Atlas: Skin/Bone/Blood – Bodymaps in Brown and Black

Letter from the Editor:

 

What our bodies, my mother’s and yours and mine, require in order to thrive, is what the world requires. If there is a map to get there, it can be found in the atlas of our skin and bone and blood, in the tracks of neurotransmitters and antibodies. We need nourishment, equilibrium, water, connection, justice. When I write about cancer and exhaustion and irritable bowels in the context of the treeless slopes of my homeland, of market-driven famine of xenoestrogens and the possible extinction of bees, I am tracing that map with my fingertips, walking into the heart of the storm that shakes my body and occupies the world.

~ Aurora Levins Morales, excerpt from “Mountain Moving Day” in Kindling: Writings on the Body (Cambridge: Palabrera Press, 2013.)

 

Our bodies tell stories, carry historical memory, bear the intergenerational traumas and forms of resilience we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Our bodies share ways of knowing and being, with and as a part of the planet’s vibrant human and more-than-human ecologies. The memory of land and what our bodies carry are deeply intertwined. In the ongoingness of settler colonial violence, our bodies, selves, land, communities, and life itself, are variously entangled with, subjected to, and complicit in its persistence through extractivism, exploitation of land and labor, and racial-carceral systems that both debilitate us and produce ideas about which bodies matter.

 

This folio seeks to address these themes at the intersections of latinidad and disability, to put forth a poetics of black and brown racial and disability justice. I invited poets by asking: what storms shake your body and occupy the worlds of you, the worlds you are, and the worlds you live in and move through? What are the relations between geography and corporeal experience that illuminate what is vital and necessary about solidarities between the work of racial justice and disability justice? What stories do you need to tell, about how your body carries the land and how the land has carried your body? What maps to history and to liberatory futures are found in the atlas of your skin, bone, and blood?

 

The poets featured herein responded.

 

In Gisselle Yepes’ poem, “A Ritual Washing” we feel how loss eradicates individuation’s singularities, making of a grieving mother many bodies who “carries coffins in her chest.” Grief is a different kind of being buried alive in the geography of pain. The ritual cleansing of the dead is then brought to the living as an act of love when lost love’s debilitating ache undoes our sense of belonging: the ritual cleansing of the living can be a way to bring them home to us.

 

In “Árbol, o, a veces soy”, Carlos Egaña uses anaphora in the poem to attune us to the ever-changing states that our being and history-making are in. The speaker of the poem moves through different formations made by human bodily experience, as much as existing in animal relation and outside bodily being altogether—a veces soy voces sin sexo ni pulmón. From the paper trail of state surveillance and its generational traumas, to the impositions of a medical industrial complex that sees disability as biological error, resistance to the forces of violence comes through in the shapeshifting refusal to be reduced to pathology and the imperative to cure, as well as society’s ableist definitions, the social control, power and knowledge, inhered in the normative use of medicine and dictionaries.

 

Sandra Ruiz’ “Unbodying Grunts” contends with the ways illness impacts memory and the ability to access history and relationship. Underneath the muted-aloof figure of illness, we find not merely an unreliable body in D minor but a symphonic existence that we only need listen more deeply for. In “Basalt” the despair of chronic pain and illness, the incurable durable, is met in the space between refusing to be a body proper and translating the body’s internal terror to refuse human form altogether. To be a cut that splits a rock, to be the rock, the poem suggests, challenges assertions of what and which bodies are teeming with life. Indeed, even when we are still and feel lifeless in our fatigue and pain, we are anything but.

 

Isa Guzmán, in her poem, “The Moment I Tell My Mother of the Diagnosis” contends with the ways that diasporic survival, trauma, and that Catholic propensity for guilt and martyrdom that is all too familiar for many of us, collide with experiences of non-normative gender and chronic illness. Ableist projections of blame lead to internalized shame for having the bodies and immune systems we do, as, when we disclose information about ourselves, those around us sometimes ask:  ¿cuál es la razón?/ ¿a donde cojate esto / ¿Qué hiciste? We must have done something to deserve this “punishment” (from God)—that is the implication in these questions. In the poem, the specific symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (a progressive condition of the central nervous system) intertwine with the social conditions of immigration, poverty, and urban environmental injustices. In other words, Guzman shifts the focus, away from questions of origin, ableist individualism, and blame; and toward an understanding that the body carries the land from which we come and the land in which we’ve grown, such that the relations between geography and corporeal experience are inextricable. And in this inextricability, Guzman shows us the grief as well as the injustice, that these things contouring one’s physical and neurological debilitations also bring the risk of life cut short, making visible the often invisibilized tragedy of the slow deaths brought on by the present arrangements of contemporary life and history under late Capitalism. si vivo a eso, she writes. si vivo a eso

 

A professor of mine used to talk about how we get beautiful for the revolution, and Naomi Ortiz’s poem “Saucy Berry Portal” makes of nail polish a crip femme spacetime travel and political possibility. The body becomes a paradise, the color at the tips of the fingers a protection spell, a décor inflecting a crip refusal of decorum where Crip flip-off is only raised fist, a protest on the dance floor to the ableism structuring the built environment and the world. Then in Ortiz’ poem, “Catalina”, the private geographies of the home are a site of human-animal relation as joyful amusement of the animal companion interrupts the at-times isolating architectures of disabled existence. Catalina, the cat who knows Crip arms can only push, not lift illuminates a kind of access intimacy in the human and more-than-human ecology of crip relations. And in the beauty-making both on and off the page, Catalina’s insistent play turns something as simple as a pen into an almost prismatic effect of sparkles in afternoon light.

 

Diannely Antigua, in her poem, “In the Country where my Parents met in a Taxicab,” contends with racial unbelonging in the US-American landscape of white supremacy, and the ways that pop culture so closely shapes the efforts first and second-generation immigrants make to belong, or not. In the poem, childhood play becomes a site both of emulation and critique, shifting the innocence of young imagination into its own political foray. In “People who don’t Understand Mental Illness,” Antigua critiques the too-easy remedies offered by the well-meaning who don’t fully comprehend the difficulties mental illness brings, riffing on the more recently widespread memes and internet rhetoric simultaneously insulting and imploring people to “touch grass”—to get outside, repudiate the oft-alienated form of sociality that is the internet, and connect with nature. As Catholic imagery also points to the compulsory requisites society places on us to rise up from our own many and small deaths brought on by mental illness, I read this piece through the way the speaker of the poem makes a kind of last-ditch attempt to see if such a thing might work, and in the contact with earth, finds oneself flailing to resurrect selves long-buried, being forced to again face the impacts of one’s own mental illness. In other words, there is no escape or rosy lens through which to spin it, and healing is no easy task.

 

In “Corto” by Ren Koppel Torres, we find both cultural and epigenetic gifting of each new generation with the memory of past generations’ tactics and strategies of revolutionary work. The poem features Russian Socialist, Leon Trotsky—who himself suffered for years from undiagnosed fevers and illness, and was exiled and terrorized for his politics by the dictatorial Stalinist Regime—as a potential intellectual-political ancestor of contemporary sick and disabled political organizing. The revolution Trotsky believed in was one that centered both the working classes and people of color across the world. His time spent in exile in Mexico, including in the company of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, as well as his assassination in Coyoacán, render him a part of the Latin American and Latinx political legacy. As Torres’ poem suggests, as we emerge into our political lives from the relative safety of infancy’s innocence, we might take that which has been used as weapon in the attempt to quell any resistance to the abuse of power (in this case, the ice pick axe that Ramon Mercader use to kill Trotsky,) and repurpose it to continue the work of justice, moving forward and upward. In this, our birth and our becoming is always layered with the lessons of history. We are always old atoms [taking] a newer shape.

 

“Fatigue #1” by Aurora Levins Morales, historicizes the fatigue that may be familiar to many of us living with chronic fatigue as part of a larger constellation of chronic illness symptoms. Citing childhood sexual abuse as a source of fatigue from a young age, Levins Morales makes clear that trauma and its attendant hypervigilance and fear shaping our nervous systems and psyches are as much a source of the insurmountable exhaustion many of us know, as are more traditional physiologically-identified origins. Rest is rarely restful, and how could it be if the places of rest in which we are meant to feel safe never were? As Levins Morales writes, I am demolished by the wrecking ball of silence. The fatigue of chronic illness here is as much about relations shaped by gendered violence and expectations of endless affective labor serving those most benefiting from heteropatriarchal structures, as it is about racism and Christian dominance, about trying to survive ableism and its willful ignorance of the difference between a normatively healthy person’s sense of tired and the tired many of us who live with chronic illness know. Fatigue is also about how sexualized violence, death threats as the maintenance of power, and colonization go hand-in-hand, as for the poet, there are centuries of stone / an ocean bed of sedimentary rock / pushing down on me, pinning me /those men, those empires. I’m struck, too, by the poem’s title, “Fatigue #1” which suggests that there might be a longer list, a many-numbered litany of different kinds of historical and social-political fatigue weighing us down in the ongoingness of the colonial-capitalist-patriarchal order of things.

 

Our folio ends with “Saltamontes” by Gaby Benitez, a devastating meditation on the colonial logics of playing god with the bodies and futures of those deemed unworthy of life. This poem subtly yet poignantly evokes this country’s racist reduction of immigrants to insects (I’m reminded, for instance, of artist and activist Xandra Ibarra (aka la Chica Boom)’s performance piece, “Spic Ecdysis” about which she writes in her artist statement that the cockroach is “an umbrella metaphor for undesirable people living in the United States at the pinnacle of social unrest.”) As the speaker of Benitez’ poem grapples with how a simple quotidian act like mowing the lawn necessarily means potential mass death, they ask: Is it the god in small things or / the god of small things?  We are reminded that no act, big or small, is absent of the political, nor without our complicity as we are forcibly conscripted into systems of violence that exceed our individual lifetimes. The enjambment in the line’s use of or poses as its own indicting border politics, and we are, in a way, asked to choose a side—between collective futures shaped by an ethic and ethos that holds close the intimacy and connection of, and our accountability to, all human and more-than-human life—and the future that remains on the horizon in the face of continuing logics of violence and domination.

 

Our visual art contributions for this folio include Latinx artist Kevin Quiles Bonilla’s “Carryover” and Filipinx KT Pe Benito’s “Huwag Matot” and “July 2020”. Bonilla’s photographic juxtapositions tap into the multiple registers in which the blue tarp operates—here, in relation to border policing and migrant and refugee tent cities. Between the vibrant color and its lack of carryover across the two images, I read a commentary on what is lost in the assimilative journey to “freedom.” Further, the blue in Bonilla’s work feels critically in conversation with the blues of hair and sky in Benito’s two pieces, which evoke for me the intimacies of human and more-than-human worlds through temporalities of sun, moon, and tide; as well as the somber weight of grief and physical and psychic fatigue amidst political upheaval (in July 2020, we cannot separate that date from the summer of police brutality and anti-Police uprisings in the US, amidst the first few months of the pandemic’s wreckage). What these pieces remind us of as they speak to each other is how inseparable histories of US imperialism and Spanish colonialism are as they intertwine across oceans and distinct, but entangled geographies and times. The pieces therefore call us to reflect, too, on how inseparable our solidarities and efforts at social transformation and anticolonial endeavor must be.

 

 

 

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This folio was made possible by Letras Latinas, the literary initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies in Notre Dame, Indiana, as part of the Poetry Coalition 2022 initiative themed on, “The future lives in our bodies: Poetry & Disability Justice.” It emerged out of a panel on the same theme, held in March 2022, in collaboration with the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Thank you especially to Letras Latinas Director, Francisco Aragón, for commissioning this project; and to Apogee Editors, Joey de Jesus and Zefyr Lisowski for editorial support throughout this folio’s becoming, as well as to the larger team at Apogee Journal for making a home for the work featured here. Thank you most of all to the poets who shared their work for inclusion in this gathering on the page of crip Latinx bearing witness and documentation of our lives, collective and individual mourning and celebration, and imagining together what else is possible for our bodies and worlds.

 

~heidi andrea restrepo rhodes, October 2022

 

 

heidi andrea restrepo rhodes (she/her) is a queer, sick/disabled, brown/Colombian, poet, scholar, educator, and cultural worker. Her poetry collection, The Inheritance of Haunting (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019) won the 2018 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize; and her chapbook, ephemeral, won the 2022 Lorca Latinx Poetry Prize and will be published in 2023. She is a VONA alum and has received poetry fellowships from Zoeglossia, CantoMundo, Radar, VONA, and Yale’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. Her poetry has been published in Poetry, Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Split This Rock’s Quarry, Nat.Brut, and Foglifter, among other places. She currently lives and teaches in Gabrielino Tongva land in the San Gabriel Mountain foothills of southern California.

 

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