Are there nuanced steps—complicated travels—between the shapes of vulnerability and viciousness, prey and predator? How do we, as humans, form these shapes when we face loss? These are only a few questions that arise from Reese Conner’s debut poetry collection, The Body He Left Behind (Cider Press Review, 2021). An homage to Conner’s father and his cat Lewis, The Body He Left Behind provides a unique space where animalistic movements initiate a poetic voice that calls attention to the way grief, love, or violence can shape us just as tangibly as our own bones.
The Body He Left Behind pulls from a kaleidoscope of observances about human and animal nature that weave together so interchangeably throughout the collection’s five parts that they seem causal and interdependent. In repeating images of toothpicks, rubber bands, spillages, and balsa wood, Conner constructs human and animal bodies according to a material vulnerability, thus exposing the way that humankind stands to bind both themselves, and the nature surrounding them, to a physical compartmentalization and self-imagined organization. “The Rapture”, for instance, illustrates a vomiting ocean as analogy to our view of an exposed human materialism: “a gentle murmur / spread in the bellies of the observant, / who saw even the ugly things begin to ascend—blobfish, Smart Cars, murder weapons, every issue of Us Weekly—and they began to think: / What about us?” In “The Necessary”, Conner points to the losses that occur at the intersection between nature and humanity’s material constructions: “if roads, cars, and quick commutes / mean one, two, one thousand dead cats, then / the choice is still clear: It would be far too expensive, / not to mention logistically irresponsible, / to make cat-retardant roads, so, of course, / a run-over tabby or two is necessary / unpleasantness.” By so clearly pointing to the downfall of human efficiency, Conner makes congruencies between human and animal survival—both of which, at times, reach towards the same beauty—the same menace.
Throughout The Body He Left Behind, the tricky intersection between nature, nurture, and survival becomes the similarity between humans and animals. The need for humans to build their world, to frame the bodies of other people, holds the same mindset as a cat with a dying chipmunk, urging its prey “[t]o move differently, / willing her back to the life he took / so that his purchase / might be made again”. Similarly, the way emotions are sharpened, changed, and buried within a person’s mind holds the same survivalist instincts as a cat licking the cyst on his forepaw: “It is the logic he knows, but it will not work. He’ll lick. It will blue… He’ll lick. It will burst”. The speaker of this collection not only acknowledges these similarities, but takes ownership in the connection, confessing, “I am the reason / the cat, domestic and heavy / with wet food, still kills the cockroach—tears it limb by limb by limb, by limb… Forgive him, he is a violent shape.” In weaving between these images, Conner grants all the room necessary to air the true dichotomy of violent shapes in our world, creating ruminations that ask whether, “desire, even with menace / has meaning”, “how many monsters suffocate / the things they love, and how many / call it kindness,” or if “Frost was right about gold, / about every type of happiness ending / in a quiet violence.”
The dichotomies in The Body He Left Behind not only lead to a forgiving tone throughout the collection, they contribute to a dynamic contemplation about the self and its relationship to loss. As the speaker ruminates on the death of their father and the passing of their cat Lewis, they also question how one reacts to an encounter with impermanence, and how there could ever be a right way to do so. This is particularly prominent in the poem “Thank You,” when the speaker notes that their father: “received the bag / full of Lewis, / who, / like all dead cats / that are carried, / became broken rubber bands / heavy as ball bearings, / and said thank you / as if it were a kindness / to yank a dog / from the cat it killed, (13-21).
Speaking to another loss in the title poem “The Body He Left Behind”, the speaker moves from the act of politely concealing emotion in “Thank You” to describing the adamant desire to let go of a loved one’s image: “It’s time to let go / of the body he left behind, / the one that’s lodged / in your eye like a floater…Yes, it’s time to let go / of the body he left behind. / It’s lodged / in your throat—you mistake it for breath.” It is the struggle to both intimately feel and pull beyond the absence of a loss, the stress in both knowing of an end and ignoring it, that Conner places as a centerpiece in his work. In recognizing the loss of their cat Lewis, for example, the speaker comes to the bittersweet understanding that, “My father told me the saddest stories / are not about broken things—no, the saddest stories are the happy ones / told in past tense because we know everything is broken and we have to see it untouched first, we have to do the breaking ourselves.” By so dynamically illustrating the feeling of recognizing a goodbye that is already in the room, Conner looks unflinchingly towards grief, while also allowing it to hold its own gentle, dismantling character—just as humans, just as animals. “I am lonely for my father,” the speaker says in “Bring Flowers to What You Love.” “I am lonely for my cat” they say in “Lost Cat”. These statements, if any, encompass The Body He Left Behind—they speak to the violent, beautiful impressions humans and animals trace into one another and the way naming that impression, claiming it, is powerful for the same reason naming a cat is: “because naming a cat / does not make him ours, / it makes him us.” Conner’s work shows us how we do that naming, over and over again.
Hannah Olsson holds a double BA in Cinema and Creative Writing English from the University of Iowa. During her time in Iowa, Hannah was the president of The Translate Iowa Project and its publication boundless, a magazine devoted to publishing translated poetry, drama, and prose. Her work, both in English and Swedish, has been featured in boundless, earthwords magazine, InkLit Mag, and the University of Iowa’s Ten-Minute Play Festival, among others.