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Bodies and Words

July 19, 2022

Celia Lisset Alvarez’s most recent volume of poetry, Bodies and Words, is a collection of poems about love, relationships, and our constantly changing perceptions of what makes a person desirable. The poems will remind you of what it’s like to have a changing body and to fall in love from early adolescence to old age. The title is from a Joyce Carol Oates story: “In love, there are two things: bodies and words.”

One of the earliest poems, “Coleoptera,” is about a pre-adolescent crush: “you were only thirteen, but I was nine/and that made you adult in my eyes, capable/of algebra and words like exoskeleton you/rattled off like a politician in charge of my own/country. I voted you in and voted you in.”

One of my favorite poems in the volume is “Miss USA Slips and Falls during Miss Universe Pageant” because of how the speaker relates that “you can see it three times in a row,/and again every 20 minutes or so./This is the top news story of the day. I/will see it 26 times before I sleep,” a revelation that this is happening at a formative age for the speaker. I also like the way the speaker figures out how much the fall must have hurt. Most of all I like the poem because of the ending: “people/normally can walk without falling quite well. It’s when you put the weight of your whole life on/just one foot that it becomes impossible.”

There’s a look into other, including imaginary, lives in “Browsing” and a seemingly casual dismissal of entire books—or, perhaps, people–because “I can tell, just from the cover, all that’s about to happen.”

The marvelous title poem takes readers back and forth between what they see and feel and what seems to be revealed during the process of attending a reading by Joyce Carol Oates. Readers will marvel at the many and various shades of feeling, especially during the kind of reverie that seems to take place while a girl in front of the speaker is whispering to the boy next to her and suddenly “it’s 1987. My cousin and I are at the movies watching Dirty Dancing.” Part of the fun, and the feeling, is the classification of what all couples do “after the fifth year but before the tenth” and after the tenth.

As the relationships in the volume go past the tenth year, we get poems like “Never” about “what this fight is really about./How you and I and the word Never/have lived so long in this house.” This list of what “never” does is both comic and pathetic, as “never burns the toast. Never sticks/the peanut butter knife in the jelly jar./Never sets the table and forgets the forks./Never doesn’t take out the garbage.” Of course, the list gets more serious as the poem goes on.

As a person who has reached her sixties, I very much appreciate the feeling of “Do Please at Least Consider Giving Up,” with its Andrew Marvell allusions and the feeling that it’s too late because “now the books/are packed up on a shelf we cannot reach.” I wonder if most people who reach my age end up living a version of the beginning of the third stanza: “No, my love, let us relent./Let us pay this check and go,/let the credits roll. Let us/spare ourselves the indignity of passion/at this late a stage.”

My very favorite poem of the volume is “Contradiction,” the way it goes back and forth, the way people do:

Pruing metaphors seem apt. Snip something off
to make something stronger, they say. I don’t
know anything about plants. I’ve heard the same
of hair and nails. Trim the ends to make them

grow faster, longer. This has never made sense
to me, the universe’s spirit of
contradiction. My inability to
fool it. The universe knows when I want

the damned rhododendron to flower, when I
want to have long hair. If I prune and feed
the plant it withers, and if I spit on it,
call it a whore, it withers. It withers

because it knows. I have cut my hair so short
it feels like velvet, and still it does not
grow, and I have let it live in its own black
miasma of brittle curls, and still it

does not grow. How long have I been trying to
forget you? Shunning every thought that has
you in it? The damned universe—it knows, it
knows. It know that I don’t really mean it.

The poems in this volume are ones I want to share with my best friend from high school, someone I still talk to and measure my version of reality against, in terms of who we used to “like” and who we have loved throughout our lives.

Reading Bodies and Words will leave you questioning whether people who have loved each other can ever truly see the other. “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” as the lyrics to the Queen song put it. The way one influences the other provides the fascination of this volume.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2022 4:42 pm

    Thank you, Jeanne, for your palpable enthusiasm! You’ve paid me some huge compliments and caught a few things other readers have not. I am truly humbled by your words.

  2. July 20, 2022 12:28 pm

    Sounds like some good poems. Love the last line of “Contradiction.” The universe knows all 🙂 And the Miss America poem, oh yes, when the pressure is on walking and everything else gets that much harder.

    • July 26, 2022 8:20 am

      I love the line “my inability to fool it” and the kind-of personification of “the universe,” as if there’s a force outside ourselves that we could be trying to fool.

  3. July 25, 2022 10:04 am

    Wow, this sounds like a delight. I particularly loved the lines you cited from the Miss USA poem: “people/normally can walk without falling quite well. It’s when you put the weight of your whole life on/just one foot that it becomes impossible.”

    • July 26, 2022 8:20 am

      Yes, isn’t that fabulous? I quoted that line this weekend while I was trying to walk!

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  1. Fantastic New Review of Bodies & Words! – celialissetalvarez

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