February 3, 2010

Michele Battiste

Michele Battiste is the author of Ink for an Odd Cartography (Black Lawrence Press) and three chapbooks, the most recent of which is Slow the Appetite Down (Spire Press). She recently made the move from Astoria, NY to Boulder, CO, where she studies, teaches and misses the old neighborhood, especially Rose & Joe's Italian Bakery and La Guli Pastry Shop, not to mention the 27 Greek restaurants. Her current project is a collection of linked, narrative poems set in post-WWII Budapest, and she thinks everyone should eat more vegetables.

This is What a Feminist Poet Looks Like.

My body is trouble. Big trouble. A troublemaker. My body is a sand trap, a pitfall, quicksand. These were the messages I heard growing up, messages I think many of us – men and women – hear growing up. These bodies of ours, they have urges, urges that can get us into trouble, can get us pregnant or sick, so sick we can die. AIDS was a big part of the 80s. As a teenager, I feared it more than pregnancy. But the trouble started before AIDS. The trouble started with my body, my child’s body, which needed to be cautioned, which needed to be trained to show restraint. Bodies are provocative, and I was a girl, and girls’ bodies are particularly provocative to boys. I didn’t buy it. I thought, well, can’t boys show restraint in their response to girls' bodies? No. That is not their role. It is a girl’s responsibility to restrain her body. It is a girl’s fault when her lack of restraint provokes a boy. These were the messages I heard growing up. I still hear them.

Inversion isn’t subversive. It mollifies. It enables an oppressed person to believe she isn’t oppressed. It enables her to believe that her subordinated position is actually a position of power. I grew older. I grew provocative. I thought, well, here is the power, in my ability to sexually provoke boys. I have sexual power and I’m going to use it. I think maybe this is the same inversion that can lay claim to powerful strippers, powerful prostitutes. Women in charge of their sexuality. But I’m uncomfortable with this argument. It keeps a woman’s body in the subordinate position – that of a source of pleasure for others, particularly male others.

I went to graduate school. That is when I learned about feminism. Amidst what was for me the mass confusion of Derrida and Lacan and Foucault and Freud, of différance and jouissance and power-knowledge and the mother’s missing penis, I found Cixous. Kristeva. Irigaray. I learned that a woman’s body is powerful because it is generative, productive, multiple, sensual, and, yes, sexual. It’s not that I’m an intellectual, a theory hound. It’s just that the model of the sexually provocative female body was so ingrained in my consciousness that I needed to be pulled into an alternative universe to understand that alternatives existed in my universe. In my body. Same thing.

Women’s bodies are a source for women. My body is the source of my power. Not a hierarchical power that implies power over something or someone, but rather a generative power. A power to create, to endure, to feel pleasure, to express, to remember, to know music, to know language. My body is the source of my writing, and what I write is of the body. Body as metaphor, body as repository of vast stores of knowledge, body as history, body as intuitive knowing, body loaded with all its connotative baggage.

I believe passionately that my poetry is feminist except when I wonder if it isn’t. All these bodies, all these anatomical references, all these explorations of sexuality, all these sensual images clearly alluding to physicality. Am I just using the body? Practicing an alternative form of objectification? Hiding the sexually provocative female body behind a scrim of liberal hoo-ha? And when I perform? When I use my body to give the words shape and form? When I interact with the listeners and touch them? Am I just being provocative? Would I be better off practicing restraint?

No. My body, all bodies, are prone to decay and degeneration. Let these be our restraints. They are effective enough. In the meantime, my body – my excessive, kinetic, chaotic body – will continue to be my source, and I will give it the lead.

Like a Sine Curve
(first published in Willow Springs)

So you know how the skin of whales
not all whales but some whales
maybe all whales
the skin of whales, the exoderm, if
that’s a word, but you see my emphasis
contains an intricate pattern of tiny muscles
tiny like an eyelid muscle
the muscle that may cause a tic
and tic is the small movement I want you
to envision
an intricate pattern of tiny muscles that move independently
so maybe think of grass in wind
each blade bending one nanosecond
before the other
each whale skin muscle contracting before the other as the whale propels itself through water
so you may be thinking ripple
but not as a fan unfolds, more
like a sine curve, which you would think of,
which naval researchers would think
of when they think about improving
the aerodynamic – or would it be aquadynamic
– structure of their submarines, working
the water like a whale works the water
without thinking, its skin a series of muscular shudders driving water along its flank, quickening

So you know how whale skin can do that?
I do that
I do that sometimes but not swimming
I know what you’re thinking: the misappropriation of sine curves, but

I am not whale skin
I am the water that moves with the muscle
You are the whale

1 comment:

lamcilroy said...

Yes, yes, Michele. Much of what happens depends on how you come to the game, arrange your pieces, define understanding and "use." To look on oneself/body as generative rather than idly provocative or a source of another's pleasure (unowned) is a much more well, generative place to start. I can't worry about mascara and five pounds if I am busy writing whale poems and caring for my child — an art form unto itself. And as I write my poem and care for my child I can't help but be aware of how every fiber/cell of my body is engaged and wanting and helping and knowing, how it tells its truth — a truth that includes hauling groceries, drinking too much coffee, sled riding, making love long after bedtime, rustling papers, dancing, a heartbeat cadence on the eliptical machine.

This body can still go panty-less and wear its tight fitting shamelessly, dash about it its "Bad Kitty" t-shirt, knowing it feels good to provoke as long as you are not using your body the way its been used. There is a difference between sexual power and sexual awareness/embrace. I don't want power over anything, except my choices. Yes, Michele. Yes.