by | Apr 9, 2024 | CNF, Issue Thirty-Eight

Looking at something closely does not always betray the way it works; this can be true for relationships as well as objects and poems and people. I have stared at Robert Hass’ prose poem, the innocuously named, “A Story About The Body,” for hours, ever since I first encountered it in graduate school, yet I still do not know how it works.

Hass starts simply: “The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her.” What is it about simple beginnings that always end up defining us? In Kansas City for a work conference, my Uber driver tells me: it’s very safe here, but if you are approached by a Black or brown person, run away. I spend the next day scrutinizing every Black or brown person I encounter, including myself in the mirror—wondering what would happen if I ran away screaming.

This is a story about the body, too, but a different kind. Hass: “He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions.” Alone after leaving [redacted] back in Brooklyn, I begin to feel pain like a flinch, afraid to look at my phone. At a dance party, I meet Erika, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my entire life. “I’m gay, I am here to work, and I have a boyfriend,” I tell her. “Is that okay?” she says. “No, those are good things,” I tell her, even when she is dubious. The way she moves her body is not what draws me to her—rather, it is the comic impossibility of our union; she lives in Denver.

I often imagine that life, too, has voltas, moments of magical change, similar to poetry. In Hass’ prose poem, this is it: “One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, ‘I’ve lost both my breasts.’” Speaking to my publisher over overpriced but oddly satisfactory hotel food, we ramble about jobs, being workaholics, being women. I can feel change in the air the way you would feel an electric charge. She talks about offering me new titles, anthologies, money. Folding Erika into my arms when we said goodbye, she smelled of marijuana and possibility. I turned away, looking for yet another Uber, reminded of a witticism my mother used to say when I was a child: Why are you banging your head into the wall? Because it feels so good when I stop.

Queerness, for me, can be represented in not only the act of same sex coupling or the basic expansion of gender identity but in work on the fringes, the constant questioning and readjusting of one’s position to the center. Perhaps this is what draws me to this little prose poem; the young composer’s inability to redefine his understanding of attraction, his frozen, static self. Hass writes: “The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity—like music—withered very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.’He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door.”

The young composer does not have the capacity for change. Do I? Endings can be new beginnings. Hass’ ending is a final note, a vengeful one; I’ll leave it out for you to find on your own. But my own, wild, unbroken series of gestures—I feel it unfurling.

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