Ariana Nadia Nash is a poet of the body, like Neruda, like Whitman, but her poems do not move with Neruda’s desire-driven caprice, nor do they swell with Whitman’s electric and expansive equation of body and soul. Rather, they proceed with the structured precision of a surgeon (the title of her prize-winning collection is revealing in this regard: Instructions for Preparing Your Skin).
The first poem below, “To Hold the Body in My Hand,” begins with: “I peel back my skin and scoop.” From there it carefully probes down the page in measured lines that one can’t help but read softly and slowly–an effect of the low enjambment and elaborative syntax (Scoop what? “The origins out of my self.” Like what? “Like embryonic papaya seeds.” From where? “From the center of the fruit”).
The relationship with the body in this poem is recursive and seemingly paradoxical: one can both be and have a body, and for a body to fulfill its purpose, it must be exposed, it must rot. I am reminded of a stanza from Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.”
Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewel,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.
Nash’s poem “Unnamed” takes the idea of holding the body to a more literal level: holding a child, which is both a piece of and a continuation of one’s own body. Again the paradox: the releasing of this body (bluntly, infanticide) is not something that can be released. Again, the recursive turn. In these poems, Nash invites us to feed upon our own bodies, to savor our rotting, and in so doing, to glimpse our own “progenitive seed.”
To Hold the Body in My Hand
I peel back my skin and scoop
the origins out of myself
like embryonic papaya seeds
from the center of the fruit.
No different than
the condensation of sky
into rain, the moss-crept
stone house, the compost—
bodies everywhere exposed
to their own being.
The same rainbow-grey
of fish-scales, the shriveled
density of cloves—I am inside
out and desiccating, everywhere
expanding with scent.
This the carious flesh, I say,
this the progenitive seed.
I should have used
a burlap sack and weighed it down
with rocks but her skin was so soft
and the cloth harsh
and bristly Wrinkled mouths whispered
while I was swelling
that I should burn her (if she was
a her) as a sacrifice
but I didn’t
want her in flecks of ash
and wisps Now I almost wish I had
left her swaddled by the road But
no one else would take her and
as I stirred soup and let it steam
I would have heard her cry as she slowly
starved to death
and that would have reminded me
if she died
this way I saved her
from nothing She would call
my blood to my skin across the distance
bruising me rotten What I’ve done
instead though was too cruel to me
It comes to me this night again—
holding her under clear water
holding her until
her limbs shuddered and fell limp
and I smiled so the last
sight she ever saw
was her mother’s face sweetly
waving through the water
Ariana Nadia Nash is the winner of the 2011 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry for her collection Instructions for Preparing Your Skin (Anhinga Press, 2012). She is also the author of the chapbook Our Blood Is Singing (Damask Press, 2011). She is a recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and a MacDowell Colony residency. Her work has been published in Rock & Sling, Poet Lore, Cimarron Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and The Southeast Review, among other journals.