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The Body Problem coverI read The Body Problem by Margaret Wack when I was going through my own body problem. Or, rather, I was going through an unfortunate period in my family life when my apartment—shared with my two kids under two and my husband—was infested by bedbugs. Lots and lots of bedbugs. I read this stunning poetry collection with reverence and awe the day before these bugs were truly discovered, and I’d read it in my bed—completely unaware that, in a handful of days, I would never see that apartment or bed ever again. (And with good riddance, too.) It would only be after surviving this ordeal, and opening this collection in my new home a month later, that I would understand its true beauty and power.

Have I made you itchy merely by invoking the term “bedbug”? That’s the power of language and storytelling, something that Wack also does exceptionally well in her collection. Wack is an excellent poet with a stunning command of language and an impressive arsenal of references—ones which she doesn’t parrot but rather adapts and changes in her poetry. The Body Problem, released by Orison Books in 2023, is a collection that, in my mind, struggles against the reality of the world (and of our bodies) in order to present stunning poetry that ends up being about survival most of all.

Her references are often more highfalutin than mere arthropods—though she, like Audre Lorde before her, does use insects to evoke similar feelings. In Wack’s case, though, it’s not cockroaches or bedbugs but ants. In the collection’s title poem, “The Body Problem,” Wack discusses a character who is like Cassandra with a “mouth full of snakes” and then a body full of “starving ants” (p. 10). It’s these insects, these writhing animals, that make up the body problem for our Cassandra. All anyone can hear from her mouth is chatter, a swarm, a prophecy that makes no sense. And so her problems are ignored, just like the historical and mythic Cassandra’s.

And yet we the audience itch because of those ants. Just a little bit.

That’s Wack’s true power: Cassandra, in mythology, is always the person no one believes. She is the ironic prophetess, the woman screaming that something is wrong and who everyone says is just silly or crazy. In Wack’s poem, we see that the “body problem” of femininity silences her, as she “falls into the void of [her]self” (p. 10)—but we also see the bugs. We itch along with her. (Probably.) And that means, deep down, that we actually believed her. Or rather, our bodies did—and that, Wack seems to posit in her collection, is where knowledge begins.

Speaking about bedbugs is similar. It’s infectious as good poetry is infectious, even if you don’t have or have never had these insects. Not only are you probably now itchy, but you may want to look up information. What do they look like? How common are they? You want more. Your brain wants more. But we are more than just brains, and suddenly, you may see, like I began to see, a certain symmetry to those insect bites (often called breakfast-lunch-and-dinner by specialists); a melody to the way in which suffering is transposed from annoying itches into something with profound meaning; you may even see a prosody in this bug’s neat and efficient life-cycle, so much like a Petrarchan sonnet. This is a scientific language of discovery and treatment, but it’s also a language of poetry and meaning-making. My family didn’t have allergies, but an infestation. And an infestation led to evacuation, led to a strange period of my family’s life in which we had nothing but poetry, nothing but stories, and I found myself turning to these works—to all works of poetry—simply to survive.

Wack’s collection is not merely about bodies or mythology. These are poems about people, ordinary people, dealing with extraordinary circumstances—and all these problems are experienced via the weight of the body.

For example, in her poem “Orison of the Dead Summer,” Wack’s evocative language about orisons—a type of prayer—conjures up images of the ending of a season. She writes that, under the summer sun, the narrator’s “skin sloughs off thin as the shell of an egg to reveal redness underneath,” but instead of it harming her, all of this “burns deliciously / until the flesh itches / and peels” (p. 8). She is obviously talking about sunburn; her prayer is a prayer of pain, of scarring, about the way summer—and its glory and wonder—actually harms us, scars us, but does so that we might remember.

The cliché is obvious here: scars are the stories we keep. I could easily critique this for its almost live-love-laugh mentality, but I can’t. I simply can’t, because Wack’s adverb makes me stop: deliciously. Oh, yes. I can see the deliciousness in the body that has actually broken down, the peeling of skin that is fun, way too fun. There is a sensory pleasure here that we don’t see in a lot of other works that reference those scars as stories. It’s these physical details, too, that elevate the poem beyond mere cliché.

For me, during the summer in which I read this book, there was a bodily pleasure in destroying tiny bugs. The tactile nature of these passages—be it for sunburn or the burn I got from using a steamer—makes me like the cliché of pain being somehow productive. In some of the poem’s subsequent lines, the speaker claims “God watches like a vulture. What is love but / judgment? An endless, desperate looking” (p. 7). And, yes, I couldn’t see beyond my own itchiness, beyond the red bumps that came out as breakfast-lunch-and-dinner, nor beyond my own desperation as I watched my kids become exposed to these bugs and be bitten alive. When my rental company did nothing, it did feel like I was dealing with vultures.

These are dramatic, bombastic claims. But in emergencies, we feel this way. It’s our brain chemistry firing on all cylinders. We really do tell ourselves stories in order to live—thank you, Joan Didion—and, in emergencies, I knew that I could tell two kinds of stories, two kinds of myths: the myth of immortality, where I fail this mission but maybe I am remembered as the person who was the whistleblower in my riddled apartment building, or a myth of survival, where I endure my body and its pain, and I live on.

I wanted to survive the bedbugs.

At some point amid all this, I read Audre Lorde’s poem about her own bug infestation (that brown menace). But I also obsessively read the poem “Iphigenia” from Wack’s collection. The best lines—at least for my own sense of survival—went like this:

You kill the deer
you spill the blood you pay the price and the price is blood,
beloved, nothing else will do. The price is the silver rim of ocean
opening up before you like a bruise. The prize is the future. Nothing
less. A thousand ships process into the glorious golden dawn
and the rocks of Aulis are red in light of the new day. (p. 6)

At the start of the Trojan War, Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon. There are several versions of the story—as with all good Greek myths—but my favorite version, too, is the one where, at the last minute of her sacrifice, Artemis swoops in and replaces Iphigenia with a deer. In so doing, Artemis has killed something she loves, that she desires, but she has done so in order to preserve the “prize” of a future for Iphigenia. That future hurts—but it is also glorious and wonderful, and hopeful. In this version, the story is a myth of survival, not immortality. Iphigenia survives the war rather than becoming immortal as a sacrifice.

I survived, too. Eventually. But it was a lot harder than I imagined, and I think some of this had to do with the act of poetry. Ever since reading this collection, I’d wanted to speak out, reach out, talk like Cassandra with all those thriving ants. And though I did, eventually, get my story told and my family safe once again, I was also left with a bad taste in my mouth anytime I wanted to talk about survival or poetry. When I tried to share with my friend Wack’s poem—this one that I felt had evoked so many feelings about my own struggle—she appreciated me. But Wack’s words were impossible to understand. Who the hell was Iphigenia? Unless you’re trained in classical studies, maybe you just don’t know. And why the hell was a deer so important?

My friend had no idea.

And this ends up being my only criticism of Wack’s work: it’s beautiful poetry, but it is only for a certain subset of people who understand the references and why they are so powerful. For a collection that is so strong and so hinged on as basic a human drive as survival, I was shocked to realise how deep-down intellectual it truly was. As much as I loved Wack’s poetry, as much as it gave me strength to go on, it was also something that, after a few weeks, I forgot beyond baseline impressions. I, too, needed a mythology textbook to verify my own impressions.

To me, it seems like a failure of poetry if we cannot remember it in times of stress. We need those rhymes and rhythm to keep our mind focused and concentrated. It’s how poetry has been used for centuries, especially with children. But I could not find that easy recall in this work; I could not remember all of the beautiful words I had read the day before, probably because they were so intellectualised. You needed a degree in mythology to understand this poem. You need to study that one. You needed to analyse each line, reread it, argue about it. I had wanted to hold “Iphigenia” close as a survival guide, but it could never be that for me. It could only be studied, kept in a museum, immortal.

The Body Problem is, then, a clever and memorable collection about the powers of language and myth, as they are interpreted through the body or the lives of those the collection incarnates as all-too-real people (even if they may have started out as mythological figures). Instead of asking for immortality from the Gods in her work, Wack reverses the claim by removing it as a desire of her speakers in the first place. This is truly where her talent comes into play: by leading us in one direction—the mythic—she creates her own mythology of survival by subverting our expectations with stories that are far more visceral. It does not work for all the poems, and sometimes that payoff takes a degree to obtain, but the beauty remains, even if memory, unlike in “Orison of the Dead Summer,” fades. The book is there to read again and again, which I probably will someday soon, when I am ready.

And when, hopefully, I’m no longer on a bed with bugs inside of it.

Eve Morton is a writer living in Ontario, Canada. She teaches university and college classes on media studies, academic writing, and genre literature, among other topics. She likes forensic science through the simplified lens of TV, and philosophy through the cinematic lens of Richard Linklater. Find more information on
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