by Athena Kildegaard
J.C. Todd wrote poetry as a child and then returned to it when she was in her thirties. In her early forties she published her first chapbook, then attended the acclaimed MFA program at Warren Wilson in her mid-fifties. Todd’s first full-length collection of poetry, What Space This Body (Wind Publications), was born into this world when Todd was 65. Perhaps a poet should be well into middle-age to write about the body. By then we’ve come to terms with its inadequacies and we can still rejoice in its beauty. But Todd is less interested in those inadequacies than she is in the idea of beauty.
And so a driving image for the book is the moon—that ur-subject of poets. (A bartleby.com search for “moon” yields 1147 “relevant results.”) What more beautiful and inscrutable body is there for us to observe than the moon? She (we can’t help but refer to the moon as she) moves across the night sky and stands like a mirage on the day sky. She comes and goes, seemingly fickle, incorporating light and dark into her body, her corpus. She is ephemeral, if only because of this coming and going.
“The Only Evening,” an early poem in What Space This Body, begins, “Moonflower makes no reference / to former moonflowers or to later ones.” The poem goes on to contemplate the blooming flower, then it turns to “the face of moon, / human, yet so distant that Earth’s spin / has not effaced its beauty.” Wherever we are in relation to the moon, it is still beautiful. The poem continues with a child writing in chalk on a sidewalk:
I lukd up
The blacktop walk his copybook,
he drew, fist clamped around
the chalk, yellow letters, wiggly
and nursery-taught, his face raised
into night as if the night before
had never been, as if the sudden
moon had opened him.
The opening lines of the poem, quoted above, improvise on a sentence from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”: “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones.” This flower, this body, now, in this moment, Todd suggests, is itself enough, is whole.
The collection begins—auspiciously and somewhat misleadingly—with a poem in which the speaker stands at the bathroom door watching her husband urinate. The speaker is present only as an observer, but what an astute observer: “Knees bent, you tip your pelvis slightly / toward the immaculate bowl.” We become witnesses to an act that is simultaneously mundane and sacred. After watching “the golden piss / arcing from your body,” the speaker stands “breathing in the scent of your beautiful excess.” At the end of the poem she notes that this man is “flesh filled with light: atoms pulsing, nuclei of cells, / neurons, dendrites, retes—all light transmitting light.” The husband is like the moon, filled with light, transmitting light, in a body carrying on its required actions. The speaker—lover and poet—watches, enjoying the beauty of the husband’s whole body.
In the next poem ,“Men Kissing,” the speaker watches men kissing men and women—in a movie, in a diner—but the speaker never engages in a kiss herself, though she imagines it. In the diner, two men, “a blonde and a redhead” kiss and the speaker says, “I’m imagining the redhead kissing me. // It’s good, as good as any lover.” Her imagination fills in what the body doesn’t. The poem ends with the speaker recalling times she’s seen her brother and father kiss–when the brother was little, and later when he’s a grown man. The two men, she notes, are “homophobic and affectionate” but their kisses are soft, “soft as kisses I have given or received.”
In the third poem of the collection, “Moon Blown Free,” the speaker is present in her whole body, not just through her imagination or memory: she wakes after lovemaking and goes outside to see what she can see. The poem ends with the title phrase: “What space had this body opened into with you? / And where was the moon—had it blown free?” These three poems follow the moon’s waxing and waning, if you will—the body is whole, then it is waning, then it is gone.
You might imagine at this point that What Space This Body is a book of eroticism, but it isn’t. Rather, these three opening poems set the stage for contemplation of other subjects.
The word moon is related to the Latin that gives us monthly and menstrual. It’s natural then, and perhaps even anticipated, that, given that this book is written by a bloomer, we’d have a menopause poem. The penultimate and longest poem in the book turns (should I say waxes) into an honest and lyrical consideration of the end of the “monthlies,” the end of a female body’s moonlike cycles. “Is this how worlds change, / one element transforming another?” In the last section of this poem, Todd uses the metaphor of bodies opening into the world:
the thighs lead to and from,
sanctum whose gate
the undergrowth conceals,
that drop into the sanctum
the cell that settles and feeds
and the cell that is expelled,
these and the mind are one,
joined in a biosphere
of memory and fission
whose permeable boundary
is two yards square of skin.
Oh, wild and fleeting
laurel that blossoms and falls,
body that flowers and fades.
Here, as with the earlier poems, we see Todd considering the question of what’s beautiful, even as the body changes, and she’s thinking of the ways in which the particular body on this earth is tied to the movement of the spheres.
This consideration of time and beauty is handled with great tenderness in a series of poems about her mother’s death and about the death of a younger sister at birth. In “Age of Enlightenment,” the speaker describes a summer in a rental “on Forbes below Mercy,” where she “read sun-stunned, // cooled by Newton’s proofs / of natural order, a physics / that corrected the Romantic.” This reading leads her to a contemplation of Enlightenment and how it is “full illumination, sum- / total seen and foreseeable.” Then the speaker calls home to check on her mother who is suffering from cancer. Here’s how the poem ends:
past her thready breath
to marrow thinning, bones
fissured with pockets of air,
how she was almost
a shadow passing
out of sight.
Perhaps it’s a stretch to see a shadow of the moon in these lines—the moon, untethered, pocked and fissured, a shadow. There is enlightenment here—that is, the light that allows us to see the dark. And what is it the mother says, when the daughter calls her? “Trying to keep it / light.”
In the poem, “Ginkgo, the Temple-Tree of China,” Todd tells us the tree “waxes saffron”—like a moon. An “ancient” gathers the smelly fruit, toasts it, and offers it to her grandchildren. “Eat, she will tell them, eaten by love.” The old woman remembers her sister dying and her fan being thrown into the Xi Jiang river, “a swirl like smoke / cut through by rising light.” Here again, we see the body become shadow (smoke) and join with light. The poem ends with the old woman picking “a blackened sliver” of ginkgo fruit from between her teeth, and the speaker notes, “Eating, / there is no dying.”
Todd continues her exploration of eating and death in the love poem “Returning You to Me,” which begins “Some year, Beloved, your body, / wild and beautiful, will stop.” The poet is facing the possibility that some day her beloved will die. In the second stanza the speaker recalls the true story of the soccer team whose flight is downed “in a blizzard on an Andes peak” and are reduced to “a most sacred feast.” Trapped by weather in an inaccessible place the men are reduced to cannibalism. That act allows some of the men to survive, and thus the awful act becomes sacred. This allows the speaker to consider “the pure // release of making you my life” and how she would then be
a faithful wife returning
you, bite by loving bite, to me–
stringy ligaments of fingers,
greasy apron of the gut,
tough shoulders, sweet loins,
mountain oysters tilted from their cups,
your good bones ground to meal
as white as a winter moon’s
The body of the lover urinating at the beginning of the collection is joined fully with the body of the speaker—they’ve become one. The poem ends, “Oh, to trek / that height, resplendent, / we two, one flesh.”
Immortality can be had by consumption or by translation. That is, we can wax and grow fat, or we can wane and be translated into shadow. Either way, Todd argues, it is beautiful.
Athena Kildegaard is the author of three books of poetry, Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011, a Minnesota Book Award finalist), and Cloves & Honey (2012). She teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
Athena Kildegaard’s previous features: The Art of Losing, the Art of Holding: Karen Skolfield’s Frost in the Low Areas, Ruth Stone: Poet of Wonder and Grief