Lambflesh by Caroline Shea. Kelsay Books, 2019. 59 pages. $16.
In the title poem of Caroline Shea’s Lambflesh, the speaker says “I am a difficult thing to love / but i want you to try anyway.” Here, the lyric “I” grapples with the “thing” of her body, and Shea’s first chapbook serves as a primer for that work between lyric abstraction and the object of the body. The poem “Devotional for Difficult Girls” sets a tone ranging from the brag (“I mugged Adam on my way out of the womb / and he’s been down-and-out / ever since”) to the confession that “[I] am ruinous / in the body you gave me, careless with its meat.” This origin story leads into “Creation Myth”—“I was a worry of a child…/ still damselling my mother’s nightmares.”
Shea examines, from within and without, the poetics of incarnation (literally: in-the-meat/flesh). Girlhood brings sexual politics illustrated by bralettes and panties, with girls “wondering / who the hearts drawn on our asses were for.” Already, these bodies are for someone else, to be consumed. Even birth is culpable. “Our bodies, the summit / of someone else’s desire. / Little lineages of lust and hope.” Those words, from “Lineage,” come from a speaker who tries to imagine another form, “a divine machine.”
What causes this tension and discomfort between body and soul is not just sex and gender, but also the medicalized body. In several poems, Shea describes the distinct and harrowing experience of spinal surgery,
…I seep through bandages. stain rental sheets
pale yellow. pucker stitch through silk, ends blooming blister,
fraying into puss. this leaky vessel confesses itself
again & again. a useless criminal.
Rarely are medical experiences rendered so lucidly. In the poem “Vitals,” the fog of post-anesthesia is experienced through “Dutch half-light / and flies buzzing just out of frame.” “They split my pelt across and now I gaze / with taxidermied eyes.” Or, “Unstitch me and wear me as a pelt, a blood-and-guts ball gown” from “Viscera.” Can a body in such pain and dismemberment be redeemed by use, by sacrifice? “The body,” Shea continues, “is a room with no exit.”
Other trials visited upon this body include sexual assault. The speaker visits the event in the taut “Reporting” by describing a gut-shot rabbit. “I want to believe she sought shelter, / but can’t.” Throughout other poems, the event and assailant is remembered with the same steady gaze toward the body’s experience versus consciousness’s approach and flight. There is also a constant and stubborn hope: “What is it—to look / in the mirror, turning and turning, and think, finally, / I could live here, yes—I live here.”
Lambflesh also includes odes to life after survival and the body in pleasure, the body in love. The historical (hysterical?) body is examined in “Lobotomy Suite,” bringing a longer lens to the way women have been treated in medicine. Shea uses a diversity of forms to pay tribute to writers like Joy Harjo (anaphora) and Terrance Hayes (Golden Shovel). “How to Honeymoon in a Glass House” offers a nod to Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” What Carson called the “Nudes” were visions, “naked glimpses of my soul.”¹ Here, they introduce themes of reclamation, “[a]n act of unadulterated creation.”
Shea deftly expands this ode on embodiment and survival to our imperiled Earth, grounding the work in place with poems like “Interrogation After Flooding in Ellicot City.” Here, the embattled, operated-upon body rhymes with ecological disaster: “I am kin with every city built below sea level.” She continues:
Geography guarantees future disaster. We live
with the buzz of danger on the backs of our necks,
cross our fingers, learn to pray again, light a candle, build a levee.
In the poem “Her” Shea mentions the feminist artist Kiki Smith, and the spirit of resurrection in Lambflesh matches the sculpture “Rapture” that depicts a naked woman emerging from the ruined pelt of a wolf. Are our bodies meat for sacrifice or consumption? Are they something to enjoy or survive? Can we be at home in such fragile and limiting habitats? Shea offers no easy answers, but wrestles with the questions until there is blood on the ground. Something may be written there in the dust.
- From “The Glass Essay” in Glass, Irony & God, Anne Carson, 1995, p. 9