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Season of the Body: Essays
ISBN:1889330698

By Brenda Miller
Review by: Lisa Johnson

12/01/04

Every time I read Nancy Mairs, she shocks me with raw self-revelation. I go away from her books and forget their unrelenting focus; when I return I am renewed in my commitment to brutal honesty in writing the autobiographical body, and to the usefulness of this genre for developing new philosophies and social criticism. Mairs moves smoothly between personal details and social issues—female sexuality, disability, marriage, the mind-body dichotomy. She hones in on the telling moment and mines it. Indeed, Remembering the Bone House (Boston: Beacon, 1989) models the feminist project of situating knowledge, acknowledging our bodies as the lens through which we view our lives, and the material through which others categorize, evaluate, love, and dismiss us.

The strength of Season of the Body emerges in passages where, like Mairs, Brenda Miller creates sharp narrative pictures of her body in particular moments and postures. In other places, Miller softens the lens and lessens her impact, creating a distance that is not her best work. In all fairness, Miller admits to a certain distance in her style of writing the body, quoting Rainer Maria Rilke:

I want to describe myself
like a painting that I looked at
closely for a long time

Rilke is a favorite for epigraphs and personal ads, but I find his poems lie flat on the page, and Miller’s work at times follows suit, preferring the two-dimensional woman over flesh and blood. Bodies of women in paintings, novels, and photographs mesmerize Miller, and she struggles between her desire to pose like them—graceful and tragic and locked into the viewer’s validating gaze—and the urge to tell her own bare, awkward stories.

The motif of the female body as art object starts as early as the cover photograph:

The composition shows a young woman, all in black, posed against a high, white fence. She half turns toward the camera; her right hand lies tentatively across her heart. . . . A wide-brimmed hat, trimmed in flowers, overshadows the woman’s face, but I can make out the line of her small chin, the pensive set of her mouth.

As I read Season of the Body, I often felt Miller was this woman, only half-turned towards me, holding something back, vague and uncertain. She begins with powerful images from massage school, where her teacher “explained how the muscles cache all the emotions a person suppresses in her life: anger, for instance, lodges in the big muscles of the arms and legs; sorrow lives deep in the chest; doubt drags down the shoulders and bends the spine.” Warm metaphorically-laden moments mirror the reading process: “We cupped one hand on the sacrum (‘holy bone’ in Greek), and stood there waiting for the body’s pulse to beat against our palms.” But then the moment slips away, and the particular becomes general:

Sometimes one person began to cry . . . Sometimes I found my compatriots weeping in the bathroom . . . My own crying I often did in the car on the way to and from the classroom, gazing blearily at the passing scenery

This turn to the general (“sometimes,” “often”) feels like a loss of traction.

In describing the inevitable numbers conversation with a new lover (how many before me?)—a funny, human, poignant essay topic—Miller again softens the focus of her narrative gaze, replacing a single man with a more distanced “they”:

And so I took off my clothes so they could see me better, and I lay down on the bed (the sofa, the floor) so they could touch me better, and I opened my mouth so they could taste me better. I said the names. I revealed my scars to them, one by one, those carvings in stone, that text in the flesh, and invited them to read, to study, to learn.

Despite her poetic nakedness, this passage ultimately holds back, disguising the vulnerable body of the single event with the gauzy covering of a pattern, a thing that happens regularly, something she’s got a handle on. Miller speaks of herself in third person, recounting the end of a relationship as if it were a painting:

I see a woman sitting on the back steps, in the sun. Her knees are drawn up against her chest; her chin rests in her hands. She stares intently at the back fence, so that she doesn’t see, or even hear, the screen door opening, the man stepping onto the porch behind her. His hand touches the back of her neck, so gently, and the woman nods.”

Opting for disembodied portraiture, Miller abandons the moment and the reader’s connection to it.

More compelling are the moments when Miller lets me see her clearly, thirty-eight years old and lying in bed in broad daylight “with a small lavender pillow over my eyes, like the old woman I think I’m becoming,” fretting over the pictures on her fridge and what they might reveal to the date she’s expecting for dinner. But the tendency to “assume a Matisse-like pose, all line and gesture,” insists on distance. While women have been answering Helene Cixous’ call to write our bodies for several decades now, we still struggle to do each story justice, as Miller herself confides: “I’m learning there are limits to what can be told, even in languages we think we know so well.” The language of the body is no exception. And we cannot be distanced in those languages.



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