Tuesday
Oct062015

BodyHome

By Chelsey Clammer


 

Hopewell Publications
March 2015
978-1933435497


Reviewed by Nicole Sheets


 

There are many different ways to create suspense in an essay, and one of them is to set up a fevered choice among three dildos.

While BodyHome is, at least in part, a book about writing, Chelsey Clammer schools us early on that it's not only language that's taken into the self. The textual is never too far from the sexual. In her essay "Objects of Desire," Clammer recalls a Dean Koontz novel with a sex scene she read so many times as a teen that she memorized it. Of her sexual formation, Clammer also quips, "My 'learn about sex' book didn't explain how to feel around for the g-spot." And she asks us to consider the dildos—"a blue sphinx, a silver dolphin, or a pink rabbit"—while she delays gratification until the essay's finish. Clammer's sense of pacing can be right on, such as the factoid, "dolphins have orgasms," dropped in its own paragraph weighing which creature to choose (point: dolphin).

Here as elsewhere, Clammer takes risks with the form. In this case she unfurls several lists, such as "accoutrements used in attempts to get off" or injuries sustained while masturbating. While the items are often adventurous (candle, Sharpie, beer bottle), the bullet-point formatting is too Microsoft-Word-default, too vanilla. And the lists can go a bit haywire, as in the essay "Restricted." The essay's content is compelling, as Clammer contrasts the mother's Jazzercise practice, the strictness of various diets, and her and her father's own struggles with food. But the lists don't always play by the same rules, creating unnecessary distraction.

BodyHome is a book with painful passages and dark turns. Clammer chronicles the many ways "[her] body tried to survive itself," surviving bulimia, cutting, alcohol abuse, sexual assault, and her complicated grief after the loss of a father and grandfather. One of the strengths of the book is the way Clammer shines a light on her own trials and the sufferings of others. In "Howls," for example, we learn that the 15-year-old Clammer would be sent to talk to her father during his many suicide threats. We also find out about the father's crippling, chronic pain and his ambivalent attitude about parenthood. Clammer doesn't excuse the father's emotional distance, drinking, or self-destruction, but the essays reveal her attempt at understanding and empathy.

"Linda," one of the strongest essays in the collection, is named for a schizophrenic woman at a care facility who's a notoriously tough case. Clammer is primed to fear Linda's outbursts, but the two become allies. The essay could come off as self-congratulatory about Clammer's heroic listening, but it's both tender and dramatic, and I wondered whether or not Linda would detonate. Clammer reveals her own vulnerability as she worries about Linda and other patients seeing her self-inflicted scars.

For all its dark corners, BodyHome has plenty of humor, such as Clammer's ability to "metaphor the shit out of" just about anything. She describes herself as "a person who can get addicted to and fixated on anything that is a noun," be it vodka or ultramarathons. There's a lightness to Clammer's tales of coming of age and coming out. In "Seven," she chronicles "the first indication of my big gayness," a fantasy of comfort from her second grade teacher, "a time when I would fall asleep, wrapped up in blankets and dreaming about Murphy Brown/Ms. Gray holding me close and kissing my forehead."

One surprise of BodyHome is that we don't get more about Clammer's husband. (This is not really a spoiler. A husband is referred to early in the book without commentary, so we expect him to return with some explanation. And the big arc of the collection, as the title suggests, is the peace Clammer makes with her own body.) I wasn't quite prepared for Clammer's jump from a self-identified "vaginatarian" to a "hasbian" bisexual, and a married hasbian at that. Clammer presents herself as someone who's not particularly interested in tradition, so why does she decide to marry? Perhaps the abruptness with which this is treated in the book is mimetic of how it happened for Clammer and her guy. Even so, I can't help wanting more of the story.

I admire Clammer's frankness and the risks she takes with content and form. Sometimes these essays lean too heavily on the idea that a relationship or breakup is de facto interesting. And don't get me wrong: getting caught making out with a girl in a Souper Salad bathroom is interesting. "Your Lesbian Haircut" and "Sarah" offer experiments in point of view and weighty stories, the kind a friend might tell you over the second round of beers. But there are also flashes of a show-and-tell bravado that I wish were dialed down in favor of more layered writing.

The texture of the prose is, at times, uneven. In "On Ecstasy," some descriptions are needlessly complicated, like "[t]highs swishing against skirt swishing against thighs. Tactility waves hello to itself." Yet this lies alongside the youthful, jubilant rambling of the high ("[e]ven my toes, even my tongue all hum right along to the tune of those ecstatic fuck yeah! chimes dancing in my eardrums") and a crisp self portrait ("This is me: Eighteen. High on ecstasy. Outside under huge plops of stars.") The essay conveys a brief, bittersweet moment of connection with Clammer's father over a midnight cigarette. Though Clammer is a word person, there's no recollection of what the father actually says, just a memory of the contours of him "speaking to me for the first time like a dad speaks to his daughter. This is what love must feel like . . ."

Throughout BodyHome, Clammer exults in the flesh made word. She examines the ways she metabolizes stories and words, how she stores them in the library of her body. Clammer is not afraid to admit some naiveté as she tries to replicate what she finds in books. In "Diving In," she cruises an antiquarian bookstore to better understand a fictional character, and she smokes a 4 a.m. cigarette because "there's an essay in which the narrator does what I'm doing." Other obsessive readers will relate to Clammer's blurring of language and life, as she can know a book so well that eventually "[t]he reader's life lives the text. There is no need to read the book. It's in you." Clammer has a book full of reasons for keeping up her guard, yet time and again she embraces "the vulnerability of letting a story inside." It's with the raucous, fierce love of language that Clammer makes of these essays a home.