Learning from the Body, Sue Butler
Yaffle Press, 2020 £6.50
All of life
Through her eyes as a poet-doctor, Sue Butler explores the fragile human condition, including birth, illness and death. Her work is perceptive and colourful, deploying rich imagery and a fine sense of immediacy to celebrate all of life, and the departed, whose ‘lives sing in us when they are gone’, as she says in ‘In memoriam’.
The opening piece, ‘The work of women’, sets the tone, focussing on the intricate process of childbirth. The poem is filled with muscular words of the body, ending with a successful birth in the lull of a lullaby in the bonding of ‘the breathy / warmth and chill of mouth rooting for nipple / clutching, letting fall’.
‘Learning from the Body’, the pamphlet’s title piece, is a visceral and compassionate detailing of a dissection class, made more intense by its taking place in a basement room by a busy pavement. Sunlight burnishes the cadaver as it seems to rise towards the midsummer heat while the narrator is made aware of ‘the certainty of death’ like trickled ‘beads on a winter morning’. Life continues beyond, on the street and with a spider resting on its web.
‘Infinitives for his Wife’ recalls a husband’s tender and complex remembrances of aspects of his married life. Through sensory images of his wife’s presence, as she manages daily life, the children, the cooking, the budget, we are told of the struggles of keeping a marriage in play. Finally, in the shocking crescendo of the third stanza, there emerges the horror of a problematic childbirth, culminating in the newborn’s death, as the husband finally drops
onto the bed, her smell on a pillow
your wedding photo
smudged with blood, on the floor.
‘Ways of looking at a Bruise’ is a poem of power. The title, reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, and so seemingly innocent, introduces us to domestic violence.
That moment, bone
slamming into bone,
the bubblewrap collapse
of the flesh between.
Sue Butler’s pamphlet moved me with its range, intimacy and powers of observation.