I’d been thinking about the body even before the devastating news that Roe vs Wade was overturned in the US. I’d been thinking about bodies because I’d been reading Jason Purcell’s debut poetry collection, Swollening. The book is full of the body as a material reality, of the horrors of the body, of wanting to escape our bodies, and of the queer body and its complexities. “Sickness,” they write, “is not a metaphor.”
It’s not that bodies aren’t frequently found in poetry. The objectification of women’s bodies in the name of so-called praise is old hat. But I’d challenge you to find any other poet writing about the (queer) body like Purcell. Look at the teeth on the cover. Have you ever read a poem whose setting is the dentist’s chair? The sick bed? The toilet? This is not, as Purcell has already reminded us, a sanitized version of sickness used figuratively to express heartbreak or love. This is not the obsessive fascination with the perfect gym sculptured body you see in mainstream gay culture.
Writing from their experiences as a chronically ill queer person, Purcell sees the world from a certain vantage point and invites you – the reader, perhaps, but also the poet speaking to themself – to look as well. They write: “You see from the ground / what the well step over.” Have you ever thought of “the well,” those who are not sick, as a distinct group? I have, when I was stuck in bed for weeks with debilitating pregnancy nausea. I, too, felt like my body “want[ed] to quit from the inside.” I wished for “escaping the body.”
Mental as well as physical illness is a material reality in Swollening. It might be just as physical: “The sleepy slap of depression / from a concept to a practice.” The dissonance of a “sleepy slap” feels just about right for the visceral exhaustion of depression. Physical illness also bleeds into the soul, the “you” that inhabits your body. Purcell’s word play with “tooth” and “truth” in “Cavity” asks us if pulling one means pulling out the other.
What else is happening to bodies in Swollening? Motherhood, homophobia enforced on queer youth, nonbinary gender, Alberta masculinity, queer friendship, and surviving the apocalypse, to name only a few themes.
In the third and last section of the collection, “If I had a window, it would be open,” Purcell doesn’t leave behind their queer youth and sickness, the first two section’s major themes. But they add to them, wondering what it means to be living in these times, in the end of days in a queer, sick body. Is there … hope? Can we perform a “danse macabre” at the end of the world?
We can say this world, what’s left of it, is for us. / We have learned to make life, to walk / long distances, to be together, to coax from the rubble / a sign of life.
There’s still, of course, “[h]aving a body in the petrostate.” In Alberta, environmental degradation, “the bruise of” toxic masculinity, and illness go hand in hand: “bad backs from the hard / work of shouldering this culture.” There’s the knowledge that you are not innocent:
We are mouthing anger / that the world will be taken from us / the way we took away the world. / Look how we limp forward.
At the same time, there’s room to ask questions and remake what’s been given to you, “what is formulaic and normative.” What if you “twist[…] the language by its nipple”? What if you adapt and fuck around with your gender like a recipe that was just a suggested starting point? (“I would like to substitute myself / thoughtfully, as when forgetting / to pick up cilantro and so basil instead”).
And is there some perverse freedom in the “end times”? Purcell writes “it would be best if we all agreed to stop pretending.” In fact, they tell us we should:
Stop using what’s left of our muscle to press against crumbling / walls; use them to hold another body, and another, and another. / Open your doors and pour out your desire into the street so that it takes / the shape it’s meant to, so that it mixes with all else, so that you can finally / see it in the light.
I have to say: I agree.