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Book Review: Uses of My Body

[ By Lauren K. Alleyne ]

Simone Savannah, 2017 graduate of KU and HBW alumnus, has recently published her poetry collection, “Uses of My Body”. The book deals with the intimacy of Black womanhood and emphasizes Black women’s experience of erasure, sexual and racial violence, as well as pleasure and healing. Lauren K. Alleyne, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, has written a review of Savannah’s book.

Uses of My Body by Simone Savannah is a collection that leaps fully into one of poetry’s most delicious devices: the oxymoron. The poems manage to be simultaneously loud and quiet, open and guarded, raw and technically savvy. They are offered to us by a speaker both brash and vulnerable, honest and slippery, dangerous and imperiled. And what better vehicle to enact these dual tenors than the body? Presented in the text as both a site of power and powerlessness, the body in the hands of this poet is wrought in all its complexity; it is instrument and music, vessel and river, fortress and breach, machine and mystery. The word “uses” in the title simultaneously implies the speaker’s agented deployment of the body’s power and its potential to be co-opted and used by others.

The first thing most readers would notice is the language of the poems. In terms of diction, most of the poems utilize graphic and overtly sexual word choices to anti-romantically describe love, relationships, and the bodies of the beloved and the lover. In “Preclude,” the speaker boasts of toying with “the man I’ve been sleeping with,” revealing “I tell him I like him when I like his shit.” Rather than the poetic declaration of love, it is an anti-poetic declaration of desire:

I say shit like baby,

let me slurp down that big ass dick.

But, sometimes I just spit on the tip

on some cute ass shit (11)

Here, the poem gets down to the nitty-gritty of the body in a way that poems rarely dare. The viscousness of “shit,” “slurp,” and “spit” present the body at its most animal, internal, and visceral; “big ass dick” locates this relationship firmly in the realm of unapologetic carnal desire. If one is shocked by this, it is because such frank expressions of desire are not generally allowed from women in our society. Such open discourses of desire force women into the defensive “I begin: I am not a jezebel” (32). But this is a poet who isn’t interested in asking for permission to inhabit herself, and who is, in fact, open about the use of poetry as a site of reclamation: “I read poems to remake the self. / I write poems to remake the self.” (32) Moreover, poems like “Preclude” flip the script, since usually the female body is used as a projective site for male desire; “like want for having,” almost mirrors the lines in “Preclude”:

I wonder now, if hunger is                  why men send me

   strange messages

about how they want to spit in my throat,

or call me baby or sweetheart and ask me

to say what I want

to do with their dicks and my tongue—  (13-14)

The mirrored articulations of desire in conjunction with the turn in agency here point to the fact that when the female body is an object rather than an agent, the same actions and impulses read differently. The body houses these opposing possibilities and Savannah’s language points to this clearly.

Tonally, the poems’ speaker is brash and forthright—no holds barred in a way that animates the oxymoron at work throughout. The poems feel sharp and deflective, the grit and edge of the language and voice almost off-putting at times, yet their honesty creates a sense of intimacy in which the speaker’s revelations feel like entrusted confidences—a tension that undergirds the entire collection. Overall, the shock factor of the language is balanced by the tenderness that lies just below it. The assemblage of swear words and body parts called by their most vulgar names camouflages a deep sense of loss, hurt, fear and loneliness. The speaker of these poems is one who feels as deeply as she derides, is as wounded as she is provocative. The poem “Deliberate,” marries these tensions beautifully. In one section, “Fuck” becomes an anaphoric precedent to a list of hurts and disappointments:

Fuck the woman who spread my nudes

across the internet then wanted me back.

She can’t have me back.

Fuck the street that broke my mother

because I grew up there too…

 

And     the man who left me

in Kansas loving him:

I cried and I cried until he had a baby on me (56)

Just beyond the anger and dismissal of the repeated profanity, is the clear anguish of betrayal, loss, and heartbreak. The poem builds itself around the common denominator of embodiment: the poem’s spheres of feeling are enacted by and through the body as it is tossed between the intimacy of “nudes” and the public eye of the “internet,” the birthed child (the speaker) whose own body housed (and we know, later unhouses) “a baby,” and the streets and state that participate in the physical and emotional breaking of the speaker and her mother. Throughout the collection, grief for her aborted baby, her lost relationship(s), and the death of her mother are undertows that constantly threaten to drown the reader  and that grief is tightly tethered to the body.

At the same time, the speaker exhibits clear knowledge that the body is also her key to resistance, survival and possibility—“I want a chance at my own body” (15). It is a long and tumultuous road to acceptance, but the final poem, “Ritual No. 30” arrives at a moment of reconciliation:

today I showered and prayed over

my body for the first time in a long time

I told my godmother it is time, I want to be my own best

thing—how do I begin?

The oxymoronic tension of the collection eases here as the conflict that has raged throughout ebbs and the speaker understands that those tensions have to be engaged in non-destructive ways, and, rather than answers, she arrives at questions:

…how do I be angry

how do I come back to myself

or what I’ve always wanted?

Bold and vulnerable, political and personal, theoretical and actual, the dualities enacted by the poems in Uses of My Body create an unforgettable journey that invites readers to look and look again. I, certainly, am convinced to follow the collection’s closing advice to

learn to become political about my yearning

erotic about my healing (62)

 

Other works by Savannah

Like Kansas (2018)

HBW Blogs

Black Poetry: Now and in the Future (2019)

Women’s History Month (2016)

“Of Maids and Ladies”: Dr. Ayesha Hardison on Living Jane Crow (2014)

2014 Furious Flower Conference: Seeding the Future of American Poetry (2014)

A Book for Your Library: Jimmy Blues and other poems (2014)

National Poetry Month (2014)

 

Lauren K. Alleyne is an Associate Professor of English at James Madison University, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center and Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle. She hails from the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including The Atlantic, Ms. Muse, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Interviewing the Caribbean, Crab Orchard Review, among many others. She is author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues (US) & Peepal Tree (UK), 2019).