Book Review: Borrowed Bodies (Jill Khoury)

Reviewed by Sheila Black

Jill Khoury's Borrowed Bodies (Finishing Line Press, 2009) forges a kind of map of different forms of embodiment where the tension is between perception, the body's shell or surface and the feeling perceptual self inside it. The language is knotty and sensuous, giving at times an almost physical sense of various kinds of embodiment as in these lines from "Crows:"

Each bed shines like an eye. Their glass sides click
together in the valley of his palm. He plucks and tosses.

As each one leaves his hand, it disappears…

This poem takes as its epigraph a quote from the Institute for Innovative Blind Navigation on strategies for visually impaired children to learn to move through the world unassisted. Yet the poem itself expands this through sensual detail into an exploration of what it is to see or navigate, what it is to know. The moment of the poem is almost cruel: the narrator describes a teacher tossing beads on the floor for her to gather like a kind of latter-day Cinderella: "Mr. Charlie says now pick them up. I suck my thumb,/ ask how many. He refuses to tell." The narrator pauses, hearing the sounds of other bodies she sees as "sticky, curious" stating "I know because my own body is like this, but not." The question becomes what is the similarity and what is the distance between her body and these "others," and also, what is the difference between self and other, the world outside her. It is these kinds of questions that create the psychic tension and provide traction to Khoury's exploration of different kinds of non-normative bodily experience in Borrowed Bodies, and provide the emotional context, too. In Khoury's text the disabled body is always being traversed and defined by the gaze of the abled world, "othered" by others, who "borrow" it in order to define the spaces it can travel–or they can:

Parents told serrated truths.
The story of a girl
just like you
who was stung
because she wasn't careful–


Thus the speakers in these poems become engaged not only in navigating the physical world around them, but also in navigating the expectations and preconceptions of others:

Tap, tap sweet
a sea of passengers parts
for me, but I am no queen
or prophet. I would rather
push through, feel
their shoulders against mine,
their unwashed hair.

("Suites for the Modern Dancer.")

These preconceptions often are isolating or constraining. They also form a code or system the speakers often struggle without luck to read accurately:

Every night I dream my future, carved
in the bark of a tree, in a language I can't read.

When you break open the small bones,
there's a soft bitter mercury at the center.

("Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified")

In common with Jim Ferris in The Hospital Poems or Laurie Clements Lambeth in Veil and Burn, institutions such as special schools and hospitals figure prominently in Khoury's work. The "borrowed body" she explores thus becomes not only the physical body but also the metaphorical "body" of medical and institutional practice:

Last night they poured charcoal
down your throat. Its remnants
have striped your tee shirt black.
You lean into the alcove
of the Mood Disorders laundry.
A nurse ignores you, watchfully.

("Night Bloom")

While such practices and institutions tend to be presented as "necessary" or "curative," out in the world, in Khoury's text they become, on the contrary, a means of establishing and endlessly reinforcing the "otherness" of her speakers as a thing to be managed or controlled and often without reason:

O skinny girl full of rage
bleach blonde crew cut
just turned sixteen last week,
on Ward 11 you're just
another one of us
crazy-crazy can't leave
can't smoke can't shower
without permission.


Khoury tracks movingly not only the physical containment imposed by such management systems, but also the interior sense of inadequacy and impotence, such "othering" creates:

The bare shoulders and wrists, messy up-'dos.
They are resplendent, wanting and wanting,
but want is blunted here.

In the air-conditioned cool, we shuffle
and nod, pj's half-open over heands with holes.
Hungry to lean our delicate necks
out the window, catch the scent
of cereus, jessamine, the most exotic
night-blooming flower.

"Night Bloom"

Yet as the line of this poem, with emphasis on "the most exotic/night-blooming flower" suggests, the subtextual argument of her work – one expressed through precisely Khoury's dense lyric language— is paradoxically an affirmation of the power disability or the body perceived as "disabled" contains. For Khoury often this precise experience of wounding and pain as onecontains within it a kind of redemption— providing access into a perceptual world in which the beauties of difference in all their glorious strangeness can be seen and nurtured. We see this in a poem in which a girl left out in the wilderness is rescued, but her rescue is presented ambiguously:

When your saviors finally come,
their limbs are sloppy and unsure.
Their boots send pieces
of the granite batholith
clinking toward you. The light
from their bodies is almost
too bright for your eyes to hold.

It is a rescue, but is also, paradoxically, a kind of fall from grace. The light of the saviors is so bright it outshines and even obliterates the natural world the girl has begun to be at home within. In this poem and others, Khoury mounts an argument from a disability poetics perspective for the jaggedness and difficulty of all beauty, for the glory in the– to borrow a phrase from Gerard Manly Hopkins "the spare and the strange," or as Khoury tells us:

We are exactly the sum of our parts.
We are sphere and bird wings, thorns,
knotholes, electricity, fractured light.
To the atoms that roll and shiver
within us, our bodies are a universe."

These strong lyrical poems deserve reading and rereading.