Poetry International Poetry International

In the beginning is the body

PIW archive tour
9 april 2018
According to Judith Butler, the process of creation of identity takes place through the performativity of the body. The speech that bodies theatricalise in front of an audience inserts them into different categories such as gender and sex, but also creates the illusion of an ideal, essential subjectivity. Consequently, from her point of view and also according to some constructivist theories, only through the interaction of bodies will something result that we may call a self.
If we also say that to write is to put our experience of the world into words, how is theatricalisation expressed in contemporary poetry? Taking a glance at some particular poems, we see the construction of anatomic figures. How does the poet speak about her body or the bodies of the others? How are those bodies experienced?

First and foremost, the motif of desire underlines some of these poems. In ‘Masturbation' by Yona Wallach and ‘Suppose that I am inevitable’ by Rosa Jamali, the action and reaction of  bodies in situations of desire express entire worlds. Only through a physical exchange do bodies and subjectivities communicate: the place of dialogue is the body. This acknowledgement of physical interaction can also be alarming, as happens in the poem by Aase Berg ‘She knows’.

The starting point for many poems is the physical body itself. The Italian Monica Martinelly writes in ‘The habitude of the eyes 52’, that the heat emitted from her body is insufficient "to caress a solitude that is waiting". In ‘Turning myself easily. It is not enclosed’, by Ann Jäderlund, insomnia is the focus of discomfort. Accoutrements such as jewels, guns, or clothes may also take part in communication, as is the case in ‘My uniform’ by the Zimbabwean poet Julius Chingono. Here the speaker reflects on how his identity is shaped depending on the perception of others of ehat he is wearing. Finally, acknowledging the embodied location of the self can sometimes lead to a strange claustrophobia, as it is the case in ‘Impossible to move’, written by Dan Coman.

The speakers in many poems examine their own bodies, and also the bodies of others. One example of the latter is the poem ‘Lady’ by Briceida Cuevas Cob, where the figure of the woman in the title looks appealing, yet her sexual appeal conceals her difficult existence.
The poems above depict human bodies, while others use metaphors from different semantic fields. This is the case of poems like ‘Unripe greengages’ by Rosa Jamali and ‘Self’ by Mohamed Bouchkar. In the former, the poet asks about the usefulness of her body as a fruit; in the second, the poet imagines his body as a mountain that stretches.

Some poets describe a concrete, objective perception of their flesh in order to range further afield. This is the case in ‘She keeps on the cloud path’, written by Chus Pato, where the speaker says, "we women dreamers are centaurs" and it is also the case in the poem ‘Blood is thicker than water’, by Sanjin Sorel. In these two poems, repeated elements refer to an embodied experience of the world.
In ‘Nectar's roots as far as its resonance reaches’ written by the Japanese Mari Kashiwagi and ‘Intervene’, by the Mexican Dolores Dorantes, in two very different manners, the social relation of bodies is expressed. The body is either supplanted by other objective elements or discussed with an interlocutor who will, in the end, define it.

In all these poems, what there is – is a body. Its depiction is a form of putting into words the existence of identity in relation to the poet’s point of view and the view of others. Perhaps, as Gonçalo M. Tavares claims in his poem ‘Water’, it is all about something as simple as drinking to allow our bodies to continue to exist.

By Marta Navarro Pla, who holds a degree In Literature Studies from the University of Barcelona and is currently finishing her MA on Art, Literature and Society at the University of Maastricht.


Butler, J. (2002). Gender Trouble. London and New York: Routledge.
© Marta Navarro Pla
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