Content warning: Sexual assault mentioned
What does it mean to inhabit a woman’s body in a world that tries to break it? This is what Zoë Fay-Stindt explores in their poetry chapbook, Bird Body. Fay-Stindt weaves intricately between birds and the stories of women to shine a light on women’s and femme’s experience in our misogynistic world. Fay-Stindt writes of the speaker’s emotional pain and exhaustion following their sexual assault. Here, healing can take the form of being picked apart by birds even as our speaker is devastated by their own inability to help others with their pain.
Birds, Fay-Stindt appears to say, have levels of meaning and such a depth of representation that even we are birds. Sometimes we are brutal, then too-easily crushed by the world, yet containing within the cages of our ribs wrathful howls and cries of mourning and the ability to, despite it all, keep “opening [our] eyes every morning.” In such exploration, Fay-Stindt offers us the great gift of understanding what it is to survive in our problematic world.
Much of the chapbook is around the assault of the speaker and the emotional aftermath, although the assault is itself never described in much detail. Instead, much of the focus is on the effects and the ways that society compounds them by teaching the speaker to invalidate her own experience, even telling her (when she does begin to write about it in poetry) that she speaks of it too much. Bird Body dives deep into the emotional effects of something that is so innate to many women’s experiences, as 1 out of 6 women in the U.S. face sexual assault in their lifetime and 90% of sexual assault victims are women (“Scope of the Problem: Statistics.” RAINN).
In “that’s it, now” Fay-Stindt compares the speaker to the mourning dove in her grief and exhaustion, imploring the reader to not pity the dove (or, perhaps, the woman) as she weaves laments yet still opens her eyes each morning, holding her “tremor and her great loud voice / in the same body.” This emotional depth and exploration makes clear the impact of an event that many still invalidate, bringing forth shockwaves from the event in all directions so that it can be fully felt—and understood—by the reader.
Bird Body also looks at the way terrible events echo backward, affecting the speaker long before it even happened through the fear women must live with. Through such writings, Fay-Stindt connects us in community, building bridges between us in order to share often overlooked and unspoken experiences. Fay-Stindt writes of the prelude to the rape, “I’ve been training for a lifetime—my body / knows the drill: I won’t yell. Instead, / offer a bargain: not tonight, or I promise / I’ll make it better next time, or I owe you one.” As a woman, this line had a profound effect on me because it touched on something not often discussed; the way that we spend our lives preparing for the possibility of an assault, finding responses to catcalls and men who approach us, finding the ways to battle our own instincts of rage in an attempt at survival. And this prevalence makes it all the more necessary to discuss.
Fay-Stindt expands the examination to include our human fallibility, broadening the chapbook’s relevance for all potential readers. They write in “a robin at the bus station” of the devastating inability in the face of others’ pain to do more than “build beds, soft spaces to land,” and show how our best attempts at help can make matters worse when the speaker accidentally kills a robin in “swallow.”
Yet, as the chapbook explores, there is so much more to a woman’s experience. From their relationship with their mother, to breast cancer, to pap smears, to finding a connection with and healing in nature, to having one’s body picked apart and prodded like it’s nothing more than a vessel, Fay-Stindt touches on much important and often-overlooked aspects of what it means to be a woman or femme in their poems.
But let us not evade how the speaker’s body is treated as a visceral vessel throughout. Their body is picked apart by a heron, washed clean, then squeezed and entered by a doctor during a pap smear. In this way, although both situations are geared toward healing, a comment is made on the objectification of women and femmes as nothing more than a body, how they are treated as such by society.
Bird Body is a vital read since it shows these experiences without flinching away, and makes obvious that you cannot completely tell a woman’s story—or understand it—without showing the grief, the connection to nature, our helplessness to aid each other, our objectification by society, and so much more. Fay-Stindt creates a vibrant, moving ode to women, femme people, and our bodily experiences by shining the spotlight on aspects of our lives that are often overlooked, and in so doing allows us to understand ourselves, and even humanity in all of its cruelty and struggle.
Solstice Black (she/they) is a queer poet and novelist living in the Pacific Northwest. They are currently undertaking a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chautauqua, The Fantastic Other, and A Forest of Words, among others. They hope to pursue an MFA in creative writing and a BFA in visual art in the next few years. Her cat is both her greatest joy and torment.