Sylvia Legris’s new collection The Hideous Hidden articulates a fixation with the human body, both its components and its totality, and in so doing contemplates the relationship between a body and how it is enclosed and shaped by its home, its society, and its language. The ways in which the interior and the exterior of the human body inform one another preoccupies this volume, much as it informs human life, for which the body remains a continuous site and source of discovery and inquiry. In The Hideous Hidden, Legris takes us into a specific language of the body, a dense, multilingual lexicon so far removed from the way we generally speak about and engage with our bodies that it can feel, reading this book, that she is addressing a different species entirely. In poems like “Recto: The Bladder. Verso: The Lungs, c.1508” we burrow, with radical intimacy, deep into the etymological strata of our body language—“Vulgar-Latin’d and ghosted through.”
Among the earliest extant anatomical treatises is the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an Egyptian text which dates to 1600 BCE and is named after the Egyptologist who purchased the papyrus in Luxor in 1862. It contains forty-eight case studies, most of them concerning the brain and traumatic head injury. This document only constitutes a written record of anatomical interest. A curiosity for the human body certainly predates this document—but how did our pre-textual ancestors imagine our “hideous hidden”? What language did they have for it? How far did their understanding and investigation of our insides go? And if they did not engage in these explorations, what kind of fears, superstitions, and anxieties held them back? Despite the Egyptian contribution to the science of medicine, Western anatomy draws its language primarily from Greek and Latin, which prioritize the heart over the brain. Legris draws the language of her collection from this textual tradition, and in so doing reveals a rich intertextual network between Western medicine and Western literature, from Hippocrates to Baudelaire.
Legris’s investigation into the language of the Western body, also the language of its literature, begins with the book’s cover. Its central image is an open chest cavity, a detail from Gasparo Becerra’s engraving “Cadaver Anatomizing,” which depicts an autopsy performed by a corpse. Becerra’s illustration accompanied Juan Valverde de Amusco’s 1556 anatomical volume Historia de la composición del cuerpo humano (Account of the Composition of the Human Body). Composición refers here to how human bodies are configured and arranged, but the relation to writing is also invoked, because the history of anatomy is not only concerned with mapping our bodies, but also with generating a language. This textual relation is invoked throughout Legris’s collection in lines like, “The crowded abdominal cavity an anatomical / scriptorium” (“The Lungs and Other Viscera, c. 1508”). Erik Carter’s striking design highlights these relations between body and text, as well to acts of reading and composition, and specifically to pulling back the covers of a book or writing journal. Instead of viscera and vertebrae, Carter’s reworking of Becerra’s open cavity reveals the title of the book, letters still crammed into this pink space, but also coming loose, undone, as the ribs are pried back. Underlying each word is a thick, arterial curve, “the calligraphic race against putrefaction.”
In “Fleshes,” one of the first poems of the collection, Legris writes “Lungs / the destination of all things in multiples of two pilgrimage. Kidney / by kidney . . .” Lungs and kidneys come in twos—as do many other limbs and organs, as do the covers of books—but the word “pilgrimage” stands out. The word bears a clear relationship to destination and carries overtones of a sacred purpose, but otherwise breaks up the grammatical order of these lines. And this matters here because it is the first instance, of many, in this collection, when the expected order of things—language, anatomy—falls apart. In an autopsy, what is inside the body is not only exposed but removed, to be examined more closely. Organ samples may be taken for further examination—and under the microscopic gaze they will reveal the inside of “the hideous hidden” that lies beyond human observation. No seamless repair is possible once this investigation begins, and Legris’s “pilgrimage” signals this fact.
Although technically this is Legris’s first full length collection to be published in the United States, it is worth noting that it is preceded by her slim entry into New Directions’ exceptional pamphlet series. That chapbook, entitled Pneumatic Antiphonal, explores the relation between body and voice, and specifically the anatomy of birds. Throughout the collection, Legris is conscious of her own anthropomorphic slippages, which stem from the temptation to impose a prosodic order on bird songs. (Jody Gladding reflects on this as well in Translations from Bark Beetle.) Take, for instance, the following lines from “Floating Rib #11”—“Reed / to the needle- // billed mouth- / piece. Foot- / spinning / pollinator: / Trochaic”. Hummingbirds, which are also the subject of several other poems in this pamphlet, belong to the family Trochilidae. That name comes from the Greek trekhein, to run, from which we get the metrical term trochee (e.g., POL-li-NA-tor). But floating ribs are features of human anatomy (the eleventh and twelfth ribs to be precise), so what relation can we infer between them and bird anatomy? For one, ribs are vital to breathing, which is necessary for voice. And while these particular ribs may play a smaller role in this function, they rest, seemingly “anchorless,” on the body, in a position that recalls the way hummingbirds look when they feed, like suspended apostrophes. In both Pneumatic Antiphonal and The Hideous Hidden, a reader may be tempted to verify Legris’s use of each anatomical detail and term, but Legris is invested less in the exact science and rather in the recombinations and strange fusions that these investigations inspire and that are inherent in our own language: “Wing- / chime / chimera, / humming / hybrid- / vibratory.) / Trumped” (Pneumatic Antiphonal).
The history of anatomy has been written, by and large, by men, and glancing at Legris’s “Notes and Sources,” I was struck how even the very translations that she consults are translated by men (Keith Waldrop for Baudelaire, John Chadwick and William Neville Mann for Hippocrates and Edward MacCurdy for Leonardo da Vinci). Legris’s act, as a woman, of situating herself within this lineage is both radical and meaningful; from certain angles we might even label Sylvia Legris’s labor as that of an anatomist. Such a status would not replace or contradict her role as a poet; the back jacket copy explicitly draws an analogy between the work of a poet and that of an anatomist, observing that Legris “amputates and dissects, to reveal the poetic potential of human and animal anatomy.” Indeed, practices of cutting, breaking, and fracturing are very much current in contemporary poetry, and have been constitutive practices of the avant-garde for decades. Legris’s interest in etymologies and translation, wherein she traces the movement of a word through time and place, revealing its hidden strata, brings to mind the work of Caroline Bergvall, notably in her outputs Meddle English (2011) and Drift (2014), as well as the “extreme pressures” Joyelle McSweeney exerts in Percussion Grenade (2012) and Dead Youth, or, the Leaks (2014). That Legris activates these practices is not the book’s singular intervention; what stands out rather is that she is doing so through and against a Western history and literature of male body language.
In this vein, Legris may recycle or steal or borrow Baudelaire’s dedication to Les fleurs du mal—“I Dedicate These Morbid Flowers (Baudelaire) . . . to Guy”—but she clearly positions her engagement with his poems and the other (male) texts in this collection as “responses,” a term that emphasizes her voice and agency. For example, her “Spleen” series, in the section “The Sweetly Bred,” may occasionally invoke an intertextual relation to Baudelaire, but these poems are not dependent on a predecessor or original text. Instead, Legris dedicates each “spleen” poem to a flower—hollyhock, papaver somniferum, narcissus poeticus, to name a few—and shapes each poem around different prompts. “Spleen (Papaver somniferum),” for example, is playfully alliterative and assonant, a riff on the flower’s popular name (opium poppy) and its scientific nomenclature. The spleen is a filtration system—cleaning red blood cells and synthesizing antibodies—and in these poems, Legris also considers how the medicinal and toxic properties of these flowers interact with the human body, what kind of damage takes place, what goes in and what comes out. Likewise, the poem “Hymn-Spleen” considers “the unsung oos and ohs” that remain in the body, trapped in the bowels, until the coroner’s knife or processes of decomposition release them: “Bladder–drenched is the city of organs.” It isn’t every day that a poet can pull off a serious poem about excrement, not to mention draw a persuasive analogy between constipation and writing (“Firm earth divertimento. Diverse firmament”), but Legris isn’t interested in sentimentalizing or sanitizing the act of composition. Her poem, and specifically its language, imagines and records “within or without” even the messiest failures of this “complicated riddle of meat” (“Fleshes”).
The Hebrew poet Avot Yeshurun once compared the poet’s relation to language as that between a child and a toy. Only when the toy is shattered, he argued, can the poet hear “the voice of language.” This is one of many examples of how anatomical language and metaphors visibly pervade our (Western) way of thinking and writing about poetry, and shape even the way poets themselves describe their relation to language. In the poem “The Tongue and the Production of Voice, 1508-1510,” Legris reworks Leonardo da Vinci’s notes on the anatomy of the tongue and assumes, as she does throughout this collection, the role of the anatomist, scrutinizing its shape, structure, and texture to determine what these details can tell us about the “voice” of this body: “Note the clipped / fricative, the implicit diction.” But this tongue is also “the severed madrelingua // . . . Neither tether- / tongued nor tongue-tied, an anti-ankyloglossia.” By deploying the term “madrelingua”—mother tongue—Legris’s poem extends these anatomical observations into the areas of linguistic identity and belonging, and further complicates these relations by emphasizing that this “mother tongue” is cut off, displaced, and, in effect, translated from the body to the text.
Ankyloglossia, a condition where the tongue is tethered too closely to the floor of the tongue, can impair trilling and the pronunciation of sibilants. We don’t know from this poem, or da Vinci’s notes, if this was the original condition of this tongue. Rather, Legris celebrates the unmooring that anatomical study has made possible, a tongue released from any attachments—to place, body, language. And it is this condition that allows for new ways of speaking, “the glossy glossal grace”—indeed, it shapes the very composition of these poems. In The Hideous Hidden, Legris performs a poetic autopsy that untethers the language of the body and its “hideous hidden” from the morgue, the medical lab, the anatomy book—spaces from which women for centuries were long excluded—and creates from the history and language of this body her own stranger thing.
Adriana X. Jacobs is Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at the University of Oxford and specializes in modern Hebrew and Israeli poetry and translation.