Brenda Yates’s first collection of poetry and reflections, Bodily Knowledge, from Tebot Bach Literary Foundation (2015), is a rich and flowing walk through the many iterations of the poet’s life. Yates deftly connects the knowledge of the body and its travels with the knowledge of earth, world, humanity, and spirit in a manner that is both intense and sweet.
Yates grew up on military bases, a migrant child in a family with deep connection to country and home. This juxtaposition makes for an interesting presentation of the ideas of place, time, neighborhood, family, and belonging. It’s clear that with this perspective the poet has managed to define herself and her sense of belonging in a much broader and varied sense than in the more traditional manner. Her home is here, wherever that may be. Her family is us, all of us. Her body is deeply connected and rooted to the physical and spiritual of all she has seen and found, and she invites us to engage in the same way. The result is a profound collaboration between our idea of home and hers.
Sorrows and joys, truths and failings, beauty and grace—all collide. Yates’s presentation of idea and place is infused with her strong desire to connect to that physical space and its sanctity. Her piece “Chicago” is a near prayer. In it she turns the common city street, old building, and suburban backyard, into small cathedrals. She writes, “Let us mourn ourselves; celebrate ourselves; let us be horrified by ourselves & yes, glory in ourselves” and she invites us to become sacred with it all. She connects to each place with her own memories, and in doing so it all becomes personal and personified. Her humanness, and ours, has breathed life into those old buildings, those backyards.
The idea of safety is a constant undercurrent throughout the book. From the first piece to the last, Yates addresses safety—her idea of it, and then ours as well. “Bodily Knowledge,” the first poem in the collection begins, “This, too, will end badly; one of us will leave.” And although it is a stunning remembrance in flips and overlays of the times when the idea of earth and body collide, the ultimate impression is that of walking on a fine precipice in a beautiful place where you only hope your next step doesn’t leave you hanging.
Perhaps, for me, the moment in the collection when this all comes together is in the reflection, “On the Other Side of the World, My Sister Begins Radiation.” It’s as if each thread she introduced in previous entries are all brought together in a painful but beautiful telling of so much more than what the opening line connotes, “I don’t care if it’s just in case, I’m terrified.” And wouldn’t we all be? But this is how she engages and captures us. She slips from intense conversation into dreams—these wistful and wishful glimmerings of childhood, youth, places and spaces or the past, all encapsulated in the physicality of a plane, the familiarity of another relocation, the sense of journey, and the idea that despite her nontraditional childhood as military brat, she still felt safe, contained, guarded and guided.
It is only in the final lines that all this wistful, glimmering, safety is ruptured, with the memory of a near-drowning and the return to the intense reality of the present.
Brenda Yates’s bold and honest reflections and verse offer stunning and vast comprehensions of our connective tissue and what defines each of us in our present tense. Bodily Knowledge is a smart, sensuous, raw, and profound collection of works that pull us, rather than pushes us, into rethinking our definition of and connection to body, place, and home.
Maura Snell is both poetry editor and co-founder of The Tishman Review.