In the long limbo of post-viral syndrome, Julia Guez aptly frames the recursive paralysis of pandemic rhetoric, whose seeming transitions always arrive at the same uncertainty: “and then what / and then / what, what / then.” The Certain Body captures life with illness—how the body moves through disease and rests in the liminal space of otherness. Following the speaker through a harrowing and disorienting SARS-Cov-2 infection, readers witness the poet’s gradual refortification as Guez traverses all facets of sickness: its mercies, its pleasures, its gratitudes, its reliefs, its gorgeousnesses. Probing, sharp poems centering an awareness of human ephemerality answer the words of Viktor Shklovsky: “And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” In “If Indeed I Am Ill,” Guez writes, “These sonatas, these scores, tell me / what of them will last when everything falls away—” Through these lyric expressions, Guez shows us not just how art can heal but how healing is art, a modality of acceptance, the meaning in the process, a mosaic of imperfections that creates and embraces what is.
“Meditation at Callicoon,” from The Certain Body
More and more night pretends
it isn’t spring. What to
make of the daffodils then?
Hyacinth here and there, wind
and rain? So many birds.
Of course they won’t stay
long. None of this will.
Not the night, the cold,
the city full of swallows.
Not the bridges and rivers,
the music that they make.
Not the sea, no god
born of the sea foam.
Not even mothers and sons
this would be unbearable without.
In this sublime second collection, Julia Guez makes exquisite patterning from the warp and weft of elegy and ode. The astonishment and clarity of these poems arrive in how they locate themselves within multiple intersecting crises—that of ecological degradation, an unfurling pandemic, conditions of precarity, and failures of the human body and the body politic—to record the velocity and vibrations of grief, and all that grief makes audible. Still, in the face of loss and its erosions, “we / may as well sing,” insists Guez. And what rises, from The Certain Body’s limpid lines, are the warm, charged notes of a collective body, which searches for defiant modes of survival. In this, Guez has fashioned a profound and vital rallying song out of a requiem.
If you put your ear to a conch shell, you might be able to hear one of Guez’s poems whispering at you with ocean’s breath. They feel that intimate, these poems, like secrets harvested from “the small hands of the wind.” Guez’s way with language is delicate and deft, a litany, in the tradition of Lorde, for survival. The Certain Body meditates on the magical and mundane cycle of life, living, death, and surviving in the Covid era. “What will survive of us?” Guez wonders. Let us pray this collection, its beauty, its certainty, its ability to “fix the image in memory,” will outlive us all.
The Certain Body, Julia Guez’s brilliant second book, takes up the conversation between the textual body and the living body, excavating the space connecting the body of memory and the embodied memory. This collection is vivid and alive, utilizing a spareness and precision only possible in the lyric. Love, loss, illness, family, and desire—Guez shows us again and again how a poem can be a blade that cuts to the heart of the experiences we share.
The book itself is a body in the world: breath in long slow shape of breath. True, “the dark is very dark,” and yet a human still wonders how to cope, reaches forward and out to understand better that oldest conundrum, old as Gilgamesh: how do you survive this body when it’s the one thing you can not? I find in these poems neither hope nor the lack of hope but rather something better: awareness and engagement, a willingness to live in the tense current of encounter with the outside world, its plague and thunder, its orioles, bread, and cellos, and of course that realization that “the dark has never been final.