Interview by Cynthia Reeser
Compass cocked at measure, plow lining soil. Only so much can be marked off at one time: the tiniest bacterium can give you an eye-full. Then the initial surprise settles in. You remember which right turn takes you to the video store, which month the Pleiades kites to zenith.
—From “A,” Primer
After the blighting of the Garden and the ruin of Babel, the language of Paradise may be lost forever. Swerving bat-like at echoes, the tongue tries to find a way back. When the rest of the body sleeps, it uncovers sounds like dulled tools buried in the box of the subconscious. As you wake, you can almost make out, almost remember, the mumbling coming from your flesh. What? What?
—From “The Tongue,” Body
Mark Cunningham’s most recent publication, Body Language, is a diptych comprised of two full-length poetry collections, Body and Primer. The poems in Body are titled and written according to anatomical parts as well as bodily elements, such as bruises, breath and memory. The pieces comprising Primer are intended in feel as a sort of primer, yet encompass the bounds of Fibonacci, Nietzsche, Proto-Sinaitic writing, string theory and Stephen Hawking, among other such topics. I recently had the opportunity to discuss some of the key elements and ideas underlying Body Language with Mark Cunningham:
Cynthia Reeser: Your approach in Body was striking to me, in that it calls attention to the human body as, as one of my professors put it, nothing more than an organized system of matter and chemical reactions—though your poems do not take it quite to that extent. It seems that at the opposite spectrum of that way of thinking would be a sort of celebration of the body. Where do you see your poems as falling—somewhere in between?
Mark Cunningham: Not so much in between as outside the question. I think it’s still impossible for an American to write about the body without Whitman making his presence felt. Whitman was celebratory, of course, but some of his images are so physical that if you teach American lit. even in college you’ll find that a student will now and then complain—always amusing. (In the 1970s, Walt was banned in West Virginia public schools: local worthies were angry because he revealed to post-adolescent students that something called pubic hair existed.) My favorite comment on any poem I’ve written was when someone read the one on the appendix and said, “It’s so visceral, and yet it’s not.” It should be impossible to make the distinction between physical and non-physical (spiritual, whatever you want to call it). The poems did, though, start with the physical, with a sort of wondering about what the world might look like to the little finger, how things might be if that were the center point. While not claiming to be a Buddhist, I’ve always felt there’s no such being as a stable self. Different parts of the body want or need different things and relate to the world in different ways. As Deleuze and Guattari point out in Anti-Oedipus, there’s ten, a hundred, a thousand men AND women inside each person.
CR: So for you, spirit is not something separate, but inherent within all those parts? When you say that it should be impossible to distinguish between the physical and non-physical, are you acknowledging a sense of a non-tangible entity defining the self that resides within the fingers, torso, appendix (what is usually referred to as spirit)?
MC: Well, if the spirit is not something separate but is inherent within all those parts, then it seems to me that there’s nothing to separate out as “spirit” and the concept and term become meaningless—or at least invalid. I ought to stress that I think it should be impossible within the poem to determine whether a statement refers to something physical or nonphysical. However, since I think the Buddhists, among others, are right in thinking that there is no self (nothing permanent, unchanging, stable), then I’m not acknowledging anywhere a non-tangible entity that would define a self in sub-divisions of the body, the fingers or ears or whatever: even the Buddha-matrix of some Tibetan schools is not an entity. One way of approaching the little finger, say, is to think of it as a part-object. In her description of the term, Melanie Klein points out that infants do not seem to respond to their parents as whole people, but only to parts, such as the mother’s breasts. They respond to functions. Deleuze and Guattari (them again) add that the subconscious mind has no idea of bodies or “global persons” (wholes) but only functioning parts joining together, the infant’s mouth and the mother’s breast, for instance. So, then, how does the little finger function? What does it want to join with? What does it want or lack? Those are the questions that got the poems going.
CR: Would you say you hold a holistic view of the body?
MC: Probably not. Or only in the sense that you could say Richard Dawkins’ idea of an organism could be considered a body. For Dawkins, “The genes in an organism typically depend on one another; they share a common fate” (Kim Sterelny, Dawkins vs. Gould 24). And, according to Dawkins, once a collection of genes has reached the organism stage, natural selection generally works directly on the organism rather than any smaller unit. But this does not back the organism, a group of different systems working partly together, into being a “self.” And I think the body parts in Body form a group of different systems working partly together and not a self.
CR: An acknowledgement is provided in Body Language that credits the following sources: The Living Alphabet, The Alphabetical Labyrinth, and Mysteries of the Alphabet; the poems comprising Primer are written to letters and numbers. Can you discuss what led to your interest in the symbolism of the alphabet, and how it informs the poems of this section on the whole?
MC: The letter poems started from a lot of different places. Sometimes the starting point was a rather basic idea: “a” is the first letter, so think about beginnings. “B” started when I was day dreaming about the letter’s shape. “C” when thinking about grades in school. “J” was based on reading about the letter. Mostly, the information about the symbolism of the letters came in as conscious research—other people have thought about various alphabets in their various forms and histories, so I thought I should check what they said.
CR: Of course, the non-alphabetic poems of Primer are numerically-driven. My impression was that of a riddle-like sense of decoding the world. Was your intent that of interpretation?
MC: Decoding more than interpretation. I’m not too worried about whether 5—or even, say, 13—is a “good” number or not, though I did pay attention to various interpretations of the numbers. As the title Primer indicates, I hope there’s an element of children’s or beginner’s book about the collection as a whole; here are things related to or guided by the number 9 or the letter K. The book as a whole has for its ideal readers curious children and space aliens.
Body Language by Mark Cunningham. Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2008