Being written after the work is completed, the preface is only true to its name in that it is that face that appears to the reader before the faces, the mouths, the ears and eyes, and the tails of the poems. The reader may expect that it address where the work came from, what is beneath the surface stratum of words on the pages. So in a sense writing a preface is like trying to answer the Zen conundrum “What are the faces of your original parents?,” that sends one whirling backward from present face and circumstances through the ages to those first progenitors. It is a chicken-and-egg proposition that ultimately pulls one into the primal sea asking of one celled organisms, “and who were your parents?” That is to say, these poems came from way before this congregation of flesh & synapses known under my name and their titles.
Whose Body is replete with questions, fifty-nine question marks in the text, to be exact, with other inquiries implied. The title, for example, suggests the question, whose body is this that I occupy, whose body is this that feels love or pleasure or suffers so self-importantly? The infant heard sobbing next door or the tortured political prisoner, are their bodies’ aches also not mine? But each is comprised of a certain combination of DNA, so are my body and my self really unique? Another side of the question is, “who is this ‘I’ that occupies a certain body at a certain time?” Does it maintain an identify apart from the body it inhabits, this body with its specific scars, warm places, habits, and infirmities? Who is this “I” whose memories can by replaced by lightning with healing powers?
I owe much to those who have more masterfully asked these questions before. The early Taoist text of Chuang Tzu provokes these and other questions by use of paradox, pun, exaggeration, and humor. I attempted those devices in this book. One poem opens with a proposition adopted from Chuang Tzu, “Why not turn my arm into a rooster/so it can watch for the false dawn?” Why not wake up to the rooster aspect of yourself, but in doing so, be wary of crowing pseudo-truths. A contemporary mentor of the inciting and insightful question, Czesaw Miosz, uses an open-ended “if” clause to inquire about mortality, “Oh, if there were one seed without rust inside me.” Wheelbarrows of speculation depend upon that “if.” Other posers of questions in whose wakes these poems follow include another early Taoist, Po Chü-i, the Jewish mystic Moses Maimonides, the Yeats scholar Daniel Albright, and that paragon of propositioners, Jorge Luis Borges. Poets whose lines stimulated specific poems are listed in the Acknowledgments.
In the ancient Chinese texts, puns may be intrinsic to the calligraphic characters, which in one poem raises the question, “What is the character for man/...for woman?” The poetry in two of the sections ponders the relationships between men and women, sometimes in the voice of bewilderment, often in the mode of longing, sometimes in the throes of love and fulfillment, those moments when one’s body and intuition are united with another’s.
A poet may latch on to an idea and worry it like a dog with a splinter in its paw. One recurring notion in this work is that our very muscles and nerves hold memories. Some forms of therapy aim to heal traumas by unlocking disturbing memories retained in the tissues. Amputees wrestle with ghost sensations in missing limbs, a detached thumb has its memory of love letters it once wrote, a practiced trapeze artist catches hands with a partner mid-air without “thinking”in the head about how it is done.
Another absorption exercised in this book concerns the fabrics that cover our bodies--how a pair of shoes says so much (they have tongues, after all) about its owner, how a hat becomes imbued with the sweat and therefore the DNA of its wearer, or the orgy of guests’ coats left to themselves on a bed during a party. Identity gets raised to higher powers of social notice when one’s name is emblazoned on a professional sports jersey or a convict jumpsuit.
Practitioners of so-called alternate religious and healing pursuits have influenced the citizenry’s beliefs about bodies and souls. One prevalent concept adapted from Hinduism and Buddhism is that of “previous lives,” sometimes manifest as the certainty that one can know a specific precursor of one’s soul, and can even be “in touch with it” through various ministrations and inducements. Some of these poems contemplate the possibilities of a world where present day selves stand cheek by jowl with their predecessors. Similarly, other identities mirrored here include that of the Doppelgänger and the Bad Twin.
Instead of supplying answers, in this poetry I have striven to give flesh and body to the “dark enigmas” Taoists speak of. Bodies bloom and mutate, lovers cleave and vacillate, dualities of flesh and spirit are created by their very denial. Writing these poems, I imagined a strict Master in the Zen lineage looking over my shoulder ready to whap this body with a stick if a poem started to fall asleep. Or, as Chuang Tzu suggests, behind me all the while was it a butterfly, dreaming me in this body writing poems?