Body of the World: Kim Addonizio and Stephen Dobyns

13 Nov

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Kim Addonizio

In both Kim Addonizio’s Tell Me and Stephen Dobyns’s New Poems from Velocities: New and Selected Poems 1966-1992, the speakers are aware of the forces that connect everyone despite race and class.

Sometimes those insights manifest themselves to the speakers at a peep show[1] or a strip club[2]. Other times the speaker stumbles upon them while strolling through the city[3] or watching a pickup game of soccer[4].

Or they find it while firing their gun at a range[5] or reminiscing about a night at a foreign restaurant that war reduced to rubble[6].

Addonizio’s speaker first encounters that insight in “Quantum”:

You know how hard it is sometimes just to walk on the streets/ downtown, how everything enters you/ the way the scientists describe it—photons streaming through/bodies, caroming off the air, the impenetrable brick/of buildings an illusion—sometimes you can feel how porous you/ are […][7]

Those psychological details intensify the speaker’s paranoid tone and her germ phobia. They also allude to the atom as a metaphor for the “body of the world” to which we’re all connected, a body that insists on its recognition. And like atoms, that collective body consists of negative forces (electrons) that highlighted in these sensory details:

[…] the man lurching in circles/ on the sidewalk, cutting the space, around him with a tin can and/ saying Uhh! Uhhhh! Uhh! over and over/ is part of it, and the one in gold chains leaning against the glass of/ the luggage store is, and the one who steps toward you/ from his doorway, meaning to ask something apparently simple,/ like What’s the time, something you know/you can no longer answer; he’s part of it”[8]


These psychological details intensify the effect that the negative charges have on everyone inside that charged world-body:

[…] your tongue is as thick with dirt/ as though you’ve fallen on your hands and knees to lick the oil-/ scummed street, as sour as if you’ve been drinking/ the piss of those men passing their bottle in the little park with its/ cement benches and broken fountain.

Those lines explain why I’m repulsed when I see jellyfish-globs of mucus splattered on the sidewalk. My stomach turns as if I’m on my “hands and knees” licking them up. The electrons spark again when Addonizio’s speaker’s at the metro, hurrying “through the/ turnstile, fumbling out the money” as she considers how many hands those dollars passed through before reaching hers.[9]

In “Target”, Addonizio’s speaker is at a gun range. She rips “holes/ in the paper target clamped to its hanger” and enjoys nestling “a clip/ of bullets against the heel” of her hand and ratcheting “one into the chamber”, cocking “the hammer back” before she fires.[10] Her use of the weapon is erotic, especially “the recoil/ surging” up her arms “as the muzzle kicks up” and she’s in control.[11]

As a result of the erotic sensation of firing the gun with her “legs apart”, she’s empathetic with the negative forces of the world’s body: the boys who lift guns “from bottoms of drawers and boxes/ at the backs of closets, and drive fast into lives/ they won’t finish.”[12] The speaker lives vicariously through these guys who “lean from their car widows and / let go a few rounds into whatever’s out there.”[13]

What makes “Target” musical are the iambic first and second lines (“it FEELS so GOOD to SHOOT a GUN/ to STAND with your LEGS aPART”[14]) before the dactylic third, fourth and fifth lines that all end with spondees (“HOLDing a NINE milliMEter in BOTH HANDS/ AIMing at SOMEthing that CAN’T RUN./ Over and Over i RIP HOLES”[15]).

Those moments intensify the speaker’s erratic mental state that results in her seeing the gun as both a weapon of self-defense and a tool to victimize others. What’s scary is that there are people, like the speaker, for whom violence is an orgasm they’ll go to any lengths to experience despite the harm it does to others. They fire “until the gun feels/ light again, and innocent. And then […] reload.”[16]

(PHOTO: Ilya Varlamov)

The speaker’s use of science  to understand the world in “Quantum” returns in “Physics”. Addonizio’s speaker in “Physics” is at a peep show:

“[…] there’s a naked woman/ dancing before you and you’re looking/ at her knees, then raising your eyes/ to the patch of wiry hair which she obligingly parts/ with two fingers while her other hand/ palms her body from breast to hip/ […] you lift your face to hers she’s not/ gazing into space as you expect but/ looking back, right at you, with an expression/ that says I love you, I belong to you compl—/ but then the barrier descends.[17]

Other striking sensory details are the “black/ shade” that “has to close down,/ before slowly opening again like a pupil adjusting/ to the absence of light […]”[18] Reading those lines, I wondered who the pupil was—the peepers or the dancers? Then it’s clear they’re both the pupil.

From the speaker’s point of view, the dancer’s the one on display “as she thrusts herself over and over into/ the air between” them.[19] The dancer’s also the pupil because the speaker’s on display, “trapped there/ like some poor fish in a plastic baggie”.[20] The dancer gets a thrill out of watching the speaker open his “mouth just like a fish waiting/ for the flakes of food, understanding nothing/ of what causes them to rain down/ upon” him.[21]

Addonizio’s speaker also alludes to gluttony because, like the fish that eats itself to death, the speaker will never be fulfilled no matter how much he feeds his fantasy.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Stephen Dobyns takes a humorous and sympathetic look at fulfillment in ‘Topless” from his New Poems in Velocities. Unlike the patrons in Kim Addonizio’s “Physics”, the old men in Dobyns’s “Topless” aren’t dreaming of “fucking” the dancers.

Instead, the strip club is a therapeutic experience for the all-male patrons “with their gray faces […] ill-fitting toupees/ and sappy smiles”.[22]

Going back to the atom metaphor, Dobyns’s use of humor turns the strip club experience, another negative force in the world’s body, into a positive one. These sensory details in “Topless” show the harmless old men’s therapeutic experience:

Many/ were regulars, older guys in work clothes,/ sipping beers, out of shape, skidding between/ their first and second heart attack or stroke./ […] You know those mechanical toys, wind-up rabbits or bears,/ […] how they scuttle across the floor only to end up in a corner, banging/ their fragile tin bodies against the baseboard?/ These guys were like that. And the girls/ in a small way, would set them straight again.[23]

That the “plump girl” straddles a guy she knows enough about to ask him personal questions—“How’s the wife,/ how’s the back? How’re the arches holding up?”[24]— intensify the doctor-patient relationship between the strippers and old men. These striking sensory details not only show how ludicrous that relationship is but they also intensify the speaker’s sympathy for the patrons:

[…] as she spoke, she swung her shoulders, left/ and right, swinging her big breasts, so this guy,/ with his chin poked directly between her nipples/ kept getting punched, left breast, right breast,/ slapping across his face […]/ […] Pow, pow—piston strokes from some bright engine/ so that briefly the girl seemed the very center/ of the world’s own merry-go-round […]/ […] and clinging to their seats/ all these old guys, all the timorous and beaten.[25]

ARTWORK: Stock Image

The body of the world also takes a different spin in Dobyns’s “Santiago: Five Men In The Street: Number One”. While Addonizio’s speaker in “Quantum” and “Target” sees only negative forces, Dobyns’s speaker in “Five Men” sees both good and bad.

Going back to the atom metaphor, the pickup soccer game at lunch is the photon (or positive force) that brings together “four fellows in orange uniforms/ and a fifth in a dismal suit”.[26] According to Dobyns’s speaker, “The guy in the suit is a clerk who/ gets yelled at. The ones in orange sweep/ out a garage for a boss who thinks/ a uniform looks sharp.”[27]

Those sensory details allude to the class differences between the clerk and janitors. But those men are also bound by that atom’s negative forces: grief and death. “Not one will ever/ find an easy death,” according to Dobyns’s speaker, “and each will know/ a hundred forms of grief.”[28]

Grief and death also bound the waiter and restaurant patrons in “Somewhere It Still Moves”. In that poem, Dobyns’s speaker remembers a night of dinner and dancing at a restaurant in Sarajevo three years before the Bosnian War (1992-1995) reduced it to rubble.

Here’s what happened that night in 1989:

I was having dinner with my friends Howie and Francine./ […] The waiter kept knocking his head with his fist, trying/ to explain something. The only words we knew were Pivo—beer and Dobro—good. […]/ […] Okay, said Howie, sure. Bring it to me, whatever it is. […]/ When the waiter/ brought our dinner, there were our plates and on Howie’s/ plate a paper bag […] / […] Howie opened it carefully. Brains/ in a bag, lamb brains cooked in a paper bag. We recalled/ how the waiter made a circle, then knocked his forehead./ This was Howie’s dinner. […] He could/ barely breathe for all his laughter. We all  laughed/ and drank red wine.[29]

COVER ART: Penguin Books

Like Addonizio’s “Target”, the issue of senseless violence confronts Dobyns’s speaker in “Somewhere”. But unlike Addonizio’s speaker who empathized with predators, Dobyns’s speaker sympathizes for the victims: “The waiter who “is probably dead now./ Killed by a sniper as he crossed a street or stood/ by a window.”[30]

Dobyns’s speaker juxtaposes that spring night of 1989 with the picture of Sarajevo three years later during the Bosnian war, where “the restaurant, the entire block, has been transformed into rubble, so many rocks at a crossroads.”[31] That juxtaposition between a peaceful night and the rubble shows how unpredictable violence is.

The class difference alluded to in “Five Men” is also there in “Somewhere” between the waiter and restaurant patrons. And like an atom’s photons and electrons, that peaceful night in 1989 and the grief from the war are the world body’s positive and negative that binds the waiter and patrons, who the speaker imagines have been “blown to pieces” or “shot in the head”.[32]

That’s when Dobyns’s speaker reaches this conclusion about those conflicting forces that charge the body of the world: “We are the creatures that love and slaughter.”

[1] from Kim Addonizio’s “Physics”

[2] from Stephen Dobyns’s “Topless”

[3] from Addonizio’s “Quantum”

[4] from Dobyns’s “Santiago: Five Men in the Street: Number One

[5] from Addonizio’s “Target”

[6] from Dobyns’s “Somewhere It Still Moves”

[7] Kim Addonizio, Tell Me (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2000), 15

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 19.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 76.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 77.

[20] Ibid., 76.

[21] Ibid., 76-77.

[22] Stephen Dobyns, new poems in Velocities: New and selected Poems 1966-1992 (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 15.

[23] Ibid., 14.

[24] Ibid., 15.

[25] Ibid., 14-15.

[26] Ibid., 3.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 3-4.

[29] Ibid., 21.

[30] Ibid., 22.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.


Posted by on November 13, 2011 in Essay


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2 responses to “Body of the World: Kim Addonizio and Stephen Dobyns

  1. mahogany l. browne

    November 13, 2011 at 12:50 am

    kim addonozio writes the blood on the wall…everytime!

    • Alan King

      November 13, 2011 at 12:52 am

      Yeah, Kim’s the truth! I had a great time revisiting TELL ME.


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