( body love. )
By: Elliott Maya
Joy comes in sallow light, lemon tinted and tart on the tongue. The air is hot on my damp skin; I rise from the waves, slow and sleepy as Atlas beneath the weight of the world. Heavy. Bogged down in the material. Black on white. My skin is an arrowhead against powder fresh sheets.
I rise with Degas’ Laundresses.
I rise with Osun.
Base and unfiltered in lemonade light, sweet in the silence dried against khemetian flesh, nudity is a rarity in this graveyard home, but this does not make it any less precious.
A shift: my chest swells with the blinking pump of my million-eyed blood. Stuccoed eyes are drawn to my round belly, the pert dark nipples, the dark curve of limb and thigh and sex. This body, vehicle of grief beneath my everyman’s clothing, becomes statuesque in the space between reality and musty sheets. Homely – a flesh and blood recreation of the sculptures done of the first women, glorifying wide hips and heavy breasts and open, attentive mouths. This is the body gifted to me in God’s inattentive creative sweep, and though I can never love it, in the bastard child of dawn and day, I struggle to understand it.
Those arms, whose are they? Mine. They are mine.
Those legs, so thick and sturdy! Are they Oak’s? No, no. Still they are mine, gnarled as they are.
That face! Round and squashed, surely it is the forgotten creation of a cruel pot maker? Maybe so, but it’s mine.
Appling cheeks and lips the color of rosedusk, skin hard and brown – born from coal, ground into being deep beneath the red earth of a motherland remembered only in my bubbling blood. All these are mine and only mine and forever mine and always mine.
A vessel. A bottomless vase meant for the filling up of that airy lifeblood called memory. It is not a loverly thing, but in deprecatory acknowledgment I find ownership and possession. This body is me. It will never be anyone else’s. These fingers that curve and stroke; these, too, obey only two letters.
In the morning tartness I am a cat lapping cream. I am an arrowhead of pleasure arching across rumpled sheets, black and bittersweet, at the delicate ministrations of mind’s eye. I am misting between earth and shore.
I am a revelation the angels would have gnashed their teeth to have trumpeted before The Lord.
I am, forever and always, mine.
GUM Editor Linnea Hurst sat down with first-year poet extraordinaire Elliott Maya to chat about their poem, body love.
Talk to me about the references in this poem.
I make references in the second separated stanza, Degas’ Laundresses is two references in one. The Laundresses is a famous portrait by an artist named Edgar Degas. Degas would paint women in these natural settings, like women at work in the laundry washing clothes, he would draw women dancing ballet, stuff like that. The issue with The Laundresses is that he is painting the women under a male gaze, and actually in the portrait there are illusions to male figures in there.
So not only is there this phallic symbolism in the portrait but there are these imprinted male faces in there, eyes watching the women. Even when they are in this feminine activity where they should feel comfortable instead there is always this sense of patriarchal dominance. Degas’ Laundresses is a poem by an Irish Poet Eavan Boland who addressed this issue of Degas who basically painted women into these roles in order to reinforce them.
And that tied into the topic of my poem because a big issue with body love in general is that there are overarching male dominant narratives in America that say, “here is what you should look like as a woman, here is this typical female body, and you need to achieve this. And if you don’t? Well then you are ugly, you are worthless, you need to achieve this no matter how much it hurts, no matter what it costs you.” This is something that, especially when I was younger, I really struggled with, because I’m a big girl, I got big bones. I’m not skinny! All my life it’s been really hard when I have had all these friends that have been stereotypically beautiful. I felt like the odd one out.
But I guess an impetus behind writing this poem was that Grinnell’s own cultural narrative was that people here purposefully go against that expectation that, “you are a girl you should look like this” or “you are a boy you should look like this.” People here seem to be more like, “I am a person, I am going to do what to do what I want to do.” This is something I haven’t really had the chance to consider before coming to Grinnell. So when I got here and was repeated confronted with this idea of doing whatever I want and feeling however I want about myself it was, it sounds cliché, but it was mind-blowing.
Mind-blowing, wow, how so?
I see people around campus who blatantly flout the expectations of their body types. I am like, “yes! Do what you want, wear what’s comfortable and what makes you happy!” I see people like that and I realize I can do it too, it might be scary but…I can do it. And that is kind of where I was coming from in this piece. I am very much a long way off from being one of those people who can comfortably do whatever they want with themselves, but I guess this is the first step in that process. I am addressing issues with myself but I am also claiming them. I am saying, “do I assign myself as ‘beautiful?’ No! But I belong to myself.” I am slowly accepting that fact, and maybe in time I can grow to love what I see and what I am, but I have to own it first.
Yeah, and that is the way the poem moves. At first you see a narrator that is unsure about their body but by the end the narrator is owning it.
Yes, and with the repetition of “mine, mine mine, this body belongs to me.” But in the beginning the poem is more airy, it is flowy, it’s insubstantial because I don’t really know where I’m at, at this point. But as I become more awakened, more concrete in my writing later in the poem, so does my opinion and my ownership and possession of accepting my body.
Yeah, and it is funny because body love with big girls, big booties, that is a recent thing in the media. It is just now becoming “mainstream.” But of course it has been happening for a long time…
The policing of the bodies of women of color is so intense. It is saying, you can’t do this until it is normal, and I guess until it is white beauty. If it’s not white beauty we don’t want it. And now it is like, “oh Iggy Azalea is rockin’ a big booty! We have discovered big booties are sexy!” Stop columbusing! You can’t columbus a whole body type. It’s been a thing, you just were out of it.
Do you want to talk about the references to Egyptian folklore in this poem?
Sure! I make references both to Egyptian folklore and African folklore. So this figure of Osun I reference is an Orisha of the Yoruba culture, she is a deity or goddess. Osun is a figure of beauty, wealth, and fertility. But she is also known for having a terrible temper, but she is patient up until then. So I guess it is almost like a slow lighting candle, something beautiful to be admired but beautiful in the way a wildfire can be beautiful, from a distance. If you get too close you are going to hurt yourself. I just really wanted to pick this power figure, because so often as a default in our culture we reference Aphrodite, or these Greek, Western, pale-skinned figures. And I am like, “no, no, no, that is not me.” That is not the site I am trying to own. Like okay, Aphrodite? Beautiful. But with Osun I’m taking it back to culture, taking it back to roots, I’m trying to own every part of myself.
I also make an explicit reference to “khemetian flesh” in this poem. “Khemet” is an old term for ancient Egypt and the Nile, so it means like dark, like dark soil and dark skin. So I am playing into these ideas of fertility, and darkness, and finding it as something beautiful and against the normalization of light-skinned beauty. Even in the media we try to say, “oh the Egyptians were white!” No, no, no, they were dark. Let’s own that, let’s own every part of it. There is nothing wrong with owning it.
Yeah I only hear references to ancient Roman or Greek cultures and languages, it’s like, let’s get outside of this Eurocentric lens.
But anyways, in this poem you also make a reference to nudity being a “rarity” in “this graveyard home.” Talk to me about those lines.
Basically, on a less metaphorical sense, I am literally talking about myself laying in my dorm room here. I am referencing having a moment of quiet time in the morning, waking up, being naked, and owning it. Seeing myself and saying, “this is okay.” I say my home is a “graveyard” because being nude is not really something you can do in college. College seems like an opening up of opportunities, but there are still certain constraints, and I think a dorm room is one of them. Especially when you are struggling with body positivity, where else are you going to own yourself and say, “these arms these are me! Kinda flabby? Yeah, those are mine.” I referred to nudity here as “rare” because I don’t get that time a lot, but the time I do get is precious and beautiful. I am lucky to have a roommate that is okay with this kind of stuff and is undergoing her own body positivity journey, so we are kind of doing together. We are both experiencing what it is like to be comfortable with ourselves in a private space and be able to take that empowerment out into the public sphere. Because it starts inside, not only inside of your being and inside of your head but inside of these places that are intimately and solely yours. If I can’t own myself in my bed, where I sleep every night, then where can I?
In your poem when I read, “obey only two letters,” I sensed somewhat of a clever double meaning going on. Care to explain?
Sure! Okay so the two letters are “m” and “e,” “me” like mine, but my name is Maya Elliott so my initials are also M.E. So it isn’t just to the word “me,” but it is to myself, in both these cases I am learning to understanding that I don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules about anything about myself. I can make my own rules and my own guidelines, and it starts with me. Literally, M.E.
If you ever start a self-empowerment movement you could name it “M.E.” That is not funny.
Okay, moving on to a new topic, when did you start taking yourself seriously as a poet?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think ever. It is so easy for me to write something and be like, “This is trash!” And I think it still stems from this whole self-esteem thing, I don’t think I can make something that is worth-while yet. But I also don’t think I’ve had the experience of taking myself seriously. And I actually do much better when I don’t! I had a period of time when I was like, “I have to be a serious artist, a serious poet and writer,” but the things I produced felt stilted. I didn’t feel like I was growing as a writer.
The most important facet of writing, for myself, is that I am growing along with what is happening on the paper. It is a kind of transfer. When I learn, my writing evolves, and when my writing evolves, I evolve with it. It is an evolution of self and of my product. In that way, I guess I am my own product, my writing. When I’ve written things not very personal to me I haven’t wanted to share it with anyone, I’ve been too scared. But with something like this poem, which is really personal, I am surprised because this is the most comfortable I am sharing something.
Let’s talk about creative flow, or how poems come to you. Do you have to actively brainstorm or does it come naturally?
It is a mishmash, a mixed bag kind of thing. There are times where I am in the zone and I wake up and I am like I need to write this write now! There are other times when I sink into what I always call the “mental fog,” where I am seeing things and actively participating in things around me but I am not all the way involved, because some part of me is off creating something. I don’t quite know it until it is halfway done. I keep thinking of a phrase and I realize, there is something on the tip of my tongue that I need to get out. I try to figure out how it is important to what I have been seeing and doing, and I find a point of interest, like, “Okay I want to write about this girl right here and what she is doing.” And I transfer that into a body of work.
You sound like a professional poet right now, damn.
Okay, well to wrap things up, is there anything you would like to say about body positivity to all the readers out there?
Just own it. I am 18 years old, I am still a kid in 95% of the word. I am a child! I am still trying to figure out what everything means to me. But don’t keep putting it off, like saying, “When I lose that next ten pounds I will love myself!” Love yourself now. There is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight or whatever, but it is better to love yourself now than to keep putting it off. Because you get to a point where you are so comfortable with this self-hatred that it becomes a rut that is hard to get out of. And people say, “You are beautiful,” but it is hard to take it sincerely because people throw that word around without really understanding it. But just…accept where the sentiment comes from. And even if you don’t believe you are beautiful, just believe that you are valuable.