Illustration: Polly Crossman

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A poem about bodies – and how we take them for granted

This week, Ella Risbridger is reflecting on Ode To My Body by Destiny O. Birdsong

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By Ella Risbridger on

I once had a therapist (this is how almost all of my anecdotes begin) who liked to start every session by talking about the body. It was the same every time.

“I have a body!” she would say, delighted anew at this simple fact, and I would repeat, dutifully: “I have a body.”

“I am my body!” she would say, and I’d mumble after her, “I am my body.”

“And I am more than my body!” she would finish, and I would echo her, profoundly embarrassed.

I was embarrassed, partly, I suppose, because there is never a cringe-free way to start chanting a mantra – and partly because it seemed to me such an unnecessary thing to talk about. Of course I had a body. I was paying literally a hundred pounds a week for a strange woman to tell me that I had a body, a fact I had known for literally as long as I could remember. I had no idea why she thought I would need telling.

And I think, probably, I would have gone on remembering that particular therapeutic experience as a waste of time if I hadn’t stumbled across this poem. It’s called Ode To My Body by Destiny O. Birdsong, and you can read it here.

I didn’t realise what this poem was about, the first time I read it. I missed the title.

I thought it was a letter to a daughter, or to a mother, and I suppose in one sense it is both those things. A body is like a child, in that you have to feed it and wash it and love it; a body is like a parent, in that it shapes you and carries you and you didn’t get to choose it.

This poem, when you read it, feels like writing to family – like writing to a sister or inherited china teacups. It’s about something irreplaceable and breakable and precious and broken. It’s a poem, in some ways, about identity, and about what makes a person. when you failed & i have called / you failure / who could i blame?

I love that failure about this poem: I love the way it’s not an unbridled joy in having a body, but a careful exploration of all the things about having a body, which is to say I suppose about being alive. It’s full of contradictions: a joy in eating – slabs of bread smeared / with butter – and the newest threat of rogue cells. I am a cook, and I was for a long time a carer, too. I have spent almost half of my adult life thinking about all the things that can go wrong with bodies, and the rest of it thinking about how to feed and nourish and soothe. It’s contradictory, sure. But it’s also all there is.

The poem is full of contradictions because life is always about contradictions.

Maybe coming to terms with that fact is what living is, too. You learn to understand that you can be very happy and very sad all at once; that wonderful things can happen because horrible things happened; that things can be (and mostly are) beautiful and terrible at the same time. You learn to live with the way that you can be all these experiences laid on top of each other, packed into one tiny animal body of muscles and bones and dying cells.

You have a body like everyone else, and like everyone else – as the therapist once said – you are both your body and more than your body

And, perhaps, that’s why this poem is so good: it’s about being not enough and too much, about being sturdy and being fragile, about being murderous and being loving, about wanting the best for someone and hurting them at the same time. i would apologize for this & other things, Birdsong writes, just to hear you answer in a voice not unlike / my own.

This poem feels like a love letter to something you never chose to love; it’s a love letter that wonders what love even is. And I wonder, writing this, whether that therapist had a point after all.

Because, yes, it’s a universal and simple fact that everybody has a body. But sometimes it’s worth holding all universal and simple facts up to the light. Anything we take for granted, maybe, is worth looking at every once in a while.

i have treated you like anything i never earned, Birdsong writes to her body in this poem, and it stops me in my tracks every time I think about it. Someone once told me that people don’t come to events when the tickets are free. It feels counterintuitive, but it’s true: if an event is free, it becomes worthless to people. It matters less to them. They are careless with the tickets; double-book themselves; stay home in pyjamas instead of doing what they know they ought to do. It shocks me to think that I treat my body in this way, too, but it’s probably true.  

But here’s the thing: it’s impossible to earn a body. Any body. It’s not to do with earning or deserving. You get one, anyway, whatever you do to it or whatever happens to it. You get yours: flawed and lovely and imperfect, and that’s it. That’s the whole deal. It makes me think of that Mary Oliver poem: you do not have to be good, and then a line from a poet I love named Hera Lindsay Bird: You do not have to be good / You do not have to be anything...

This poem doesn’t want you to treat your body better. It’s not a lecture or a sermon. It’s not trying to make you do anything differently. It’s not about you, in fact, at all. It’s not about you, or to you, except to remind you that you are a human among humans; that you have a body like everyone else, and like everyone else – as the therapist once said – you are both your body and more than your body, and this is at once very simple and enormously complicated, and all that is absolutely fine.

It promises nothing, this poem, beyond the fact of having had a body, and that body belonging to you and you alone. It doesn’t promise you eternal life; it brings you to the edge (i don’t know how you survived) and then holds you there, in the moment, hoping. Here she is; here you are; here I am. And what else is there?

@Missellabell

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Illustration: Polly Crossman
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