Marisa Crane’s new book of poetry, Our Debatable Bodies, published by Animal Heart Press, 2019 was a welcome companion to me as I journeyed alone across Bosnia-Herzegovina this past spring. Though I’ve spent half of my life in BiH since the war in the 90s. It was my first road trip driving myself alone across the country, and I had a lot of time to think.
Part of my processing involved coming to terms with the fact that I had found myself in yet another unhealthy relationship with a man, this time my editor at a prestigious press, who from a position of power was attempting to groom me for a sexual relationship. The sexual harassment had led me to a crisis, as I struggled with whether or not I should disclose the abuse or keep quiet and remain at the press. If I was willing to play by the unspoken rules enforced by the culture at the press and my pressmates, it would probably help my career. If I spoke out I would likely find myself again on the outskirts of a place where I imagined I wanted to belong. Crane’s book was a revelation to me as I processed my predicament and a strong impetus in my decision to speak out. I am grateful to her for this book.
In Our Debatable Bodies, I was given a precious and rare look into an intimate relationship of joy and refuge between two people. I was reminded by Crane’s love poems of what it is we all deserve and the remarkable work of women in the work being done through the embodiment of their own personal relationships in dismantling patriarchy. It’s the LGBTQ community that has been building these new realities from the ground up for centuries and against all odds. I want to be a part of this ongoing transformative work.
I felt delight. I had almost forgotten that love can delight like this. Crane’s love poems reminded me of the political dimensions of joy and delight, of encountering the beloved, regarding the beloved and being present to the beloved for the long haul, and how much fun it can be to know another person this way and how the work of dismantling patriarchy is empowered not only by rage & resistance, but also joy and delight.
I also felt in awe of the strength of the speaker’s self in taking responsibility for fashioning and forging her own body, self, and life. The determination of the speaker, who is a kick-ass lesbian telling the world of patriarchy and heterotyranny and every other force of oppression that tries to stand in her way to fuck off–but with such cutting wit. I wanted to cheer! I did cheer.
The speaker of the poems pulls off this wonderful achievement of self-realization, even as she is managing an anxiety disorder. She drop-kicks Trump supporters and just plain annoying dudes as she’s wrestling with demons and just trying to make her way through town to have a beer with her best friend and the love of her life. She seems to take it all in stride. I want to be like her. And maybe part of the glorious charm of the poems is she wants to be her too? And the ease with which she seems to pull it off, is a testament to the craft of her poems. She makes it look easy, but she’s earned all of this. She’s worked hard to birth this baby of her own self, of her poems, of a book, of a marriage, and of a future worth celebrating into the world.
The opening poem, “In This Robe,” begins with a confident declaration of the self: “i am agile and svelte/in this robe” the speaker dancing like David Bowie, but David Bowie as Goblin King, illuminating how self-creation is a magical performance and miraculous labor. The robe is a place for defiance—“tit-less” tearing name tags off her chest, a place for tricks—and a place for many questions; is a trick performance or deception? She wants to tell the truth. The poem treks into more vulnerable terrain, “I nearly forgive myself”, and confession and comes to the core of the book, the refuge & shelter of a marriage—“ i can make everyone disappear in this robe/ everyone but you.”
Like any good magician (or trickster) she is resourceful as fuck, finding creativity in the domestic (avocadoes), reframing the quotidian as extraordinary (videos of lynx screaming), and dreaming of the future (baby names). It is all an opening manifesto to the way Crane uses imagination to create new political realities–something very much on my mind as I drove across a country still recovering from the trauma of genocide, the value and worth of the bodies of others being debated to the point of attempted extermination and a people and country still dreaming of a future.
One of the greatest political activists and scholars of Bosnian poetry, Damir Arsenijevic, writes of the “politics of hope” he finds in the mostly LGBTQ poets and women writing today. His book Forgotten Future: Politics of Poetry in Bosnia-Herzegovina Today takes its title from Adrienne Rich, who wrote “poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast, and tribe but on the continuous redefining of freedom—”
This was the task I was engaged in at the time I was reading Our Debatable Bodies, joining with other writers in Bosnia to imagine that forgotten future and to work together to enact it into being. I traveled through the spectacular and varied landscapes of Bosnia-Herzegovina meeting with students and facilitating discussions about LGBTQ poets both from the U.S. and in BiH imagining for ourselves and together how our poetry and selves can resist authoritarianism, white supremacy, homophobia, racism, nationalism and patriarchy in both of our countries (the U.S. and BiH) continuously besieged by the fascist right.
In this project of creating there is also responsibility. And Crane takes seriously the necessity of shedding shame in order to tell the truth about the self—“i damaged others attacking myself”—confesses the speaker of the first poem in an honest, raw, transparent look at the process of self-discovery in the context of homophobia and internalized homophobia. The struggle to wear the self and become authentically oneself can be violent and painful. In “We Get To Talking About Dating Apps And I Remember How” she writes, “Not identifying with/ my body was easier than coming/ to terms with what it wanted/ and who it wanted to do it with” and the play with those line breaks does so much heavy lifting.
Sarcasm and caustic sharp wit is a delightful, delectable weapon Crane wields against patriarchy in the poem “Who is the Boy and Who is the Girl?” and so many other poems in the collection. I was over-the-moon to have the specter of Dorothy Parker join us on our road trip, because I Imagined her presence in the work and with me, giving us permission to lash that sharp tongue and stop trying so hard to be nice. Crane already heard that call long ago it seems, because she’s a fucking boss at the sick burn. Some of her compact and muscular poems, like the arm flexed within them, were good talismans to carry in my heart as a protective spell against the forces of patriarchy I was preparing to fight. I needed the help and was grateful for it.
“So great you asked. I am the great/
In “We Get to Talking about Dating Apps and I Remember How,” Crane tackles Tinder and homophobia and the pleasures of the escape of lesbian bars. “Everything is tinted masculine”—the cutting line—the incisive intelligence that hones in on the exact point of target. The poem ends “even tomorrow” with its cleverness (Tom Tomorrow) and its resigned but still defiant trutg—this speaker will fight tomorrow too. She relishes the fight in some ways—it’s grown on her like a robe of skin—it’s become second nature. She’s very good at it, skilled, a warrior. I felt like a compatriot with her in this fight, especially as I was navigating the hair-pin turns of Sutujeska National Park, the site of great battles of the Partizans against the fascists in World War II and I thought a lot about the Partizanka, the women partisans who fought in the resistance brigades in Yugoslavia.
Some of the poems deal vulnerably and poignantly with the misuse/violence of language and how serious this distortion of truth is. In “The Old White Man at OB Noodle House Calls His Son-In-Law a Fag,” the speaker tells of her own wounds and scars as a direct physical result of language: “When I was 14 I wrote/ a suicide note because of language.” Crane is not going to avoid the hard conversations and she’s here to confront, unflinchingly.
How the speaker found her love–a guessing game of jellybeans from “We Don’t Get to Choose Who We Love But We Do Get To Choose Whether We Embrace or Reject That Love.: We experience the wonder the speaker has at the unexpected miracle of this love, and of finding a refuge and place of shelter both from her own anxiety and trauma and the trauma of the world. She could have chosen to remain hollow but instead she chose a bellyful. Beautiful affirmation of choosing the here and now over safety. Taking the risk for love. And the love is so worth it, everything else in the book is grounded in this affirmation. I love how some of the long titles, including this one, are declarations in and of hemselves and every word is important.
In “Scratch Me Like You Love Me,” “You’re Your Mother’s,” and “Yapping Dogs” the poet shines a light on the brutal experience of an anxiety disorder, perhaps inherited from her mother along with the inner conflicts of being a daughter and all that label implies. Again Crane demonstrates this incredible gift for word play and wit, and a deft, nimble, agile mind. The love between the speaker and her wife is a bridge to healing, and so much of that shelter and safety and rootedness is connected in their body and in the physical intimacy shared between their bodies. Again the anchor against the topsy-turvy waves found in the very form of the poem, their love, a boat that stays upright through whatever storms, the gratitude and relief of this marriage, this love.
“You are a certain kindness”
“You are my joy. This is a fact”
From political statement to a tender central fact of love in “A Man At A Party Tells Us He Votes Republican But Assures Us He is Socially Liberal,” the speaker takes the phrase “our debatable bodies” and makes it an affirmation of love—God I love how she takes the shallow, cruel idiotic rhetoric of bigots and creates something to counter it that is so deeply felt and true and undebatable. “And it is beautiful the way elegies ought to be”
In poems like “For Tonight We Attended a Fertility Seminar,” “I Unlock My Phone To Post A Complaint,” and “Upon Listening To Vance Joy’s ‘Wasted Time,’” Crane continues the work of creating a forgotten future with her dream of having a child someday. She wrestles with her fears, worries about her own mess, making mistakes, hurting a child in myriad ways. The wife remains an anchor, bulwark, and rock. And helps the speaker find balance between fear and hope. I also love this speaker’s embrace of her own absurdity within her anxiety and self-doubt. all those “I was gonna” as she builds a self—I love this speaker’s self, the celebration of these “gonnas” but also a celebration of the unexpected orbit she found herself in.
At some point in some expanse of landscape in a country still recovering from war, still fighting against nationalism and hatred in myriad forms, I decided to break with my press and disclose my editor’s predatory behavior. I also embraced my own transition to identifying as nonbinary for the first time in Bosnia, a traditional country with a lot of work yet to do on LGBTQ rights. I had a blast wearing my new pantsuits and my unicorn tie. Then I had a nervous breakdown and posted a video of myself crying on Twitter. But I rallied out of my own anxiety spiral and again, I thought of Dorothy Parker and her poem “The danger of writing defiant verse”—the way she seductively leads the man to his demise. It’s with the same unbridled pleasure I read Marisa Crane’s moments of defiance and found courage to wipe away my tears and enact more of my own. My hope for the future is that we all will continue this work together and will be the kind of shelter and refuge the speaker and poet of Our Debatable Bodies has found and forged in her marriage and life and in her powerful work.
About Heather Derr-Smith
Heather Derr-Smith is a poet with four Business Relationships, Each End of the World (Main Street Rag Press, 2005), The Bride Minaret (University of Akron Press, 2008), Tongue Screw (Spark Wheel Press, 2016), and Thrust, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award (Persea Books, 2017). Her work has appeared in Fence, Crazy Horse, and Missouri Review. She is managing director of Cuvaj Se, a nonprofit supporting writers in conflict zones and post-conflict zones, and divides her time mostly between Iowa and Sarajevo, Bosnia.