“And Then What”: A Review of Julia Guez’s The Certain Body by Eric David Helms

“The dark is very dark,” Guez writes in “Still Life When All Our Symptoms Seem to Have Symptoms of Their Own,” a poem folded within The Certain Body, a collection which, over a span of three sections, examines the brave new world of grief and isolation during quarantine. With a tongue that combines “moon blood and wings / with / the motility of horses,” the speaker of these poems offers us access to intimate chambers of longing and separation wherein Guez reflects over “sleeplessness, Brahms, starlings,” how “the most / contagious [of the population] are taken / to be alone // there all together, / praying the same prayer.” The collection, Julia’s second full-length, resides within the world (again) of “Isolation, etcetera— / quarantine / within / quarantine” where “nothing seems real or right” and “there is no necessary season for things.”

Opening with a fragment from Eliot’s “Preludes” (“Assured of certain certainties”), the preface cunningly speaks for our shared new epoch where directives, mandates, decrees issue not assurance or any solid guarantee, but merely form more uncertainty—another tidal wave of nervousness that builds from expectancy for the next strain of fret, unease, worry. Guez relays this fleeting, short-lived sense of reality (that such internment yields) most expressively in “On the Occasion of My Half-Birthday,” writing “out of this or any afternoon, knowing weeks of them […] disappear / like so many Simeons.” “A More Onerous Citizenship” goes as far to calendar such days of estrangement, as if logging their distinctive passing might counter their given erasure: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, each episodic day not only operating for a new section, but also delivering a unique angle, surface, texture for the overall structure and alignment of the poem, gathering, as with the past years of the pandemic, what we cannot yet sense of ourselves, or society in general. It is from such a system of lenses that Guez’s reticent but commanding voice successfully renders the post-traumatic exhaustion of living throughout the multiple transmutations of the COVID-19 pandemic for which, upon waking, everyday greets with a new array of absurdity. “Still Life with Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2” catalogs (with a particular bareness) the sense of fatigue and collapse that most have experienced since the spring of 2020, announcing “and then what / and then / what, what / then.” The opuscule functions as an Obiter dicta (Thing said in passing), standing in for what the poet is too exhausted to state, convey, describe.

Longer pieces accompany the shorter-lived as with “Still Life with Insufficient I-cloud Storage” in which Guez records the domestic gales and downpours that arise from being boxed-in for so long:

And here we are                                 sewing
secrets we have wanted in some form
to keep                                                sewing
them into the sky, sewing them into
the lining of the lake             in the sky
As if there is no violence
The cloud cannot hold.

The text fleshes out from here to capture Guezconsidering how “like so many seeds and spores, lost / in the small hands of the wind,” she herself might (by the thieves of sickness or debility) be taken. Returning to these poems, one picks up on how death, our given impermanence is communicated by the annual cycle(s) of nature through which “everything falls away.” Thyme out in the window box; hyacinths, daffodils, lilacs on every windowsill; songbirds atop gravestones; the concentric markings of trees keeping death’s record; “all the purple flowers,” the way they slowly transition “to yellow then brown.” That they all rest, despite their immediate splendor, as semaphores, keen to remind us of “the entropy of things,” that all is transient, terminal, fading.

Brought together, The Certain Body harbors the passing winds and rain of thought, the enduring fogs of rumination, recording the poet’s sleeplessness for which she considers “birth and death,” how they “happen on adjacent wards,” with the same “halting and starting.” In these poems, the thermometer sits heavy, weighted by a mercurial, widespread hysteria that seesaws between the forces of sanitation and contagion. To the point of spotlessness, items are cleaned “repeatedly with a lemon-scented wipe,” the act becoming a frail rite replacing the public customs of the devout, if just “to bend the centrifugal back some.”

It is no fluke that a fair sum of the pieces addressed greet us as still lifes, visual works of art that illustrate mostly limp, insensible subjects. They often marked Egyptian tombs, Greek vases, and mostly brought with them religious significance. Romans would introduce the skull, a symbol of impermanence and mortal remains, often with the ensuant phrase Omnia mors aequat (Death makes all equal). The medium is then suitable for a book that embodies the “cut off” and “set apart,” that mulls over “the night-side of things,” voicing an awareness and concern for the “Poor coroners, the poor / morgue” where “so many unmourned / […] pile up.” What’s more, Guez’s poetic achieves the wanted degree of defamiliarization that such still lifes should channel for viewers, i.e., certain images brought together (when done cleverly) take on greater worth—a bitten apple atop a pile of bones merge to become something more pronounced (compared to what they separately might have signified in their natural state). Indeed, while reading these texts, we are jarred, unsettled (as Samuel Taylor Coleride writes) from the “film of familiarity,” which too often deadens our faculty to witness things new and afresh. Most critically it is from such imagism (the text’s or still life’s given disrupture) that we might finally ponder the true state of the world, and what the hell is going on. Guez technique recalls Derrida’s coined term, différance—a portmanteau that merges “difference” with “deferral” to stress the given gap of meaning(s) in language, how meaning(s) endlessly adjourn any definitive awareness to genuine meaning at all. The only facts that may be written in stone being the certainty of mortality itself, how the invisible, hovering pestilence of such viruses—these one-hundred year biological storms—highlight our unique fragility, how as conscious, sentient entities we can’t help, unlike the lizard or frog, but keep a record of it all. As Julia records “the requiem is / [as] endless” as

sequelae whose ever-
widening rings widen
around the names
of the dead
swallowing those who
survive them.

To reinforce the toll such reflection takes, Guez lowers her mask (“In a New Form”) to address “the world and the entropy of things,” long enough to issue the Latin axiom Timor mortis conturbat me (Fear of death disturbs me); the fragment employed to render what Guez finds too troubling to address through the melting pot of the English tongue. As the speaker admits:

There is saying the same thing again in a different form,

There is saying something new in the same form,

There is saying the same thing again in the same form,

It is midnight’s insight that conjures Guez’s yawning (as in cavernous), meditations; again, the insomnia, the sleeplessness, which reveal The Certain Body’s dialectical tapestry. We will continue to revisit these poems for how they are composed from common, domestic, conjugal threads (curtains, pearls, words), and during a singular, upsetting fold of space, of time. As the collection repeats in so many ways, we all have been told so much, made aware of only the uncertainty of certain certainties for which our sense of meaning and purpose and even lives dangle to the point of questioning if we are not unlike flies to be served for some super bug’s supper. Further, Guez gifts us with the unique opportunity to grasp where we are: caught in an overcasting web of what has refused to lapse, backslide, to fall back, what has only shown itself to advance through mutation(s) in accordance with Darwinian law. Even now the virus leaves us scrolling for the next report from the world’s next Dr. Fauci. He or she who, like the weathermen on stage or religious leader at the pulpit, will only stand in front of us to redescribe what no one can understand, let alone forecast. In closing there is a singular beauty that exudes from the darkness of these texts, their sonorous textures, “These sonatas, these scores,” leaving us to look out into the masked world and reconsider our own value and significance on an Earth where “The sun rises / over the so much we have been.”

The Certain Body, by Julia Guez. New York, NY: Four Way Books, September 2022. 64 pages. $17.95, paper.

Eric David Helms holds degrees from Furman University and Columbia University’s School of the Arts. His first collection of work, Valley of Empty Pockets (published by Main Street Rag, April 2020) can be purchased via PayPal or check through the publisher’s website. Some of his uncollected work can be found in the following lit mags and ’zines: Asheville Poetry Review, key_hole, Prelude, DIAGRAM, MadHat Lit, Souvenir, American Athenaeum, and Blunderbuss.

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