Poet Rebecca Lindenberg is a self-proclaimed “maximalist.” Not that she’s doing drunken cartwheels across the page or in her life, risking artistic coherence, her dignity or her health in a doomed effort to defy the laws of gravity and decorum.
Lindenberg’s maximalism is instead her response to the reality that despite how often we go about our lives half-ready to explode with joy, grief, confusion, wonder, regret, curiosity and sudden outbursts of love for all creatures and the creation great and small, we too often opt for restraint instead—for fear the world will think us crazy. (Or we will ourselves fear it is so.)
Nothing to see or hear here, let’s move it along now…
Not on your life, says Lindenberg.
The trick is to see and hear as much and as closely as you can, accepting at obvious face value the enormity of the world and your Self’s sometimes perilous navigation within it. Not to be cowered, either self- or world-minimizing, afraid of your own life and the full experience of its light and shadow.
And most pointedly, not to self-consciously mute your response to all it places in front of you.
Asked to elaborate upon her maximalist orientation in a 2013 interview with McSweeney’s, the Bay Area literary journal founded and maintained still by the novelist Dave Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” “A Hologram for the King”), Lindenberg, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati and poetry editor of the “Cincinnati Review,” replied:
“Well, on one hand, it has to do with a kind of idiosyncratic exuberance, a kind of unapologetic bigness. The language of the poetry workshop and the language of contemporary poetry generally is riddled with terms like ‘restraint’ and ‘contained’ and ‘earn’ and ‘at stake’—language having to do with reduction or transaction, as if you had to bargain and haggle to make a poem, or you had to compress the world to get it to fit in the poem. And the truth is I’ve never even really understood what those terms mean, but I do always feel a bit hemmed in by them. And I don’t think you can write very ambitious poems feeling that way. I feel better when, instead of trying to be faithful to a set of poetic conventions, I’m trying to be faithful to the occasion and nature of the poem or, better yet, to the world that occasioned it. If I could write a map of the world the size of the world, I would feel great about it.”
That last line feels like it sings itself right off the page, and in doing so, it lines us up ready to meet Lindenberg’s hymn to “The Splendid Body,” in all that body’s glories, joys, struggles, and decay.
THE SPLENDID BODY
By Rebecca Lindenberg
The splendid body is meat, flexor
and flesh pumping, pulling, anti-
gravity maverick just standing
upright all over museums and
in line for the bus and in the laundry
aisle where it’s just standing there
smelling all the detergent like
it’s no big deal. So what if a couple
of its squishy parts are suspended
within, like beach-bungled jellyfish
in a shelved jar, not doing anything?
Nothing on this side of the quantum
tunnel is perfect. The splendid body,
though, is splendid in the way
it keeps its steamy blood in, no matter
how bad it blushes. And splendid
in how it opens its mouth and
these invisible vibrations come
rippling out—if you put your wrist
right up to it when that happens
it feels somewhat like the feet
of many bees. The splendid body
loves the juniper smell of gin, loves
the warmth of printer-fresh paper,
and the sound fallen leaves make
under the wheel of a turning car.
If you touch it between the legs,
the splendid body will quicken
like bubbles in a just-on teakettle.
It knows it can’t exist forever, so
it’s collecting as many flavors as it can—
saffron, rainwater, fish-skin, chive.
Do not distract it from its purpose,
which is to feel everything it can find.
“The Splendid Body” first appeared in late April on the American Academy of Poets website, poets.org. It will be published as part of Lindenberg’s third poetry collection next year. When I corresponded with her about its history, she wrote: “The poem is one in a series that’s about living thirty-five years (and counting) with a life-threatening chronic disease (Type 1 diabetes). I don’t actually see it as a love poem, unless it’s a love poem to the ongoingness of the body. Which it probably is.”
I would only change that “probably” to “most certainly,” to be elaborated upon below.
More important is the even deeper background that makes any sort of love poem for her a triumph. Her debut 2012 volume, “Love, An Index,” began in 2006 as an effort to depict the “unconventional little family” she shared with her partner and fellow poet Craig Arnold and his son, and the “love and its many complications” that flowed therefrom.
In 2009, Arnold went hiking along a volcano in Japan and disappeared, his body never found. It took Lindenberg another three years before the rest of the poems could emerge from her and see publication, now seasoned with the universal experience of grief and the particularity of the dark and mysterious nature that begat hers.
All these experiences unremarkable as such, but objects of love to a splendid body (notice it’s not ‘beautiful body’) inhabited by an equally splendid mind that bathes and lingers daily in the warm waters of (paying) attention.
These years later, “The Splendid Body” clearly reflects a healthy native joy that has absorbed grievous loss and emerged the stronger for it.
Despite having lost a precious other body and living with a compromised one of her own, Lindenberg sings a hymn to incarnate life, with deep appreciation and observation of all that is.
That includes the body as the “meat, flexor/and flesh pumping, pulling, anti-/gravity maverick” miracle that evolution has fashioned it into.
But sometimes, miracles express themselves in more quiescent and modest modes, as when that wondrous flesh pumper takes to just “standing/upright all over museums and/in line for the bus and in the laundry/aisle where it’s just standing there/smelling all the detergent like/it’s no big deal.”
It’s true that one can’t live on the knife edge of exhilaration and ecstasy all day. (Though I could use some more of that in my dream life at night, rather than the misery of all the flights I’m missing, the people I can’t reach, the words I can’t quite form, the chair I can’t seem to rise from.)
But that’s not what drives poets as they seek to explore, a hundred ways in a hundred poems, the riches to be found in looking, noticing, attending, and being open to what they find. And to hope that you might accompany them.
Therein lies the treasure and challenge of the poetic vocation.
So they describe the laundry aisle, tractor prints, fog, a raincoat, a bug gnawing a leaf, or that leaf drifting lazily down moments before the bug comes upon it. Turning them into ecstasies of the everyday.
Sure, bodies are problematic and sometimes maddening and even debilitating, with their “squishy parts…suspended/within, like beach-bungled jellyfish/in a shelved jar, not doing anything…”
But consider: Words.
So many words, so many languages, so much inexhaustible nuance. Lindenberg adds no small measure of beautiful nuance herself when she writes of them strung together by the human voice as “invisible vibrations” that “come rippling out…”
And then this acute observation that soars into dizzying simile: …“if you put your wrist/right up to it when that happens/it feels somewhat like the feet/of many bees.”
We are immediately transported to the almost ethereal sensation, the barely perceptible experience, of a bee’s feet on our skin, something we generally don’t spend much time thinking about, but which is striking and lovely and wholly original in its pairing with the vibration emitted by a human being forming words.
Then a symphony of smell, touch and sound, our senses abuzz with loving “the juniper smell of gin…/the warmth of printer-fresh paper,/and the sound fallen leaves make/under the wheel of a turning car.”
Not just any car, but one that’s turning.
All these experiences unremarkable as such, but objects of love to a splendid body (notice it’s not “beautiful body”) inhabited by an equally splendid mind that bathes and lingers daily in the warm waters of (paying) attention.
And then we head toward a close with the absolutely remarkable and almost universally lauded experience of a “touch…between the legs,” when “the splendid body will quicken/like bubbles in a just-on teakettle.”
Once again, a pitch-perfect simile, the tangle of the splendid body conjoined with another surely near the pinnacle of the collected experiences made available to a body in this world, with the poignant underpinning of finitude that will end its precious days.
But not before it has fulfilled, with luck and persistence and without “distraction,” its earthly, sacred purpose…“which is to feel everything it can find.”
All while making the most of every search.
You can find all the archived poetry posts for this blog listed in descending order, with brief introductions, most recent on top, at http://andrewhidas.com/category/poetry/
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