Thursday, October 7, 2010

Body of Work by Sheila Squillante

Sheila Squillante is a poet and essayist and the associate director of the MFA program at Penn State. Her work has appeared in places like Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Phoebe, Brevity, Literary Mama, TYPO, 42Opus, PANK, Glamour Magazine, and in the anthology, Mama Ph.D.: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, as well as a Pushcart nomination. In addition to her poetry manuscripts, she is writing a memoir about her relationship with food and her father. She lives in central Pennsylvania with her philosopher-photographer husband, her five-year-old son and her 3- year-old daughter--the most interesting, brilliant, beautiful and hilarious children in the world. Really.

Body of Work

I have never seen myself naked.

This is not a metaphor; I mean that I have truly never in my life really looked carefully at, pondered or appreciated my body—my actual, physical form-- in its own skin and nothing more. I never stood in front of a mirror as a teenager, monitoring my developing curves, nor as a grown woman, assessing changes to the landscape after childbirth. While I have a general sense of the shape of things—I have caught glimpses, accidentally-- I have no clear knowledge of what I would see if I really looked.

Sunday was my 40th birthday and I have been writing this piece in other essays, poems, and in my head since I was at least 13 years old.  In my diary that year, the one with the blue gingham cover pocked with pen marks and scratches, puffy hearts drawn all over the inside pages, there are only three entries, written over and over again: I Love a Boy Who Thinks I’m Stupid; Something Bad is Going on With My Parents; I Am So Disgusting That I Can’t Even Look at Myself.  It’s become part of my identity: “the girl who has never beheld her own naked shape,” in one poem; the one who cannot “imagine the unseen surface” of her own back in another.  In each, a tone of disapproval, admonishment, an unspoken knock-it-off-already-you-know-better.

Though I announce my ignorance here-- in public, on a blog which will perhaps be read by my friends and family, colleagues and readers-- with what might seem like confidence and naked (ha.) bravery, I am not proud of this. In fact, as a woman, a mother, a feminist, and, it turns out, a writer, it is one of my greatest shames.  

It’s probably obvious why a poor body image would be concerning for the first three of those selves, and I could offer far too many theories (most predictable) about how I ended up so impressively wacked out about this. But what interests me at the moment is a strong sense that my corporal alienation is also tied inextricably to my writing self.  It’s a nagging kind of sensation, and one I’ve long wanted to work out on the page, shifting the pieces around to see how they might connect, what they might offer up.

So I’m grateful for this space.

I am also feeling incredibly, painfully naked right about now, tinkering endlessly with each word, each sentence, delaying sending it, dreading seeing it go live.

David wants to kiss me. He mumbles this sort of in my direction, eyes anywhere but on my face.  I am twelve years old, and in my memory we are sitting, for some reason, on the floor of my parents’ bedroom, our backs nervous- stiff and aching against the bed. I have never been kissed before, though many of the girls in my seventh grade class are already playing Two Minutes in the Closet with boys at parties to which I am not invited.
I can see David in my periphery, turning his head and leaning in. I keep my back straight and turn my head too; it doesn’t occur to me yet to move my whole body toward a kiss.
I don’t remember the kiss beyond that moment of decision and approach; have no memory of skin or lips or tongue. What I remember—what I will transcribe into countless diary entries, free-writes and onto the blank page of my self for years to come—is what he said after: “You know, you are really beautiful from the waist up.”

I live in my own periphery, my full-length reflection a thin sliver of only one side of me. My approach to mirrors, windows, the shine off of cars in the parking lot, purposefully avoidant, my image askew. Head, hair, face, eyes, shoulders, sometimes breasts, those are easier, acceptable even to me. Those I can look at.  Otherwise, I either view myself in sections, incoherent parts of a whole, or not at all.

Open on my desktop at this moment are two files, each containing a full-length manuscript of poetry—my poetry. I have been tending, polishing, readying them for the endless contest circuit. I have read them each countless times, and I quite like them both.  I think there are readers who will respond to them, should I be lucky enough to get published. These manuscripts could not be more aesthetically different from one another. One is firmly narrative, largely auto-biographical, shot through with longing and nostalgia and loss. The other is more deeply rooted in language and the beautiful and perplexing shapes it can make. It is fragmentary, associative, a little surreal.  I joke that in the unlikely event that these books showed up next to each other on a reader’s shelf, that reader would be very confused indeed about who the writer is.

Though  I have long espoused a philosophy of both/and, rather than either/or in poetry--I read work from both traditions, have obviously written in both, and hear my voice naturally in both-- the idea of claiming them both publically makes me more than a little anxious.

After my divorce, I enroll in a writing workshop at my local university. There, I enter into dalliance with a fellow writer. He is, like most of the other men in my life to this point, confident, assured, opinionated and searingly intelligent.  For months he keeps me at arm’s length physically. The night we finally fall into bed, our pillow talk turns to poems. To my poems—the ones about my father’s death-- which he has read and about which he has readied the following commentary: “You know, no one really wants your emotional baggage.”  I don’t remember responding; I don’t think I could have. I remember putting my clothes back on quickly and then driving him home.

A poem should look

Poems should face each other

Poems should echo

Poems should or shouldn’t be poking you in your eye

A poem should sit a while

A poem should ride on its own

A poem should be different from your expectations

A poem should be on the moon

A poem should always have birds in it

Poems should radiate lots of affection

Poems should do without any comment

Poems should be in plain text

Poems should include a baby girl

Poems should be I’m in love, damn it!

Poems should progress

Poems should be read aloud to children

Poems should be lingered over

Poems should move

Poems should not be relied upon too heavily

My lover and I kneel facing each other on the floor of my college dorm room, running our hands frantically over exposed flesh.  I am so caught up in his body, in mine, that I have forgotten the full-length mirror hanging on the inside of the door. I turn my head to allow him better access to my neck and accidentally see myself—the curves of my breasts and hips, thighs, knees, slope of calves, feet. I make myself look for a long, shocked moment and think, is that really what I look like? Is that woman really me?

If I publish manuscript #1, some of the confident, assured, opinionated men in my life will continue to pat me on the head and send me on my quaint, confessional way. They will not want my “baggage.”

If I publish manuscript #2, some of the others will roll their writerly eyes and use words like “pedantic,” and “pretentious.” They will wonder where I went, why I have eschewed the world of the body.

When I worry over this, one man—a friend and himself a poet-- will ask (again), “Why do you care so much about the opinions of men who really don’t matter?”

[insert death of confident assured, etc. father here]

My favorite poems are simple and direct, glittery gems hand-hewn from mineral rock, grounded in the sensual world, in human relationships. I roll them between my teeth and tongue.

My favorite poems are painterly abstractions, elliptical gestures, unfinished thought. They invite me in and then inflate with impossible language, float above me, just at the limit of my reach.

I am nine months pregnant with my first child, my son. I step out of a hot shower, hotter than I’m supposed to take, and reach for a towel. As always, I stare straight ahead at the towel bar opposite the tub, perpendicular to the sink and the mirror.  But something moves in the corner of my eye, and before I realize, before I remember not to look, I have turned to follow it. Through the humidity and behind the scrim of steam I see my belly, breasts, hips, mouth. Eyes filled with relief and bright wonder.

Here is what I want:

I want to look directly into the mirror and learn my shape, begin to know it first without 

judgment, then with appreciation.

With praise.

I want to spend this decade unafraid and unashamed.

I want to knock it off, already.

I want to throw out the Book of Poetic Shoulds. Open my arms wide.

I want to walk into my 40s full-ready to embrace every line, every lump, every word:

I lived it. I made it. I claim it.

My naked body is pretty much like any other naked body

My naked body is a humiliating example

My naked body is unlikely, thrilling

My naked body is sensual in the extreme

My naked body is not what it was in pre-baby days

My naked body is an affront

My naked body is a participant

My naked body is these potato chips

My naked body is now hidden under the table

My naked body is as beautiful as my naked thoughts

My naked body is the least of your concerns

My naked body is the blank page


Karen said...

Sheila, that left me breathless. Eloquent and tantalizing study in Both/And. Thank you!

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

It's almost more beauty than I can bear first thing in the morning -- Sheila, your work is that good :) Thank you for sharing this with us.

dylan said...

Brave, Sheila--and generous, and all of it a spare and swiftly-moving current toward that rich litany at the end. Love the narrative aspect.

silves said...

sheila, thank you. just beautiful.

Emily said...

wonderful, sheila! thank you for sharing this.

Anonymous said...


First: Happy Birthday.

Second: From one forty year old to another - I completely relate. I love every word, especially the ones under #13. Yes, I want those things, too.

Third: Thank you for sharing this amazing piece of writing.

Greg Wind said...

What was number 11?

I suspect the urgent hope that people will (not) read and understand is the mark of art. No need to fear. You are in word and flesh present, irreplaceable, endearing and inspiring. Happy birthday.

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Ah number 11. Sheila, you want to field this one? Ha! Love the birthday girl for no number 11 :)

Greg Wind said...

If 11 is the difference between naked and exposed, far be it from me to begrudge a fellow 40 year old less than perfect transparency. For all we know, that was the intent, no? ;

Charlotte said...

The truest poems are probably a hybrid of #1 and #2--one written to please x, another y. You have to please yourself first, Beauty.

And jettison the shoulds.


Angela said...

Genuine -- I am in awe of this -- it has the pure wind of poetry. Strange how the same published work can excite vulnerability in the writer, and in the reader, envy!

Sheila Squillante said...

Wow. Thank you to everyone for your affirmation and friendship here! I'm very moved by these comments.

~Cheryl said...

What candid honesty and beauty of expression...I simply held my breath in parts of this!

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."