(REVIEW) This Exquisite Corpse by Tawnya Selene Renelle
‘The body is paramount’: in this review, Meredith Grace Thompson writes into the fierce imaginaries of queer sexuality, fetish, power, intimacy and thrill at play in Tawnya Selene Renelle’s This Exquisite Corpse (Calenture Press, 2019).
> Have you ever seen a corpse being dissected? I haven’t. I imagine there to be a strange pulling back of flesh from bones, like flesh from the bones of a chicken. I imagine the bones look empty and alien, without their casing. I imagine the flesh becomes uninteresting but for the organs nestled inside it. I image the blood becomes a sort of paint. I want to stop imagining.
> I find the word corpse disturbing.
> ‘What is the female word for bastard?’ the speaker asks in ‘Alive’, Renelle’s first poem in the first act of the collection, beginning an intricate three act plot structure with the roots of a family tree that reach far behind the speaker herself. The question is a meditation on the non-existence of women historically, while men were bastards, women were—nothing. It is a questioning of inheritance and of agency. The speaker depicts a familial line which flows from mother to daughter, through generations, disrupting our archetypes of the patriarchal power structure. The power in this sense, is being given to a daughter. But the daughter is not that alone. The daughter is the speaker but the speaker both inhabits the female gender and a powerful androgyny.
and then I pulled my spine
out through my throat
and sewed my skin back together
> For me, the poem ‘Choked’ best exemplifies the strength of Renelle’s writing. The lack of punctuation refusing to allow the flow of the verse to be dictated; the intense weight placed on the and, lingering in front as the fractured opening to a small but fearsome poem; the shape of the words as the shape of a body and of a chalice; the gruesome beauty of the act of pulling the spine through the throat; the self-preservation of the speaker sewing themselves back together. It is a beautiful coming together of form and subject. The lines of the poem break with intention. Each word carries the weight of itself and those nearby. The imagery is grotesque but not dramatised. ‘flipped myself’ sits as a keystone to the rest of the poem, moving up and down on either side; towards and away from itself.
> This 5-line poem captures the voice of Renelle’s speaker. It is a small glimpse at the collection as a whole, with its rhythmic momentum. This is a collection of grief, of addiction, of love and of sex. The speaker embodies the juxtaposing attributes of being highly active and incredibly passive. She allows herself to withstand huge amounts of physical and emotional pain, and yet stands firm, but there is an allowance in this. There is an agency that the speaker refuses to take. There is space for the speaker to move forwards. The momentum of This Exquisite Corpse is not necessarily in each poem but is found in the piece as a larger whole. The poems flow from one to another, their contents knowable only if each is consumed in its turn. It a poetic plot, in the style of a thriller, carrying the story of the speaker forward through her family and friends, towards a goal of subjective creation. The speaker is defining herself, as her self is being defined. She is spinning in circles, looking behind her as much as around and forward. She is trapped within her own body and in that, the body becomes the primary focus of the work—I want to use the word battleground, but I feel that’s too much like a Pat Benatar song. The body is paramount. It gains control at moments throughout, trapping the speaker inside and summoning those around to come to it. It reaches out and out and out, without nourishing what is inside—a beautiful depiction of the self-annihilation of grief. It asks the speaker, loudly and with angry intent: what are you without me?
> Women have often been told that we are nothing but our bodies. Nothing but tits, hair, lips, a uterus in which to incubate children, breasts with which to feed them, hips on which to carry them, and some pesky hormones whizzing around our otherwise neutral bodies which make us bleed inconveniently every now and then. We have been defined by the otherness of our bodies as a means of our own suppression for a long time. Renelle’s poetry disputes these archaic notions in the most ardent terms, notably in the speaker’s depiction of protest signs carried by her and her mother in ‘We Have Been Here Before’ reading: ‘This is What the Revolution Looks Like/Respect Existence or Expect Resistance’.
> This Exquisite Corpse judges, compels, decrypts, endows, bestows, rips away and leaves wanting. It is stripped bare and held up before the readers eyes without apology. When you move your head, it remains. It creates an empathetic link as the speaker’s pain resonates throughout the reader’s body—even for an instant.
> Renelle’s speaker is a new paradigm of female sexuality. A highly sexual and sexualised queer woman, she becomes almost unknowable but for her sexuality, during the second act. Her body seems to envelope her voice. Everything she is comes from the body. The body which has taken control. The body which is depicted by the title not as a body of living flesh, but as a corpse.
> If we, the readers, are dissecting a corpse, then has the corpse been murdered? Died of natural causes? Left for dead? The body is not moving, after all. We can only see an image—the image of death on a retina. But I do not cannot believe that the speaker is a corpse. A corpse cannot speak as the voice from this collection resonates…I won’t list all the things a corpse cannot do. It would be a long list and not useful here.
> Looking deeply at the fetishisation of the female body in ‘Fat Fetish’ as the speaker asks, quietly ‘do I make a fetish of myself?’; the potency and entrapment of grief in ‘For Gitana’ as the speaker sits, frightened, after the death of a loved one, confiding to the reader that ‘Sometimes I feel guilty about the blue vial that sits in my room / ashes inside / but I cannot let go”; the dichotomy of a self-loathing dependency on the act of being desired and an unyielding strength in self-love, in ‘I collect myself’ as the speaker observes that ‘I collect myself / in case nobody else does’; the strangeness of trauma in real time as, in ‘Timeline’ we watch the speaker struggle to continue with daily life and work as on ‘Day 8: I pull my body together so that I may hold up the bodies of others as I walk them one by one into the room of weeping and viewing.’
> Renelle pushes her reader. Her poetic plot is relentless. It is rhythmic, rocking back and forth, self-soothing through death, drug use and sex. It finds joy in singular moments, as in ‘Poetic Sexploration’ when all the partners of the speaker and listened and described, notably: ‘54. That kiss and touch in the photo booth was everything, she is so beautiful’. Lines are repeated like mantras, again and again, giving them musical strength and lift as the speaker heals and pulls herself out of the stagnation of grief, as seen beautiful in ‘Wake Up’:
I stand in front of a marsh
becoming a desert
becoming an ocean
becoming a mountain
becoming a jungle
a slab of concrete highway
> Above all, This Exquisite Corpse is a love song. It demonstrates, in highly defined clarity—where every crack, every line, every wrinkle is visible—the beauty and the pain of sex, of love, of friendship, of grief, of addiction and of loneliness. It opens a conversation with the reader to look at their own sexuality, as both the judge and judged; the watcher and watched; that which objectifies and that which is objectified.
> This Exquisite Corpse is a rebirth. And it is beautiful.
Text: Meredith Grace Thompson