When the Body is a Guardrail (Kara Dorris)

Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener

Sometimes, I read something, look at a painting, listen to a piece of music—many others get the idea, I’m sure, depending upon how and if folx access what, and when/where folx do so—and it feels, somehow, like someone is standing on my neck at the same time they are providing CPR to break us both free. This experience is in no way sadomasochistic, or confusing, but, rather, redemptive—but not in a savior-inspired, icky, overly dramatic, or corny way. For me, reading Kara Dorris’s When the Body is a Guardrail was one of those times. While each poem deserves its own review, I will attempt to review the book, instead. The collection brought me into its world. Putting the book down, I shook myself, a wet dog, but wanted to keep, paradoxically, some of the non-attachment, having learned something about what Dorris thinks intimacy means—or could. Below, I share some of my immersions.

The book is divided into three parts. The first and third sections are replete with versed poems; the second section, “My Highway of Sure Things,” is an un-ironic juxtaposition of temporal transience and endlessness—a road trip like no other. Each snapshot in “My Highway of Sure Things”—part dreamscape, nightmare, and memory—begins and ends with bracketed ellipses; the notation in between each piece, fragment, or verse, like a desert mirage, is an eight lying down—an eternity symbol (and also the symbol of neurodiversity pride, but that facet may not have been associatively intentional).

If John Sayles’s cinematic mystery/Western/family drama, Lone Star (1996), had a poetry soundtrack, it might be this book. The collection offers us cowboy poetry and folktale, fused whole while broken, in their own brutal kind of whimsy; its landscapes are many and multi-faceted. The Texas and southwestern landscapes, as well as those of an inner world-working, bring hazily yet brazenly forward an indictment of poverty, family violence, and misogyny, and its ever-eager helpmates, classism and colonialism—but this work is never accomplished polemically.

In one of a “handful” of prose poems, “Living as Flood Plains,” the protagonist notes, “You’re right: bombs & tantrums don’t forgive, & we are nothing but bombs & tantrums. Yet, sometimes, can’t we choose to be balms of light & wonder?” (p. 73). The poems draw the reader, all-at-once (and, too, in the poems’ own kinds of arid while humid sedimentation), into welcome, loss, decay, blood, limbs, and limping. In these poems, “breakable flesh” (p. 18, in “Elegy for a Snow Day that Did Not Belong to Her”) summons and indexes familial abuse, and reckons openly with a parent’s addiction and suicide. Myriad horrors co-exist with lines like, “From the light of dead stars that remind us / not everything seen is alive, not everything alive, / seen” (p. 55, in “Elegy for Stone Sisters Sunk into a Father’s Stomach”), that flatten a reader with their wonder, beauty, and intimacy.

Some of the intimacy themes undergirding the work tune into a question of the meaning of intimacy, itself, and the fine, disturbing lines that exist, sometimes, between intrusion and betrayal, when they come up against comfort, expectations, trust, and familiarity. In one of the sections of “My Highway of Sure Things,” the poet asserts at the outset, “[…] dads wander streets inside— / we never knew how many ways / to be homeless / existed within the body” (p. 29). In “By Any Other Name,” readers are put squarely in front of the following memoir-esque lines, the final section of which I am quoting in its entirety:

What do we know about the names we are given?
We know the holes in the boundaries,

to sacrifice the out of bounds glyph over the i
like a firebug caught in the glow of undressed lightbulbs.

We know to walk through the dorr of Dorris is to be alone,
We wait. But searching is a kind of waiting;

it’s the divide between being better as a daughter
& being better as his daughter.

Your brother has always been the better son of everyone.
When he walks up to a crackhouse he ignores

the tagging that reads addicts only. No one stops him.
I guess there is an addict in us all. (p. 61)

Indeed, “Sometimes, what is    is your only option—” (p. 38, part of “My Highway of Sure Things,” beginning with “[…] ducklings hatched”). However, as the book’s concluding poem, “Folding 1,000 Cranes (A Wish),” reminds us, although some if not many of us may feel that we exist, often enough, in a “swirling shitstorm of routine” (p. 75), the following is likewise true:

You forget that wonder can be found even in

what something is not

or not      even pretending to be. (p. 75)

In some respects, the final lines of “Highway Elegy,” the third poem in the collection, presage what is to come in the remainder of the work, and are also the lines to which I kept circling back (I join Dorris in a fascination with peregrination, and with falcons):

With each mile marker, touchless

connections feel more real, all lonely shiver

& hot breath (p. 3).

Families are messy—sometimes, there is a “second Dad,” as many of these poems describe—and families can certainly be (in)famous for their untidiness in terms of resilience, as well. “Survivor” is a character in the collection who may be an animal, a human adult, a human child, prey, all of the above, and/or something or someone else. For the poetic protagonist, motherhood and apricots, mouths and resilience, are all associated with “Survivor.” Biological entanglements and environmental inheritance, and its/their refusal are messy, as well. In these poems, DNA can be linked with or demonstrated by how one eats with ketchup. Here, too, narcotics and emotional spillage co-mingle with all sorts of cloud cover, and the inner environs may be as humid as they are arid—at least some of the time. As Dorris notes, “We listen for waves, but humidity / is as close to wet as we get” (p. 26, from “My Highway of Sure Things,” in the section that begins, “[…] in a circle drinking”).

Crucially, agency is never totally gone, or absented, even in the worst of times and under the most unnerving of circumstances. Agency can be used to undermine as well as to heal. In the prose poem, “Why We Named the Oceans,” the poet connects with “18th century philosophy” (this happens several times in the book), and specifically indexes Novalis (cited later, as well, in the epigraph to “Another Eden,” p. 52), to remind us that worlds are made from words. The poet asks, “What is the world but the words we used to conjure it into meaning? How we remake country & county lines, redefine maps based on geopolitics, patriotism, tectonic plates. We named the oceans so we knew where we sailed, so others could know, could follow. How even you are an architect of your own language” (p. 11).

When the Body is a Guardrail joins the southwestern and Texas landscapes with iconoclastic inner landscapes, to create a world of words that is both hyper-real and its own, badass while compassionate alternative reality.

Editor’s Note: As mentioned in Dorris’s acknowledgments (p. 77), several of the poems in When the Body is a Guardrail appeared originally in Wordgathering.

Title: When the Body is a Guardrail
Author: Kara Dorris
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Date: 2020

Back to Top of Page | Back to Book Reviews | Back to Volume 14, Issue 3 – September 2020

About the Reviewer

Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. A poet since the age of seven, her first full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses, was published in 2018 by Nine Mile Press. Her poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile MagazineWordgatheringTammyQueerlyThe South Carolina Review, and elsewhere; her poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest (Stockton University Press). Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe and Mollyhouse; her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness (Weasel Press). After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Jewish Pantheist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.