“We use each other’s raw bodies to remind ourselves how to pray.”
This quotation from writer Amber Dawn is the preface to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s newest collection of poetry, BodyMap.
The quotation does more than print itself over the first blank page; it sets the tone of the whole book. BodyMap is raw, bold, and expressive. It comes at you hard, it doesn’t wait for you to catch up, and it’s the most exhilarating read I’ve had in a long time.
Last semester, I reviewed Piepzna-Samarasinha’s earlier collection of poetry, Love Cake. Would I say that BodyMap is better, right off the bat? I’m not sure that’s my place. Writing poetry is such an intensely personal experience, especially the kind that Piepzna-Samarasinha writes, which discusses being a disabled, queer, femme-of-color.
As someone not from the author’s background, I can’t begin to really understand the different trials that are depicted in both books. As someone who doesn’t possess a degree in analyzing poetry, or, let’s face it, any degree as of yet, I’m not equipped to compare the two collections in merit.
But that’s not what a book review is for anyway. A book review, I believe, is about what someone gleans from a book, the experience of reading. It’s about the taste under your tongue after you put it down, and it’s about whether or not you could put it down at all. And that, my friends, is something I can tell you all about.
Piepzna-Samarasinha describes BodyMap as a “queer disabled femme-of-color love song…mapping the hard and vulnerable terrains fo queer desire, survivor hood, transformative love, sick and disabled queer genius and all the homes we claim and deserve.”
It’s only recently, as far as I can tell, that queer love poetry, poetry written by disabled individuals, and poems venturing through cracks in the patriarchal gates silencing discussion of past traumatic experiences have really gained momentum.
Much of the poetry in Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book is performance based; it can be read aloud as that popular form of self-expression, spoken-word poetry. However, it’s not required to see Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work in person to appreciate its depth, harshness and visceral immediacy.
Despite the slow climb in acceptance of members of the LGBTQ community and efforts to confront and combat injustice towards disabled individuals and people-of-color, there is still so much more that could be done to create positive change.
The poems in Bodymap cry out like a klaxon for this change, for recognition, for stability in a queer and disabled community that has isolated itself to remain safe, but is starting to fight again.
Disability justice is a main theme in Bodymap. The book dedicates a selection of poems about living and loving while queer and disabled to a chapter called “crip world.” The poems in this section were some of the most eye-opening I’ve ever read.
There is a stigma against disability in our society which is not often discussed. This is partly because there is a surface façade of semi-equality pre-established in most societies. Most people grew up being taught not to treat disabled individuals differently.
However, there are deep injustices against the disabled community in the unjust perceptions of abled people, who view disabled people as somehow diminished because of their disability, somehow inhuman, or somehow undeserving. This inequality is even greater in POC and queer disabled individuals.
Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poems in “Crip World” such as “This is What I Know About Crazy,” which discusses mental illness, “Crip Non Haiku,” which provides a miniature snapshot of contrasting views on invisible disability, and “Crip Sex Moments”,” which plunges the reader into a series of poems discussing what many of us unknowingly perceive as a taboo land — that of physically loving while disabled.
Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer Sri Lankan writer, but also a performer and teacher. Her work crosses over so many different boundaries and is rooted into so many different communities, it can be hard to keep track sometimes. Her poems are incredibly open in describing the hardships, pain and struggle of queer and disabled people-of-color, living in a constant diaspora. BodyMap pushes its reader into new territories, into new ways of hurting, and into new knowledge.
In that sense it accomplishes what every writer always desires of their work; it makes the reader feel something new.
One of my favorite poems from the book, the title piece “Bodymap,” contains a stanza showcasing the mix of the tender, the violent, and the longed for that beats consistently in the ribcage of every poem in the collection. The words walk a strange line between a command and a prayer. Perhaps they are meant for the Piepzna-Samarasinha’s lover, her community, her world.
“I can already feel where we will make each other’s bodies new
what story will we unfurl this time
-BodyMap pg. 6
Reading BodyMap is not for the faint of heart, but it is for anyone who wants to learn more; more about themselves, more about others, more about the crazy world of injustice and heartbreak and enduring love we live in.