Embodied is an Intertextual and Intersectional Masterpiece
Before I rave about Embodied: An Intersectional Feminist Comics Poetry Anthology (A Wave Blue World Inc, 2021), I offer two anecdotes to contextualize the importance of this work.
First anecdote: In 1976, five Black women sued General Motors because the company systemically prevented their advancement. The court, however, ruled in favor of GM because, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw put it, “General Motors did hire women—albeit white women—during the period that no Black women were hired [and thus] there was, in the court’s view, no sex discrimination that the seniority system could conceivably have perpetuated.” The court then recommended that the case be consolidated with another race discrimination lawsuit against GM. A person, in other words, could sue for race discrimination or sex discrimination, but not both, because claiming that there was a specific prejudice against Black women, in the court’s words, “clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.”
Crenshaw uses this case—and others—in her seminal paper, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” published in University of Chicago Legal Forum in 1989. Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” because “dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis.” A feminism that only addresses the experiences of white women is no true feminism, and an antiracist politic that only addresses Black men is similarly incomplete, as neither on their own addresses the experience and oppression of Black women. Though “intersectionality” has been expanded to include all manner of categorical intersections—including class, sexuality, gender identity, nationality, disability, and age—it began as a legal concept specifically referencing Black women.
Second anecdote: A decade before the suit against GM, literary critic and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva was parsing the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher whose work focused on, among other topics, language and the novel. Bakhtin argued that all language was dialogic—that is, in conversation with other texts, words, or persons. Heteroglossia—Bakhtin’s term for the natural divisions within a language that emerge in various social, professional, and ideological environments—highlights the multiplicities in linguistics. He also noted that these multiplicities exist in the novel, which he believed was a unique literary form without a canon (I guess no one told this to Harold Bloom).
As a means to simplify Bakhtin’s unclear divisions, Kristeva introduced the term intertextuality. In an essay called “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” Kristeva explained the concept, positing that “each word (text) is an intersection of word (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read.” This idea, as María Jesús Martínez Alfaro puts it, “requires…that we understand texts not as self-contained systems but as differential and historical, as traces and tracings of otherness, since they are shaped by the repetition and transformation of other textual structures.” In language, nothing can be defined or interpreted in a vacuum. Reading, too, becomes dialogic.
The purpose of bringing up these rather intersectionality and intertexuality is that Embodied, which describes itself as “an intersectional feminist comics poetry anthology,” speaks to and with them in various transformative and inspiring ways. It is, as a book, one of the most exciting and stimulating examples of cross-genre amplification. A selection of excellent and diverse poems by some of today’s most talented poets coupled with gorgeous and haunting illustrations and lettering by a group of brilliant artists, Embodied flashes with energetic creativity that bolts out of every page. It jolts and jabs and breaks your heart. The book’s accompanying visual art elevates the collection’s poetic language and vice versa, proving that poetry and comics make an exhilarating pair.
The contributors to Embodied represent, in the words of co-editor Wendy Chin-Tanner, who co-edited the book with Tyler Chin-Tanner, “an ethnically, regionally, and generationally diverse array of America’s premier cis female, trans, and non-binary poets” whose poems have been transformed into illustrations by “top non-cis male artists.” The intersectionality and intertextuality can be seen both generally and specifically. For example, an excerpt from the poem “A Love Letter to the Decades I Have Kissed or Notes on Turning 50” by JP Howard—the author of SAY/MIRROR and co-editor of Sinister Wisdom Journal 107: Black Lesbians—We Are the Revolution!—is illustrated by Soo Lee, a young artist who often works in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror vein. The poem addresses a poignant missive to Howard’s younger self, describing how her mother wouldn’t allow for any abbreviations of her name, Juliet. Howard’s favorite teacher, her dance instructor Mrs. Carter, called her Jewels (“that’s how I imagine she spelled it, J-E-W-E-L-S, / a glittering diamond of a word”). Instead of conventional gutters (which are usually just white space between panels), Lee divides the frames with snaking lines of jewels, and Cardinal Rae, the letterer for Howard’s poem and numerous others in the book, uses tiny slices of paper as captions, reinforcing the poem’s epistolary form. The result is a comic aching with hard-won wisdom and a muted color palette that conjures the fuzzy look of memories. Every artist, and every art form, speaks to the other.
Some of the poems featured have become familiar to many readers. Maggie Smith’s viral poem “Good Bones” appears here, but it’s a worthy inclusion for more than its melancholy insights. It’s about the ways the speaker fudges the truth about the world being “fifty percent terrible” to her children in a similar way a real estate agent spins the less saleable aspects of the home she’s showing to her clients as assets: “You could make this place beautiful.” The comic version by the Italian artist Carola Borelli begins with a woman walking through a house that’s being packed up for a move. Its walls are dotted with holes, the colors a flat blue, as if the emotionally complex memories have affected it just as much as the entropy of time. She moves through the interior with a searching look of wistful pain. She opens the door to leave, turning around one last time to survey the flotsam of her former life. An image of her sad living room gives way to the next panel, which like a crash cut, opens the drab blue to brighter, more vibrant colors, revealing the same room emptied and blanketed in light. A real estate agent enters with a happy young pregnant couple who look with optimism toward the future they’ll have in this house. They don’t yet know that “for every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.” But they will. Though this is pretty much a literal interpretation of Smith’s poem, that doesn’t lessen its impact. It is straightforward, as is its source, but Corelli still adds additional poignancy to Smith’s already tender lyric. Corelli’s comic is a perfect visual manifestation of the poem.
I could go on and on about these collaborations, but I don’t have enough space here to describe how wonderfully, gloriously, and lovingly enthralling they are. So I’ll just do a couple more. Venus Thrash’s “Drown” depicts the speaker’s memories of a short-lived, passionate love affair. It is an unabashed celebration of sexual desire and a mournful lament of fleeting romance. Y. Sanders’s illustrations reflect both of these characteristics. There are close-ups of mouths on breasts, fingertips playfully bitten, bodies embraced, tongues awaiting touch—and yet there is an ache that hovers over the joyful bodily pleasure, a recognition that this ecstasy, emotional and physical, will end. Carolina Ebeid’s poem “Speak-House”—named after the locutorium, a place in monastic sanctuaries where monks are permitted to talk—imagines a similar yet metaphoric space. A series of lines that all begin with “say something about”—as in, “say something about yourself,” “say something about cruelty,” etc.—are each followed by devastating truths: respectively, “morning builds brick by brick / what night dismantles,” and “no one cares whether or not you eat.” The images by Marika Cresta veer from harrowing visuals of suffering and personal remembrances of, for example, “a doll named January First.” The juxtaposition in the imagery befits those in the poem.
There are poems about birth and the body, stories of misogyny at a university and of grappling with a miscarriage. These works explore heritage, family, gender, love, and in the case of the inimitable Diane Seuss, tits. Altogether, they typify the robust state of contemporary poetry. They also advertise the importance of intersectionality, the writing here showing how people are more than, but also richly informed by, their categories of identity.
Intersectionality, as an idea, is meant to assist in understanding the scope of someone’s self, how limited our interpretation is when we stick to reductive classifications. And intertextuality is meant to assist in understanding a piece of literature’s place in a larger context, how limited our interpretation is when we ignore where and when and how a text is situated. At their most ideal, these concepts do more than help us understand; they create communities. The way poetry and comics speak to each other in Embodied, the way that poets and artists are in conversation in it—this is what political ideas like intersectionality can bring to society: a community of diverse people whose coming together builds something beyond the capabilities of any one member. “It is embarrassing,” writes Kayleb Rae Candrilli in “To the Cherry Blossoms on 16th and Wharton, “to understand so little about the world, / while taking up all this space.” The world is too vastly, overwhelmingly, stupidly, embarrassingly complex for any one of us to grasp fully. We can try on our own, but it is so much more beautiful when we face existence together. That is, after all, how life is made. Read Embodied. Join the community.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a former staff writer for Literary Hub, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Tin House, Vulture, the Columbus Dispatch, LA Review of Books, New Republic, The Georgia Review, and dozens of others. Most recently, he wrote about a debut novel by a professional skateboarder for the L.A. Times. His first book, An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, was published in 2018. His second book, Skateboard, will be a part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series and will be published in 2022.