Reviewed by Bernadette McBride
If it’s true, as someone once opined, that, but for love, loss, and death, there would be no poetry, Hayden Saunier’s new book, How to Wear This Body, reifies the power writing wields in excavating the fortitude needed to brave and reckon with grief’s depths and to embrace with gusto life’s joyful offerings.
In four sections steeped largely in wintered themes (with welcome doses of spring’s and summer’s redemptions), Saunier testifies to the human condition through vehicles ranging from life’s quotidian norms to our sometimes dangerous, sometimes hapless, often healing partnerships with others and with all of nature on this teeming planet. In tight, crystalline style, she attunes the corporeal grit of living to the stretch toward the spirit within that endures and sustains, to arrive at a truce, of sorts, with life’s dichotomy of brightness and bitter realities.
Beginning, appropriately, at the core in “Performing Heart Repair Surgery at 2 A.M. While Asleep,” she sets the stage on two levels for what carries the theme: the centrality of the heart in human affairs and the fact that so much happens at “the dark water margins / of sleep…” whereby a suspension of intellectual reasoning can allow an apprehension of big truths in contrast to the wakeful tendency to compartmentalize, close certain doors, turn away from what pains too much. The speaker explains:
…you sit up in bed
and dump out the small frightened fist
that’s your heart
in your lap.
…remember each scar, every mend, bite, and sizable
chunk torn away or cut out…
this intensified by
…what makes you gasp
are the tools you’ve kept stashed, and their weight,
falling out of your chest…
which leads finally, to
you feel once you lift your heart
back into place, seal your bones,
smooth your skin…
—a grateful nod to the dream that has allowed the open door, the daring of a face-down, the long exhalation of having done it.
Saunier’s facility with language—its nuances and metaphoric flexibility—shows up in poems such as “How It Is with My Father,” a love poem which parabolizes her father’s advanced age and illness:
One good hour, then long days adrift—no rudder,
paddle, outboard, sail—the narrow beds
docked, each in its own tidy berth…
Sometimes, he finds his long length stretched out
in a canoe on the Chickahominy River,
bright sky above the gunwales, sawgrass
brushing the hull, sometimes in the skiff
his father rowed out to the big ships as a boy.
Always he’s tethered…
And again, in “A Stab at an Inkling of a Theory,” a personification of self-protection which echoes the disquiet of two previous poems about the mortal fear, revulsion, and sometimes consuming desire for revenge that takes root after a violent attack which (though brought to the surface and addressed) still hovers in memory:
Evergreen trees have it all figured out:
dress modestly, take losses daily,
keep a little darkness always at your core.
That way the end’s a soft fall into snow.
…leaves blow down and each tree strikes
its individual pose of regret and desolation,
…Well, here I go again.
As though this terror at the core
belongs to anything but me.
Of course, the human condition isn’t all anguish and tears, and Saunier knows when to strike the balance with a bit of levity and humor. In “14 Degrees Below Zero in the Grocery Store Parking Lot,” the speaker waits in the car next to another car where a dog waits too “for our people to return,” as they both watch “the doors slide open and closed, open and closed” and “…look at each other, then back to the doors…” and again, in “How to Move In,” in which, among other suggestions, the speaker notes it’s a good idea to
Bring in the bed first.
Then the books.
Then wait as long as possible before doing anything else.
…Because the promise of sex
is almost as good as sex, and sometimes better, let’s face it…
Yet again, in “Early Morning, Late March” a wink of promise, of growing light, in
winter’s high black boots
…by the kitchen door
wet and spangled…
with opaque pink blossom.
Saunier’s overarching theme of triumph through reaching a healthy acceptance of adversity reminds us that beyond the angst, skepticism, and fears life presents, there is also good medicine to be had in revering the things of nature and cultivating safe and loving relationships which foster the ability to overcome, tempered with the understanding that we are at once “So little and so much. / It sums us up.”
Bernadette McBride, author of three full-length poetry collections (most recently, Whatever Measure of Light, Aldrich Press/Kelsay Books 2016), is poetry editor for the Philadelphia-based Schuylkill Valley Journal. Her poems have been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize and have appeared in the UK, Canada, numerous U.S. journals and anthologies, and on PRIs The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. Among other honors, she won second place for the International Ray Bradbury Writing Award (2006) and is a former Pennsylvania Poet Laureate for Bucks County (2009). She welcomes your visit at bernadettemcbrideblog.wordpress.com.