Review of The Most Natural Thing by David Keplinger

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Most Natural Thing

by David Keplinger
New Issues Press

The “most natural thing” to which David Keplinger’s title alludes is the human body, a “thing” that, as Keplinger develops the motif throughout this collection of prose poems, becomes “natural” in two, somewhat contradictory, senses. In the first sense, embodiment is that normal, ordinary condition through which we experience the world, the “natural” vessel to and within which we wake each morning and from which we are never, even in sleep, separate. In the second sense, however, the body is “natural” in its wildness, in the fact that it ultimately belongs to and is a part of the natural world, just like the strangely uncanny animals—the deboned carp, the crows and whales—that populate much of Keplinger’s third collection.

The dualism here, between normalcy and strangeness, the domestic and the wild, is central to the book’s concern with “translating” the body into poetry, Keplinger’s efforts to, as he writes in the poem “Hair,” “know where everything is hidden”:

I sit at her feet with a razor, she stands right above me,

her crotch smeared with cream, her  face in the mirror,

laughing, the black  hair still coating  her back and her

shoulders.  We start with the thinnest of hair . . .

By stripping away what is wild from the body, the speaker here hopes to achieve mastery over it, yet the body, Keplinger demonstrates throughout the book, always escapes us, eluding our attempts, including through poetry, to understand it as a unified whole. Instead, as the titles of many of these poems suggest— “The Jaw,” “Capillaries,” “The Belly,” “The Bladder”— the body remains for us a broken, partitioned thing, riven by violence, sickness, surgery, and the poetic gaze itself as it attempts to translate the body into language. Implicit in this act of writing the body is its transmutation from a human subject into an object, a “most natural thing” that, like the paintings from Brueghel and Vermeer examined in some of these poems, demands its own ekphrasis.

The body, Keplinger suggests, is also written on by forces external to it, a process of inscription described in the book’s best poem “Vasco De Gama Rounds the Horn,” which bears quoting in full:



Mrs.  Malvina   bent   from   the  waist.   De Gama broke
through   to   the  East,  she  said,  as round The Horn she
scraped  her  chalk.  When  she  stood  up,  the  chalk had
marked her black dress. From the back of my head  came
De Gama’s white sails,  and  it  was  thus  that he became
my horror:  I dreamt of him for  years,  his  steel-fingered
gloves.   The  sultan  welcomed him in Mozambique.  He
looted in Mombasa. The treasure was enormous, Malvina
said.  And  she  brushed  her  slight  belly with her hands

Inverting the typical roles of native and European explorer, the latter of which is figured here as savage and “steel-fingered”— in contrast to the “welcom[ing] sultan—the poem situates the body as an object written on and by the history of the world it occupies; it’s a concern shared by the so-called somatics poetry currently in vogue, but Keplinger’s poem explores what somatics theorist Thom Donovan calls “the body’s (lack of) determination within a socio-political field” much more subtly and skillfully than somatics poetry itself.

If the body, for Keplinger, is an inscribed object, it is also therefore a “thing” to be read. “On the X-ray of my lung,” he writes in the poem “Shadow Puppets in a Black Box Theater,” “the doctor discovers a node:

            a calcified region of scar . . .

                                                                    Bafflement, his

diagnosis—no   blue  sarcoma  in  my  skin.   I’ve  never

sandblasted  stone.   No silico-tuberculosis.  No reason to

be there at all.  I have no reason for a keyhole in my lung.

The poem is one in a lengthy tradition of “x-ray poems” investigating the measuring and assessment of the human body—one thinks, for example, of the silicosis-plagued workers in Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead—yet what Keplinger adds to this tradition is an understanding that this process, the attempt to read and to then reinscribe the body with our own meanings, is always an incomplete one. If Keplinger locates a point of access or “keyhole” into the body, there nonetheless remains “no reason” why such an entryway exists, no necessary correlation between the body and language; there is something about the experience of embodiment, Keplinger suggests, that exceeds our ability to speak of it.

The failure of art to wholly render the human body is not merely thematized in the content of the book but enacted as well in the form of many of these poems, the endings of which time and again dramatize the failure of the poetic. Centered on quiet narrative moments or ekphrastic objects rendered in Keplinger’s understated yet powerful lyricism, the poems, in their final moments, jump out of this mode, straining to reach a profundity that feels both forced and incommensurate to what comes before. Keplinger attempts, in the close of his poems, to translate the preceding narrative or scene into something worthy of poetry, editorializing on those moments in a way that suggests the ultimate infidelity of all poetry to its subject.

It’s a conscious, knowing failure, however, a failure evident in the ending to “Shadow Puppets in a Black Box Theater,” quoted above, and evident too in last lines like “her singing voice transformed into an Alzheimer’s sigh” and “The sound of shirts, flaccid, swishing, circled her hands: a nest of sexless angels.” These endings are overwrought and sentimental and, if read unsympathetically, will strike some readers as sophomoric poeticizing, the kind of writing that Joshua Mehigan, writing in the March issue of Poetry, calls “cute and empty.” Yet the failure of these endings is part of Keplinger’s formal project here, consciously cultivated as a way to dramatize the impossibility of translating the body faithfully into language.

By courting failure in this way, by exploring failure not merely as a subject matter but extended to the level of form, Keplinger runs the risk that the poems in The Most Natural Thing will be mistaken for the unpolished, self-indulgent work of an amateur. So too does he risk participating in the fallacy of imitative form, a fallacy in which, as Yvor Winters describes it, “the poet . . . employ[s] a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration.” Winters critiques such a practice as “merely a sophistical justification for bad poetry,” yet Keplinger’s poems, by juxtaposing such disintegration or failure to an integrated aesthetic that does not fail, avoid both amateurism and the imitative fallacy, ultimately succeeding at precisely those moments where they take the most risk. The Most Natural Thing is a tender, graceful, and profound meditation on the ways in which we experience our bodies in the world; shuttling expertly between the narrative and the lyric, the ordinary and the wild, the book asks us to envision the body as that lived intersection between, as Keplinger would have it, the natural and the natural.