“Unisex, evolution — tomorrow who’s gonna fuss?”
Embodied is the latest cool comic from A Wave Blue World, the groovy boutique publisher run by Majorly Cute Couple™ Tyler and Wendy Chin-Tanner. They edit this one, as it’s an anthology with a neat hook: they have a bunch of poems, and they got artists to illustrate them. So we get some keen short stories, so to speak, with a lot of different artists and writers. Let’s take a look!
In the introduction, Wendy writes about what we can expect from the book: It’s a “collection of stories focused on gender, identity, and the body.” She and Tyler have brought together poems by “an ethnically, regionally, and generationally diverse array of America’s premier cis female, trans, and non-binary poets and adapted it into sequential art narratives drawn, colored, and lettered by top non-cis male artists.” Phew! Now, the “male” part of that statement is odd – there are a few men here, but most of the people represented in this book are female, although there are certainly many non-binary and trans people, as well. Anyway, it’s a nice commitment to groups who have been largely under-represented in comics, although I don’t have any knowledge of the contemporary poetry scene, so I don’t know if they’re under-represented there, too. This brings me to a big point about this review: I’m terrible at analyzing poetry. I haven’t done it in years, and I wasn’t great when I did it regularly, so I’m worried about writing about it here. I’m certainly old-school when it comes to my poetry tastes – my favorite poem is probably “Gerontion” by T.S. Eliot, but “Enigmas” by Pablo Neruda is up there (I’d probably stick with the Eliot one because I can’t read the Neruda poem in its original language). So I’m not very much up on what’s going on with poetry these days. I like poems that have a good rhythm (rhymes don’t matter), but I’m terrible at sussing out what that rhythm might be. I know it when I see it! So I might not be the best person to review this book. But that won’t deter me, of course!
I suppose it’s a bit obsequious to say I like Chin-Tanner’s poem, “Birth,” the best, but that’s the way it is. Hers comes last in the collection, and the editors do a nice thing – they reprint the poem after the comic part, so we can see its visual representation (a poem’s visual representation is often a big part of its power). Chin-Tanner’s is shaped like a “V,” which is unsubtle (the poem is about giving birth), but still works well. The poem moves from a harsh evocation of abortion (“the vacuum / emptied my / womb and what / spilled from me / was bleak and / nacreous”) to a glorious yet still somewhat disturbing celebration of birth (“my body / turns itself / inside out”). The art, by Miss Lasko-Gross, is a beautiful evocation of the link between childbirth and nature, as the woman almost sinks into the landscape. Rhyming in English poetry is unimportant (English is a notoriously difficult rhyming language), but I always dig when poets use certain sounds repeatedly, to mimic rhymes, so “Dancing with Kiko on the Moon” is a highlight, as well. Rosebud Ben-Oni uses the “oo” sound in “moon” to good effect, creating a soothing (see what I did there?) mood (oh!) that fits the rhythm and tone of the poem. It’s a poem full of beautiful imagery (“dear shipwrecker / salamander with wings of swallowtail / lucky charm fisher- / queen waterless & aloof”) and Rio Burton’s dreamy, fluid art (not to mention Saida Temofonte’s italic lettering) contribute well to the overall feel of the poem.
The rest of the collection is quite good, as well, although I tend to like the art more than the poetry (again, that’s just because I’ve become unused to reading poems). Like “Rubble Girl,” for instance, by Jenn Givhan. There’s nothing wrong with the poem, which is a tragic descent of a woman into suicidal thoughts, but it is a bit tortured for my straight-forward way of thinking: “blade girl grubby necked & spitting girl or / swallowing headdown girl stomach pit / fine girl gumming to sidewalk catcalled escape girl” – it’s easy to parse, but the staccato rhythms feel too disjointed to me (and yes, I’m aware that’s almost certainly on purpose). However, the art by Sara Woolley is astonishing, a visual representation of the poem that makes the words almost superfluous, as the “girl” breaks down in a landscape of clutching hands and cracked mirrors. Similarly, Omotara James’s “Half Girl, Then Elegy” is a somewhat ponderous pregnancy metaphor (“Having grown swollen / As low-hanging fruit”) that ends very well (“Pry the part of me that is hollow / From the part that yields fruit”) and is greatly assisted by the art of Ayşegül Sınav, whose crisp line work and deep, dark colors create an Edenic environment that makes the poem’s metaphor work better. These poems are not bad, you understand, but I do think the art makes them work better than just the words.
Some poems work better without the particular artwork. “Gender Studies,” by Caroline Hagood, works well as an examination of a woman’s role in a male-dominated world, while Stelladia’s somewhat vague art adds little to the mood of the poem (which is frustrating because their art is usually much more intricate). Diane Seuss’s [You know what living means? Tits out, tits out in the rain. Tits] is a wonderfully funny and sad poem with fierce imagery (“Even then / they were old, savant-tits, they knew things. Purpled. / Milked-out.” that Liana Kangas illustrates in a nice style but somewhat prosaically (she’s another artist who’s certainly capable of being more interesting).
Now, see, this is getting into the idea that I don’t like these poems, and that’s not true. This is why I don’t analyze poetry, people! I write prose (I’ve written poetry, and I think it’s terrific, but it’s probably not and I don’t do it anymore) and I’m better at judging prose because most prose tells a story, and you can analyze how the story is getting told and why the writer makes choices they make. Modern poetry has largely abandoned formal structure (which is not a bad thing), and without that, it’s harder to analyze, especially for a dummy like me. I mean, Seuss’s poem could conceivably be called a sonnet, as it’s fourteen lines long and sort-of has a sonnet rhythm, but it’s a sonnet only if you squint a little. Poetry is much more about metaphor and deep feeling, and if the reader doesn’t feel what the poet is putting out, it’s going to be tough to love it. All of these poets are rather accomplished, and I’m just a shmuck on the internet. But if the metaphor doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t work for me, and that’s that. A lot of this poetry is challenging and beautiful: “It’s easy to pick at your face / leaving skin on the ground. / It’s satisfying to watch your insides come out” (“Soft Landing” by Sokunthary Svay & Annie Heath); “I’m all anger and bad giver, a riot waiting to happen / in that short little skirt, they say” (“Red Woman” by Kenzie Allen); “Each morning my heart is / a vulture beating its wings for scraps” (“Bassam” by Ruth Awad) – these are poems about being a woman in a world that often feels fundamentally hostile to femininity, and therefore the poems have raw power to them. If some of them get a bit turgid or, alternately, a bit too bland, there’s still an underlying sadness and/or rage to them which carries them through. Even the ones about pregnancy aren’t completely joyous. If I don’t love a few of these poems, they still allow a dumb man like me to get some of what goes through another person’s head, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Similarly, while I’m better at writing about art than I am about poetry, it’s hard in these cases because the art is specifically done for the poem, and therefore many of the artists try to match the tone of the poem. Ashley Woods, who draws “X” by Khadijah Queen, concentrates on the figures in the poem at the expense of the background, but there’s a timelessness to the art that, while I don’t love the vagueness of it, fits with the tone of the poem. Kendra DeColo’s “Capitalism Ruins Everything, Even Witchcraft” is probably the most “prose-y” poem in the collection, and Ned Barnett’s fairly simplistic art drives that point home. Again, it’s tough because the artists are trying to match or counter a mood, not work in sync to tell a story. Much of the art is very nice, and most of it works well with the poetry, even if occasionally I don’t love it.
I don’t know. This is getting us nowhere, isn’t it? Embodied is a cool comic, with a lot of neat poetry and cool art in it. It’s a clever idea, it works well, it gives many different points of view about things most men know nothing about, it has a lot of keen imagery that sticks with you and makes you think, which is never a bad thing. It’s published by very excellent people. It will totally piss off your conservative friends just by the title: “intersectional,” “feminist,” and “poetry” are all right there on the cover! So if you’re interested, I provided a link below. Give it a look!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆