The Dancing Body: Juleta Severson-Baker’s Incarnate

To be incarnate is to have a body, especially a human body. It is also to have a spirit that is made comprehensible through the gift of form. Severson-Baker is most definitely incarnate in both these senses in such poems as “Of.” In it, she writes “the opening of the orgasm was black.” This black female space soon becomes “the black of being born” and “a coming as if to love when love was new.” It’s like the Garden of Eden incarnated within Severson-Baker’s body (or in the body of her poems, at any rate). Pretty great stuff.

There’s another kind of incarnation going on here, however—a little bit of Frankenstein’s monster, who was incarnate in the second sense only (comprehensible through the gift of form) and was a profoundly romantic construction to boot. I don’t throw him in here randomly, because Severson-Baker’s poems are both romantic and tightly constructed as well, and lead, as did Frankenstein’s monster, to a life beyond the words that gave them life. I have in mind Severson-Baker’s endings. She is astonishingly adept at endings. She nails them almost every time. Read the book for them. They are a wonder. The best of these poems are like clockwork devices for unlocking meaning and identity out of nothingness. They appear to stumble along, with sometimes willfully deliberate lines that read as authorial intrusions, but then close on amazing endings that open the whole structure of the poem into total wordlessness and physicality. Here’s an example of one of those endings:

When it is over
he kisses her forehead once, twice,
slow, so she will know his gentleness
is a choice.

Here, the closing words “a choice” are like landing en pointe—and with much of the same force of determination as that painful dance step.

In the end, though, Severson-Baker’s technique remains profoundly romantic, and thus prone to the dangers of romance’s other side: the unearned emotion called sentimentality. It shows up in “Actias Luna, Luna Moth,” which ends with a clunk: “Mouthless, / I cannot call, but wait for you / beneath the moon.” There’s no resonance there. I think that’s because these poems are mainly intricate expressions of ego, self-hood, and intellect, which come to moments of release that are so physical they have no words at all.

Severson-Baker’s best poems are more than playthings for her self—they are her body dancing. Although she describes herself as mouthless, poems such as “Of” are rich with bodily mouths, both physical and imagined. This gap between her body and the awareness of her self seems to cause her steps, her poems, to trip up. Nonetheless, her path appears to be leading to a full, embodied self-awareness. I look forward to her celebrating it in her next book.

Harold Rhenisch is the author of The Spoken World (Hagios) and 10 other volumes of poetry. He is currently developing community writing programs as writer in residence at the Okanagan Regional Library.


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