Reviewed by Zach Groesbeck
When I first read Harmon’s poetry, I was at once captivated and devastated by her work. Harmon’s poems explore the psychological landscape of her personal battle with an eating disorder and self-harm and her ultimate recovery. In contemporary poetry, mental illness and recovery are not obscure, nor are they taboo subjects. The confessional movement opened this door for poets, and as recently as Franz Wright’s Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, which meditates profoundly on similar dark topics and won the Pulitzer, poetry dealing with such themes has garnered wide critical acclaim. Where writers like Wright have turned to space and lineation to confront the despair of mental illness and celebrate the glory of recovery, Harmon looks in a different direction toward the single block prose poem form.
Subtitled “An Illuminated Verse Memoir,” The Thingbody is a sequence of sixty-nine prose poems describing a person’s path to recovery, from diagnosis to the rehabilitation facility. Each poem is untitled and is sometimes accompanied by Harmon’s own disillusioning artwork. All are told from the perspective of a persona identified only as Thingbody, who predominantly refers to itself in the third person. A Thingbody, as Harmon describes it, is a “bodyhating embodied nonperson.”
Noticeable at first reading of The Thingbody is Harmon’s lack of conventional punctuation, preference for compound words, dissonant syntax, long run-on sentences, and use of repetition. One of the collection’s earliest poems begins, “Thingbody thinks these things these things thither thinks these things thither that thinks these things that cannot stop.” Harmon’s style may initially leave readers confused and apprehensive, but careful readers will become comfortable with the unorthodox style, finding that Harmon teaches one how to read the poems. One of the book’s middle poems is indicative of Harmon’s aesthetic:
To be impure subject to decay subject to intrinsic dirtiness decay iteration of utterance or dirty orality. Purity recalls the infinite the godlike this perfect permanence. This perfect permanence this lasting this lasting lasting that which is indicative of purity permanent structures pureforms.
Harmon has abandoned almost all of grammar’s guidelines. While this is a risky move, readers will find that the technique succeeds. The lack of standard sentence structure places the reader inside Thingbody’s psyche, allowing us to feel the disillusionment. Harmon’s removal of punctuation also depicts Thingbody’s existential struggle to assert control. However, syntactically, Harmon’s unorthodox sentences leave room for the inherent rhythms in language to lead readers through each sentence, creating multiple associations along the way, expanding the possibility of meaning. Harmon doesn’t tell the audience what to think while reading; rather, she allows the audience to think for itself.
The earliest poems in The Thingbody are the most syntactically dissonant: “One hundred feet away a TV blares a sonic saturation. Rapevision or / PTSD or clusterfuck horror. Escape to southfacing window while the / others the others the others watch watch watch and play.”
Yet, as The Thingbody progresses, a story unfolds and the narration becomes less cloudy. Though still deeply suffering, Thingbody begins to assert its sentience, affirming itself as a person, by calling out an absurdity:
You have a blue therapy folder filled with worksheets documents forms for neuroleptic consent in font ridiculous font Comic Sans MS and Night Nurse fucking Night Nurse. Much too much Night Nurse asks you fill out your goals did you? Fill your goals each day did you fill your fucking goals today today?
Harmon, in this poem, has switched the narrative perspective from third to second person, coming closer to an “I.” Here Harmon also suggests, for the first time in the collection, goals—a motivation to become well.
Toward the end of the book, the speaker’s word choice suggests recovery and healing. Phrases like “remember spring ” and the word “germinal” imply that Thingbody’s struggles are in the past and that Thingbody is beginning a new stage of life:
Thingbody at window southfacing window where you remember spring you were Thingbody southfacing you remember this window this germinal southfacing. Where you remember spring colonizing delight and you write a maxim in spring at south window facing delight.
Though it may appear that these poems fell artlessly onto the page, Harmon’s verses have in fact been carefully crafted. The Thingbody is an achievement. Clare Louise Harmon has written poetry unlike anything else in the literary canon, conveying pain in a manner entirely her own. These poems will unsettle readers—that’s for sure. But underlying the darkness of the work there is an unquestionable honesty and fearlessness that is relentlessly poignant.
The Thingbody, Publisher: Instar Books, 2015, 83 pages, electronic, $10