Whenever I'm stuck for something to write about, I think of the body. One of my favorite writing prompts involves singling out a body part (mine or someone else's) and writing about it. I've written about the mole on my upper lip, the recurring stye I get on my right eye (never my left, for some reason), my hair, women's breasts, Rita Dove's fingernails (spectacular) and my husband's belly. To me, the human body is one of the best landscapes to explore--I never tire of thinking of it, of writing about it, of rescuing it from the easy promises of commercials and magazine ads. The human body is work--but to me, writing about it is the kind of work that's well worth doing.
The idea of rescue was firmly in my mind when I wrote the following poem:
The Middle Finger
Others come to condemn you, but I
come to praise you--your no-nonsense
sense of authority, your rigidity in the face
of foolishness, your pride in flipping off
the buttpinchers, money-grubbers
and backstabbers, all those steal
from the collection plate grinners.
I am particularly fond of mine: long,
articulate, resting spot for the pens
and pencils that sketch the words
and drama that I cherish, humble
co-worker with thumb and forefinger,
nowhere near as arrogant
as the smug ring finger who wags
her certitude over the rest of the hand,
such a drama queen with her
store-bought band. The middle finger
needs no ring to make everyone gasp,
making its point straight up,
no equivocating, just hating,
president of the let me tell you what I
think club, no words needed to show
the most righteous anger in the
fastest way, torch you can light
simply by lifting a finger.
Why is everyone so afraid of you
when you're merely pointing heavenward?
I wrote this poem with the notion in mind that demonizing one finger of the hand is both strange and delightful--why this one finger? Why is the middle finger so scary, so taboo? I like my middle finger; it does exactly what I want it to do. So I wanted to write a tribute to both its strength and its utility, a poem that both recognized and gently mocked its power. I liked that I got in a dig at the ring finger in this poem, which leads me very naturally to my next finger poem. I've seen way too many off those "He went to Jared" commercials not to write a ring finger poem.
Since the human body is constantly in flux--in sickness and in health--there's no limit to the ways in which it can be explored in poetry. The more I write about my body, more fearless I become, the more accepting of its limits, the more respectful of its abilities. The more I write about the bodies of others, the more imaginative I have to make myself become--how do her feet hurt after a day in those high heels? How do his lungs feel after the burn of another cigarette? Writing about the body, I reach, stretch, become limber, looser--a lot more like the person I've always wanted to be.
Allison Joseph’s award-winning poetry looks her own past—and America’s too—squarely in the eye.
Allison Joseph is all grown up—has been for years. But she’s built a reputation for poetry that’s rooted in her childhood and adolescence, both the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. As a black girl coming of age in the Bronx, Joseph had a complex, interesting, and often oppressive world to negotiate. Her poems re-create that world, celebrating some things and indicting others, and they’ve been winning plaudits nationally for this associate professor of creative writing at SIUC.
Joseph's fourth book, Imitation of Life, was published in April 2003 by Carnegie Mellon University Press. A new manuscript of hers titled Worldly Pleasures has won the 2003 Word Press Poetry Prize and will be published next year. A first-place prize in the 2002 Wallace W. Winchell Poetry Competition, announced in February 2003, and other recent top poetry awards from Georgia State University Review and Yawp Magazine (a literary journal whose name alludes to a Whitman poem) have added icing to the cake.