Reviews, Vol. 2.3, Sept. 2008
Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2008
Paperback, 136 pp., $12
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Body Language is the latest work from Mark Cunningham, author of 80 Beetles, Second Story and nightlightnight. The work is comprised of two full-length books of poetry. Beautifully designed by Tarpaulin Sky publisher Christian Peet, the book is a tête-bêche diptych, using two front covers and no back cover. The cover illustrations are two of Rudolf Laban Schrifttanz’s labanotations, or dance notations, which are perfectly suited to Cunningham’s themes of mathematics, the alphabet and the body.
Primer, on one side, alternates poems such as “A,” “B,” and “C” with “22.459157718361045473427152,” “0 as a Beginning,” and “Increases Without Bound.” The numerically-driven poems address such subjects as perpetuity and inevitability, as evidenced concretely by numbers, as in “5,” which asserts that “Fate’s a problem, if it exists,” later reasoning:
Studying rabbits’ lust, Fibonacci figured out how what exists plus what came before tells what’s coming next, how many rabbits will be born and how the leaves will be spaced on the stalks they chew. […] In the Lascaux hills, a dog chasing a rabbit disappeared down a hole. History began again again.
While it’s tempting to address the topics in circular fashion (If fate exists, is it somehow tied up in history?), which perhaps would be the route taken by the philosophical reader; another way of reading the works is from an analytical standpoint (Fate as a variable in the timeline of history). Whatever the approach to these works, they are thought-provoking without fail. Neither number nor letter, yet falling without doubt into the numerical category, “Increases Without Bound” cites that, “Trying to get from his wheelchair into his bed, Stephen Hawking realized that light rays in the event horizon of a black hole move parallel to each other.” This is followed with imagery that provokes abstractions of ideas of numerical potential and energy; middling amongst it all is the mundane numerical in everyday life: “You forget the nails and buy light bulbs, 75 watt rather than 40.”
The alphabetically-informed poems of Primer retain a riddle-like feel, as with “Z,” which is happily (for this reviewer) circular, handling endings as much as beginnings: “A little crackle, a little glow flares in your daily circuit. You write a list: how to free yourself from repetition. A few days later you write another.” Others, like “K,” call on the author’s study of alphabetic origins while incorporating intimations of the numerical: “In the third line of Proto-Sinaitic inscription 349, a hand reaches up as if beseeching the sky. That’s history.”
On the literal flipside, Body includes poems addressing not just the body’s parts, but also its attributes. “Short-Term Memory” is another work that comes full-circle. It is also an instance where form informs content:
: made of glass : the mind : pleasure and pain : smudge it :
: Catullus claimed : what a woman says in desire should be inscribed on air and running water : Keats : that his own name : was written : on water : memory is steadier : a map : to a field of snow : made of snow :
While included are more expected pieces like “The Elbow,” “The Neck” and “The Lymph System,” what would a collection on the body be without works like “The Male Nipple,” “The Bruise” and “The Fart”? Most of the poems in Body retain the feel of a riddle and, while they are necessarily less heady than the works of Primer, are by turns enigmatic, light and thoughtful. “Breath” does a wonderful job of addressing a rather elusive topic, doing so in unexpected fashion: “In quiet moments, you hear it, the static between you and all things.”
The appeal of Body Language is universal. Always thought-provoking, always enjoyable and unexpected, the combination of topics of math, language and symbolism via the alphabet and the body as a complex system, turns out to be an appropriate, engaging compendium.