The Poetics of Working Corpus

By Kym Cunningham

We begin, like we always do, with the body—that occupation of space that separates I from us, the problematic corpus forever embalmed with liminality. I am nowhere but not nothing, just as the separation between us is nothing and yet it is not nowhere. And so we try to make something from this corporeal utopia: we fashion language as a means of apologizing for our bodies, for the space they take up and take away from others. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa—just a short step from corporeal to culpable, that indelible link between mind and body by way of confession. We are sorry for the manifestation of thoughts in bodies, and vice (versa): another act of contrition for the impurity of self.  It’s how we were taught to be polite—proper Catholic manners.

But we’ve always felt constricted by the notion of what is proper because we know it is impossible to divorce propriety from property, and what we don’t want to do is to reintroduce the commodification of the body. That’s what we’re working against; that’s what we’re trying to deconstruct: this notion that we’ve been told in so many ways throughout so many lives, that we are just a marketable item, a digestible object to be consumed.

So we use the language of consumption to push back against this thinghood; we eat everything, ourselves, each other, even our words, regurgitating them onto the page to try to mash back together our fragments, the parts of our body that society has tried to dismember. We make monsters, knowing how Frankenstein felt in his lab. Surely, we think, this must be poetry, using the generative power of our bodies to rework words that have resonated in this nowhere-place since pubescence.

Our poetry takes on a kind of mantra, one that resembles the beating of our hearts—blood, salt, mud, bones—an army of literal homunculi created from shadows projected on the cave’s walls. They work endlessly, they regenerate endlessly, mouths stitched shut so we can’t hear them moan their fury, their despair. They know what we never seem to, the last part of our mantra we try not to face: dust, always dust, everywhere coating the lines in their foreheads, the creases in their eyelids, the blisters on their hands, a memento mori to which we will return.

To obfuscate this anxiety, to shuck it away like the husks of ourselves, we re-member the body, poetry always a reflection of our own experiences, our own thoughts and actions. We have a hard time pushing past ourselves so rooted in this body, in its pumping of blood and quickening of breath. We can’t seem to move past our exhalations, our inescapable pasts. We try to embrace the body, believing that if we could only just accept it, we could transcend it, mistaking resurrection for transubstantiation. We have aligned tragedy with beauty for too long to see that the chains don’t link us to one another; they separate us, shackling us to a floor that is not the ground, not our Mother, but something deeper and cynical that we can’t seem to shake. The futility of the body manifests in our poetry, perhaps even despite ourselves, despite this desire for the happy endings we read when our bodies were young enough to accept such flaws, before we tried to smooth them over with a pound of flesh or our sense of divine justice. We’ve rooted divinity so heavily in the body that we can’t seem to see past it.

But we’ve never seen correctly, an astigmatism blurring lines-that-aren’t-shadows, our hands clutching at guide rails as we descend the mind’s double-helix staircase. We’ve always felt clumsy, off-balance, too big for designated spaces, our bodies unmatched for our eyes’ argument with reality. Our life—our poetry—begins to feel like a series of mirrors, reflections of bodies upon bodies on which we can’t seem to focus without eyeing the ghosts of periphery. We keep moving further and further away from where we began, only to find ourselves still chained to the funhouse floor, harrowed by the (dis)illusion of motion that we’ve convinced ourselves means progress.

So we decide to be disobedient to the idea of motion. If we’re going to be stuck in our bodies, after all—if poetry cannot transcend but only resuscitate—we might as well embrace this spiritual impoverishment: “Self means ‘I’ and also means ‘poverty,’ it’s what one strips down to, who you are when you’re stripped down” (Alice Notley). We decide to strip ourselves down to our mantra, baring our bones to the cave of our language. We wonder what would happen if we flayed ourselves alive, taking the rubbed wounds with a grain of salt to deconstruct the salience of gender. We try to unearth the stakes we write for and against, those which we push through our eyes to stick through the hearts of our readers, hoping beyond hope for something past the myth of our leather. But the harder we push, the more we remain enmeshed in belief’s finger trap of what constitutes poetry. After all, poetry is a serious art form.

But as soon as we’ve said it, we hear its untruth. We realize we’ve taken our bodies too seriously. We have never confronted the dust of our future. “Most adult people spend all too much time being serious and as a result approach things the way they have always approached things” (Laynie Browne). We’ve always been annoyed at how terribly serious adults are; it’s the part of our bodies we like the least, this tendency towards severity, this failure to see humor in the comic relief of bodies pressed against one another, this requirement for beauty to take the form of artfully rendered tragedy. It’s improper to mention we shit ourselves alike in birth and death, not funny to think of bodies as the means and ends, the transubstantiation and resuscitation of fecal spirituality. But we’ve already discussed the problematic of propriety.

So let’s do something different. Let’s (re)collect bodies to make (un)perfected impure poems. Let’s make up words that slip in meaning in ways that make us stop and think: is this an error?

Yes and no, we answer because we know to err is human, and so everything we do is always in error. Our bodies are as erroneous as poetry is fallible. It’s taken us a long time to get to that point, to recognize that the art of poetry was just an extension of human error, to understand how human fallibility seeps into every aspect of our lives, of our selves. And so we look to poems that are not perfect in their bodies because this imperfection, this fallibility, represents a mechanism of escape. For every aspect of language left unturned we think there might be a chance for it to be overturned, to be recreated into something that surpasses mere symbolism, that goes beyond the myth of itself.

But the problem is we’re still working within the linguistic mode of transcendence, rooted in the linearity of difference between past, present, and future.

So if our poetry isn’t looking for transcendence, if instead it means to bear the weight of body of language, with all of its utterly human(e)ly fallible (mis)communication, what does that leave us with? It becomes not a question, then, of where poetry can go but of how it can stay, how it can exist rooted in that which remains—


and it means something—doesn’t it
mean something—don’t i?
when i said a person can be a home
believed in terms of
memory, not motherhood
that space between your evil i(s)
connecting nose to brain
how do we leave
what we already have
left behind