As she explains in her memoir chapbook For When the Shapes Keep Changing (Neon Hemlock Press, 2021), Hannah Soyer wishes her body could speak for itself. “I want my body to be able to talk to me,” she explains, “with words that my mind can comprehend.” For instance, she sometimes struggles to identify, let alone articulate, subtle shifts in her symptoms, highlighting how simple questions do not always have simple answers—not when it comes to the body. Her relationship to her sexuality manifests in a similar way: even at times when she struggled to understand her attraction to women, her own past writings made her realize that “[her] body still knew.”
This chapbook lives in a luminous space between these uncertainties within her body, and the language she conjures to articulate them. Although often describing the unclear and perplexing nature of disability and queerness—experiences we typically see in the form of stereotypes and binaries, narratives that revolve around discovery and overcoming ambiguity, rather than embracing it—her telling of these experiences is skillfully detailed and illuminating for the reader. Illness and desire do not always produce the resolutions we expect, Soyer notes; rather, it can be destabilizing. Treatments may only produce “a hazy feeling of uncertainty,” despite the optimism of those around her. Likewise, naming our identities may not make our feelings any clearer.
For When the Shapes Keep Changing is separated into three chapters, each presented as an extended, evocative essay. The essays themselves are fragmented into smaller pieces, examining the narrator’s past and recent medical experiences, including the complexities of care during the pandemic, as well as her relationships with romantic interests, family, and helpers who assist her with daily tasks.
Each of these smaller sections begins with one or two lines pulled from the following text, formatted like poetry (italicized, un-capitalized, and sometimes with line breaks). These lyrics act in the book’s structure to evoke the intimacy and gray space connoted by poetry, a genre sometimes more comfortable with uncertainty than nonfiction. Soyer, however, locates that ineffable space within her prose narrative.
One of the most unique elements of Soyer’s narration is her ease at describing her own self-distrust. Early in the book, she compares her “hesitance” towards embracing a PTSD diagnosis to her suspicion of others’ attraction to her. Her body is the space where her trauma, often related to her illness, and her desire not only collide, but feed on each other. “Isn’t the fact that, after a breakup, I throw up morning after morning evidence of me trying to leave myself?” She wonders, while musing on “moments of departure … that leave me no longer in my body” that she identifies as a potential response to trauma.
These intertwined themes are examined not only in the context of romantic relationships, but in the relationships she has with her helpers and family members. The lingering trauma of being left by her mother during an early medical procedure. The necessity of others’ care, and the abuse it may facilitate, as well as the closeness and potential of “care collaboration” it fosters. The contradiction of the synonymous terms caregiver and caretaker. Through such lenses, she explores the complexity of entrusting your body to others out of necessity, and balancing that trust (and betrayals of it) with desire. Perhaps any relationship requires some degree of this risk, but Soyer’s vulnerable writing shows how the stakes are amplified for marginalized individuals, particularly people with disabilities.
“Words can only do so much,” she writes. On the surface, Soyer frequently shows us how language has failed her. She draws our attention to it. At one point, she notices herself reaching for phrases that “soften the edges of what we can expect from language.” For many writers, making that statement would be like staring into the sun. We tend to view language as infallible, whether we realize it or not. We avoid challenging it because the nature of writing makes us rely on language. However, Soyer reminds us that there are places language cannot reach. The unique power of this chapbook is in how she vocalizes the blurred spaces, the uncertainties, of the body.
Laurel Elizabeth is a writing tutor and success coach for Kennebec Valley Community College’s TRIO program, where she recently earned an associate degree in liberal arts. Additionally, she is a graduate of Vassar College’s Exploring Transfer summer program, and aims to begin a BA in English this fall. An emerging writer and aspiring English teacher, she has a special interest in the role of creative empowerment in education.
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