Poetry Book Review: If My Body Could Speak

I couldn’t quite put “If My Body Could Speak” down, but I couldn’t finish it in one sitting because each poem tore me apart (it was intense beauty). Baird writes about anorexia, being queer, sexual assault, misogyny, and much more. In each of these topics, she writes from a place of honesty, of hurt — it demands the reader to listen, to feel the pain she goes through.

Right off the bat, she starts with the poem “When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny,” which had gone viral when Baird performed it. I was struck by several stanzas, but perhaps my favourite lines are the ending:

when I was little,
someone asked me

what I wanted to be
when I grow up

and I said,

small

When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny

Even when taken out of the context of the poem, these lines are thunderous. I was struck with how Baird was able to take these small words and create something big. She didn’t have to bring out some crazy vocabulary, but rather use language that reflects the core innocence of childhood and how terrible it is for a child to feel these things.

Baird doesn’t miss a beat with the consequent poems, each one taking my breath away. In a way, it’s difficult to review the collection without being able to divulge in each poem. “Girl Code 101” stood out to me more than the others:

13,
the year dad says wearing short skirts in the city
is like driving without a seatbelt.

Girl Code 101

The comparison shows not only the danger but the messed-up mentality of putting the responsibility on the [potential] victim. The tone is nonchalant, showing how normalised it is for a thirteen-year-old girl to be ‘taught’ to behave in certain ways. It is her delivery of this tone that makes the writing so heavy-hitting and poetic. I loved the use of Biblical imagery to discuss the roots of misogyny in religion. In the same poem, Baird writes:

Give me one accomplishment of Mary’s
that did not involve her vagina.

Girl Code 101

This was so fucking bold, but yet fitting. It speaks volumes of how society (and religion) have been consistently tools of the patriarchy which dictate the value of a woman related to her procreativity and other feminine standards. She doesn’t hide behind words in delivering this.

On a similar note, “Pocket-Sized Feminism” is another banging poem:

Once, my dad informed me sexism is dead
and reminded me to always carry pepper spray

Pocket-Sized Feminism

The paradox comes out effortlessly, partly because this is a widespread belief. These line should also be taken into the context of the poem — Baird shows us how it is like to be constantly harassed and to made feel guilty and responsible for not putting an end to it. There’s the delicate dance where standing up for yourself or for other woman will risk her losing friends and get harassed for it (and this would be especially true during teenager years). It’s a lose-lose situation which amplifies the pain expressed throughout.

I found both “The Way I Was Taught to Love” and “An Invitation” to be heart wrenching and realistic queer poems — I could relate quite personally to these. The former of these is about the intense relationship with her mother during the coming out period, and frankly, if I had to quote a line, I’d quote the whole poem. In the latter, she also writes about her mother:

She hates my selective memory.
            She says, You only ever
remember the slammed doors,
            But why don’t you
ever write about how I used
            to sing to you before
bed every single night?

An Invitation

I’ve had similar conversations with my mother, and seeing these lines written caught me off-guard. The mother knows how she nurtured her daughter for so long and remembers all the sweet things she done, and this is contrasted with the pain where Baird focuses on the painful events. These poems are not only important because they tell the poet’s story, but also because many queer people can relate and understand their relationships better.

As the collection progresses, the poetry becomes even more emotional and strong as sexual assault becomes the pivotal topic. Baird writes:

To live in the body of a survivor
is to never be able to leave
the scene of the crime.

To live in the body of a survivor

The simile is powerful because in reality, it is not a simile — it is the truth. We’re ordered to avoid crime scenes; they are closed from public access. Trust me, if you ever experienced something negative, most likely, you would avoid that place, partly to avoid future instances, and partly because of triggers and flashbacks. As assault survivors, we don’t have that luxury. You get to see the victim every time you look in the mirror. You get to experience the whole ordeal when your mind ‘goes there’. This also has implications for one’s identity: the ‘I’ tends to become depersonalised and is disconnected from the body — the crime scene. This is shown in the use of ‘the’ in the title, “To Live in the Body of a Survivor.”

Towards the end, Baird presents “Yet Another Rape Poem”, which is exactly what it claims to be. It’s aimed at the criticism that she writes too much about rape:

“I know you are threatened
because I am
a thunderstorm of a woman.”

Yet Another Rape Poem

Baird has a voice that commands attention. Poetry was a safe place for her to share her story. It not only takes talent to create masterpiece poems like these, but a poet also needs to be as brave as Baird is in sharing them. Even to be honest with oneself is difficult, let alone to read these poems in public and print them in books. As a reader, I felt mightily empowered by this poem and how Baird refuses to be silenced. Truly, I’ve only got praise for her.

Throughout the collection, I was vulnerable and connected intimately to Baird’s words. The rhythm flowed effortlessly, almost in a tone of a bedtime story in which all that should be shocking is normalised. We’re not given any punch lines or twists, but constantly gut-wrenching pain. This style also reflects the reality of millions of people, of how harassment and assaults aren’t a one-time event but are repetitive, occurring daily and how we suffer the consequences without pause. Amidst the hurt of it all, I found comfort in Baird’s brave poems that left me feeling that I am not alone, that we are stronger together.


I received an Advanced Review Copy from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.


Sources and Links:

Book: If My Body Could Speak (Button Poetry, 2019)
Book Cover: Goodreads

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One thought on “Poetry Book Review: If My Body Could Speak

  1. Reblogged this on Poetic Insights and commented:
    Jeremy writes brilliant book reviews! I’ve also read If my Body could Speak and it’s as good as Jeremy’s review suggests. Jeremy has a great collection of poetry you should check out too. It’s called Welcome to the Sombre Days.

    Liked by 1 person

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