How to Wear This Body, by Hayden Saunier

Terrapin Books, 2017

Reviewed by Kim Zach 

Hayden Saunier’s fourth collection of poetry, How to Wear This Body, is a stunning array of artfully arranged poems. From the opening “Performing Heart Repair Surgery at 2 A.M. While Asleep”—”See, there’s no blood. / The skin is a smooth waxy placket”—to the last lines of the final poem “Epiphany With Trash Cans, Ice Pond, and Four Hemlocks”—“what little we are made of—water vapor, temperature, hard clean curve of stone / So little and so much. It sums us up”—, the collection is viscerally captivating. 

With each poem, we are reminded that to live in a body is to live in the world. “Accrual” solidifies the idea that the weight of our bodies keeps us on the earth: “Such heaviness / our bones haul in and hold inside / No wonder we can’t fly.” The only way to escape is death, a theme explored in several poems, and whose images are rendered beautifully. In “Snowblower,” a man dies while clearing his sidewalk: “At first, it seemed the neighbor / had simply leaned back like a child / into a snowdrift of his own making / to look up into the warming sky / Silence now.” 

In “Dear T, Who Overdosed,” the narrator discovers a leftover from the funeral lunch in her coat pocket three months later. She says, “But thanks, my friend, for this bit of bread I throw out / for the churchyard birds and for reminding / me how to wear this body and this same black coat / to funerals and wedding feasts.” 

Other living things meet their end in these poems, too. “Hard Facts (My Cat)” states directly and without passion, “My cat’s not coming back. / Coyotes need to feed / their pups.” This poem is a lyrical feast of hard c sounds: cat, coming, back, coyotes, chicks, cobalt, creeping, crack, creek, call, and cooks. It’s a poem that begs to be read aloud. 

In “A Stab at an Inkling of a Theory,” trees die a kind of death with “sugar maple drama queens / upstaging one another until this year’s / leaves blow down and each tree strikes / its individual pose of regret and desolation.” Even “Asparagus” fades after the season: “And so the day / we knew would come / has come / The bed has spent itself / exactly as it’s meant / to do.”

Saunier’s work also exposes the physical toll life takes on a body. “That Winter” begins, “I labored at life like it was a hard-edged / thing: grim, separate.” In “How It Is With My Father,” the narrator sits with her dying father “watching / his hands worry the sheets.” She asks “if his hands hold the bitter end” and wonders “what forces / hold him—wind, current, tide.” In “Hard Facts (Defensive Wounds)” she writes, “She’s cleaning fish / Old rivers of raised veins / twist down her forearms / through networks of scars / down her wrists to the roots / of her fingers, the palms of her hands.” 

The strong images and metaphors Saunier creates will grab you and, at times, make you gasp at their power. Certain lines work their way into your consciousness. One of her most effective poems, “Small Wish for Last Breaths,” is also the shortest:

May the rag scraps 

that scour

your half-

collapsed passageways

burnish 

and polish

the last

of your light

Into shine.

Saunier’s concise and tender poems reflect on the labor of love and marvel at its scars and other memories. Perhaps my favorite line in the entire collection, from “Riverside Attractions/Terminal Avenue,” is “Long love will wear a body down / But not as fast as no love will.” Truths and images such as these resonate long after reading.