold you for it.
Still the hill's inside, with its one sun going down.
Stillside the hill, and the touching never stops.
On "To Body What's Around Me"
"To Body What's Around Me" is a love poem with a problem: it does not clarify who the You of its address is. At moments it feels like a beloved other: "These are the days in which you come to me…" But at other moments that You is not quite human, not quite beloved. In some places it seems more like a familiar—the gentle ghost of childhood's sensual experience. In this way, the You is a figuration of memory. A question, then: Is the poem addressing something outside of the I or inside of it? To which the answer is, consistently, yes.
I had some idea that this kind of ambivalence might be a strength. The piece is particularly indebted to one of my all-time favorite love poems, John Ashbery's "A Blessing in Disguise." That poem has a feeling of overflowing: its purposely hobbled syntax suggests an ecstasy in the speaker greater than language can compass. The poem's joy in speaking its affections does not require a specifically anchored address. I've always been a little thrilled by how Ashbery alternates between a beloved You ("I prefer 'you' in the plural, I want 'you,' / You must come to me, all golden and pale / Like the dew and the air") and a You that's the reflexive motion of trying to understand oneself through speech ("the real trees // That seem to shine at me through a lattice toward you"). This latter brings a risk of solipsism. But poetry has to take that risk, and often.
Ultimately, "To Body" attempts to synthesize an experience that cannot be otherwise put into words. The last couplet performs a kind of in-folding: "still the hill's inside" contracts to "stillside the hill." It functions as a mimesis of that "one sun going down," as the light between the words grows smaller, these hills coming together. But it's also a swallowing. The remembered landscape of boyhood gets re-ingested ("still the hill's inside"), which performs the peristaltic hyperawareness that kicks the poem off. (Like the poem's opening, I do a lot of thinking with my stomach.)
The repetition of "still" forms its own demand, in the speaker's desire that all these remembered elements of a life be kept in place. And I'm equally interested in its offshoot echo, how the non-word "stillside" recalls the rare stillicide, the falling of water droplets from an icicle or eave, both of which happened often in the childhood landscape the poem recalls. There's something to that meting out: clepsydra of my head filling drip by drip until the time's up and I can see an actual memory there, a better sense for what I lived and how it made me.