Review: The Call to Empathy in Elizabeth Garcia’s Stunt Double: A Seminar in Three Bodies

March 14, 2019

By Tyler Chadwick

Elizabeth Garcia. Stunt Double. Georgetown, Kentucky: Finishing Line Press, 2016. 31 pp. Paper: $14.49. ISBN: 9781944251833.

 

Preliminaries

Prose will not capture some people, the way

they drift. (1)

 

Hence, poetry: movement, flesh, breath. Poetry drifts among bodies, anticipating arrival on the tongue, in the ear. Give it place. Let it breathe. Let it speak.

 

     i. Stunt Double’s Drifting Body

Drifting bodies inhabit Elizabeth Garcia’s 2016 chapbook, Stunt Double. From the opening poem—a sestina circling the narrative of two women traveling (and travailing) cross country, feeling their way toward wholeness and home—the collection’s bodies ache to settle into communion with other bodies, mad for the sounds and shared silence of deep fellowship. A young mother slips into a station wagon packed tight with the past and accompanies her husband into the unknown of his dreams. The poet’s father escapes into the flickering TV glow of Daniel Boone during an EKG. Wonder Woman’s first stunt double, a hairy-chested man “packed into spandex,” runs his mind over memories of his mother—watching her pull on nylons, listening to her sing as they swam—while he prepares to shoot a scene then while somersaulting off a roof (8). Eve laments the “delicious bite” that invoked the world in which she finds Abel dead (11). The poet imagines pausing the world, halting people in the midst of life-as-usual so they’ll notice the mourning of and mourn with her friend who has just lost a child. Newly wed, the poet wonders “how long” it took Eve “to turn // toward”—instead of away from—her nascent hunger for Adam (24). God, “as intern” to his father, tinkers with the stuff of Life, exploring the problems and the promise of bringing matter together to shape new cosmic bodies (29).

Along the way, Garcia’s words unfold like seeds. Let them settle into your silence. Let them crack the husk of your body. Let the poet’s desire, the poet’s otherness—like breath—part the soil of your lips.

 

     ii. The Empathic Body

Moving among other bodies, other lives, Stunt Double takes up the work of empathy. Garcia frames the book in these terms with the epigraph: a short excerpt from German-Jewish philosopher Edith Stein’s 1916 dissertation On the Problem of Empathy.[1] As “the experience of foreign consciousness,” Stein argues, “empathy is a kind of act of perceiving” that stands apart from acts of sensory perception. It doesn’t simply emerge from the body’s interpretation of sensory phenomena, a process that overwhelmingly (and mercifully) unfolds in the background of conscious activity and understanding; rather, empathy calls us to actively construct an understanding of the Other’s “psychic life,” to feel our way into the Other’s experience of the world (11). As such, the call demands our consistent and deep imaginings.

Stunt Double’s tenth poem, “An alarm sounds at Barnes & Noble” (14)—the meditation at the heart, the numeric center of the collection’s lavish 19-poem body—feels after a soul-rending, body-wrenching perceptual shift that seems to escape the crowd of customers milling around the bookstore when an alarm pierces their browsing.

From rows and rows of books,

voices clatter like telegraphs,

the ceiling screeches jazz, a tinny horn—an alarm  

peels out of the trumpet like an osprey,

circling its wounded mate, the circular song

it scries, vibrato-long, you’d think it would shatter

the glass of the lake below, a giant

burst of moths into the sky.

Yet, when the alarm stops, suggesting the end to whatever crisis it meant to signal, the store’s occupants simply return to their books. The “glass of the lake”—the apparently serene scene of middle-class consumption—remains unshattered. There’s no employee urging evacuation, no emergency response, no inquiry into what happened, no request for assistance, no rushing to another’s aid. Just the shoppers settling back into the ease of “inertia”—save the poet, for whom the alarm invokes an avian relationship disrupted by suffering. Despite the status quo pulling the human world toward business-as-usual, despite the human desire “willing [Earth] to keep / centripetal force,” to hold us to her surface with her consistent spinning, and despite the naïve hope that things will continue as-such because, some may think, “she wants to stay this way forever” (as if Earth could just ignore entropy), nothing is permanent. All is vanity. Suffering, loss, and death touch all of us in vital ways.

In that paradox, I think, is the rub: when we turn away from the suffering that surrounds us, when we seek to escape the inevitability of loss and death—whether via constant distraction, unchecked self-concern, or active ignorance—we neglect an essential aspect of existence and reject life’s abundance. Yet, when we open ourselves to life’s messy, complicated realities, when we meet suffering eye-to-eye and seek to address the body in pain (in spite of our ultimate inability to address pain) without dismissing that body’s suffering or taking it lightly, we deepen our reserves of emotion and experience and can become more grounded, empathic beings. So rooted in the grace of difference, we can also become more capable of sustaining and advocating for the emotional, mental, social, and spiritual well-being of others.

While Garcia meditates on this work throughout Stunt Double, she can clearly be seen putting on the empathic body, performing the somatic labor of imagination and compassion, in the poem that follows “An alarm sounds at Barnes & Noble”: “What I will now do for you” (15). Inscribed “to my friend who has lost her child,” the poem suspends the world at the moment of loss. The opening stanza seems intended to entangle readers in the scene—and so doing to invoke an experience of a mother’s grief—by involving them in the embodied processes of language-making. Consider in this regard the immediacy of the first line: “Nurses slam into gurneys.” The image of bodies colliding with objects is forceful enough to draw attention, but, as I read it, the line’s sound structure amplifies the image’s potency. It greets readers with the stamping trochee of “nurses,” which we can either slide into “slam” or accentuate by pausing after the terminal ‘s’ before mouth-punching the second word; then it softens the statement’s pulse with “into” before calling upon the guttural heft of “gurneys.” With its opening and closing rumble and the verbal force of “slam” in between, the line’s sonal ecology grounds its utterance in a reader’s chest. So doing, it can be understood as emphasizing the body as the grounds of language-making and thereby as a channel for feeling our way into and responding with wisdom to others’ stories.

Readers are thus primed by the line to participate in the embodied work of empathy, which unfolds further in the opening stanza via long lines that detail the paused moment with an expansive list of stopped-in-their-tracks happenings:

Pills sprinkle the air. Red Jello Rorschachs

stain the walls, outside, a lady and her dog are tangled

in the trees, the leash gone limp, the chubby cop and the thug

with droopy drawers cling to the wire fence like wilted

laundry, and in kitchens everywhere, cooks have lopped off

fingers, the sous chefs swim in a sea of metal, pots and pans

chiming their confusion and in some hotel, a pair of lovers

thinks they’ve reached some out of body free-fall, and they

splash, tractor trailers grind and twist on the highway in some

slow angle, cars thrust forward, drivers pump their brakes,

splay their hands, their noses against the glass to see

the whole world floating,

some apocalypse.

As the pacing of the list interacts with the long lines and the imagery of this interrupted world’s floating debris, the poem’s language can be read as approximating the moment’s chaos. As such, it may cause your pulse to quicken, your breathing to stumble. It may offer you a limited sense of the cataclysmic disorientation (the “apocalypse”) that accompanies deep loss: a shift in being that ruptures—and in the process demands revision of—Self-, world-, and/or Other-consciousness.  

Seeking to share her friend’s burden by inviting readers to experience and think deeply about a moment of loss and desperation and leaving them “hanging” in that moment (like a bereaved body is left hanging in sorrow), the poet positions readers to mourn with the mourning mother. She can be seen asking us to use our textually-mediated encounters with despair to “relearn [our] bodies”—how it feels to be broken down, stripped of control and hope; how it feels to be overtaken by grief; how to “maneuver” through what must feel like interminable and reiterative emotional, physical, social, and spiritual disruption. And then how to turn that deepened somatic awareness toward fostering meaningful, sustainable relationships with and among those who mourn, who stand in need of comfort and compassion.

 

     iii. The Body of God

To bear one another’s burdens, to mourn with those who mourn, to weep with those who weep is to witness the sanctity of the Self. It’s to be invited into the depths of a foreign consciousness, to make space in a relationship for the soul in raw, in extremis. Entering this space, you approach primal burnings: the impulse to turn away from discomfort, to weep when confronted with deep need, to turn toward the bodies we sense can sustain us through that need, to reach for abiding connection. Like Moses approaching the burning bush, honor the holiness of any invitation to approach. Take off your shoes. Resist the urge to trample the ground of the Other’s desire and experience, the Other’s suffering by subsuming them in your own experiential field. Listen, rather, to their story as their story not as the antagonist or subversion or reinterpretation of your story. Granted: their story may disrupt your story, expanding or overturning your assumptions about life and suffering and finding joy. But we shouldn’t, I’m convinced, fear or turn away from such disruptions. After all, doesn’t the work of godliness entail the soul-wrenching, always unfolding acts of opening the Self to Others? Don’t the gods as we see them acting in Latter-day Saint scripture model the unruly yet redemptive work of empathy?

I think of the allegorical God in Zenos’s vineyard working and weeping with and learning from his servants.[2] I think of Alma bearing witness to the people of Gideon that the Son of God would someday go forth in the world suffering as humans suffer so he might know—through the deep, embodied imaginings we call the atonement—how to be-with us as we wander the grounds of our personal and communal infirmities.[3] I think of the God in Enoch’s theophany: a being of such emotional depth and concern for humanity and our individual and collective well-being that he weeps when he sees our individual and systemic failures to be-with and strengthen each other in our shared mortality.[4] I think of the Gods’ creative work as narrated in the Book of Abraham—of Their intense collaboration and deep patience with one another and the materials of Their work, characteristics that can be seen flowing from shared Self- and Other-understanding, desires, and objectives forged through aeons of opening Themselves to and receiving other material and immaterial bodies.[5]

Wrestling with these God-concepts, I hear in them the call to mirror in my own being God’s radical openness to and sense of obligation for the Other. I’m drawn to honor my encounters with deity, whose presence in our sacred narratives exudes Otherness, by feeling my way into God’s psychic life. Stein argues that, just as such imagining allows God to comprehend our lives, it also provides a channel for people to “grasp the love, the anger, and the [precepts] of [their] God” (11). Enoch’s response to God’s weeping illustrates the embodied nature of such comprehension; as the narrative states, Enoch “wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook.”[6] This deepened consciousness isn’t just spiritual understanding or intellectual assent to someone else’s ideas but a visceral glimpse into the sphere of eternal beings and the nature of godliness. It’s bone-deep identification with God’s longing, God’s experience, God’s posture toward the universe.

By framing Stunt Double as an exercise in empathy—especially as a mode of comprehending and developing God-consciousness—and by welcoming readers into the experience of other bodies and lives with her poems, Garcia can be understood as inviting us to put on God’s posture. While I see this process unfolding across the poems in Stunt Double, it doesn’t appear specifically in relation to God until the end of the collection, where it can be seen at work in two poems: “Adjusting” (24–25) and “God as Intern” (29–31). In “Adjusting,” the fourth-to-last poem, the speaker calls upon the Eden narrative—addressing Eve’s place therein, specifically—to frame a young wife’s wrestling with the practicalities of marriage (e.g., where to put the accumulated stuff of two lives, how to share a bed with another body, how to adjust to a new name) and of her budding conjugal desire. Imagining Eve’s response to these demands, which threaten to swallow the wife’s selfhood and to overwhelm her history, the poet shows our Archetypal Mother honoring her intuition—her body’s deep wisdom—by eating fruit from the knowledge tree and, in the process, reaching “to touch God’s [outstretched] hand” (25). While Eve’s trust in her own spiritual authority transgresses God’s directive not to eat, it also opens her to increased self-understanding, Other-consciousness, strength, and confidence: as she “devour[s] the Memory in [the fruit’s] flesh” (25)—it having emerged from a tree nurtured to maturity by the Gods and, by implication, infused with the Gods’ history and fidelity to life and growth—she internalizes her heritage and potential as daughter of divine beings and can be understood as feeling her way into and maturing toward godhood. Positioning the young wife as Eve, seeking and seeing anew as she stretches to connect with God through life’s messy, complicated realities, the poet seems to invite us to feel after and sit with the traces of godliness moving through our own being and desires.

These traces surface in the collection’s final poem, “God as Intern,” which presents a younger deity learning the craft of godhood from his father. The poet encounters this God-in-process via the “half / light” of dusk. Meditating on the inbetweenness of this transitional phase when the earth hasn’t yet turned us completely from the sun, she speaks to her sense of being “caught” in this liminal condition, “this waiting,” which is neither beginning nor end and an end giving way to a beginning. The interlude invokes a question: “Did the first of these / bring nostalgia,” she asks, “a yearning / more for past worlds / or the next?” Sitting with wonder, she settles at the beginning, where “evening came first,” darkness being (per Genesis) the primordial soil out of which life emerged in response to God’s call (29). In the light on the flipside of that darkness, the poet sees an exhausted God “napping on a crooked elbow, / dreaming of formulas” after he’s wrapped up “the great project” (29–30). Her desire to return to and observe our mythic beginning becomes an act of empathy as she imagines the drain God’s creative work may have had on his being (extrapolating, no doubt, from her own experience working through big projects).

She doesn’t stop there, though. No, she traces the Maker’s creative aptitude back to its beginning, asking after the potential failures and “paternal tips” that marked the path to mastery (as failures and feedback will always accompany the work of learning). “[H]ow many scraps did it take / to learn measure twice, / cut once?” she wonders. “How many crooked bookshelves,” “how many drafts,” “how much forgiveness / before mastering” the theoretical and applied physics of the Makers’ world-making (30–31)? I hear echoes of Joseph Smith in this reckoning of God’s apprenticeship: “You have got to learn how to make yourselves Gods […] the same as all Gods have done—by going from a small capacity to a great capacity, from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, […] from exaltation to exaltation—till you are able to sit in […] everlasting power and glory as those who have gone before.”[7] Populated with gods (née humans) who have learned how to be gods by observing, identifying with, and being mentored by the divine beings who have gone before, the Prophet’s “divine anthropology” (as cultural historian Samuel Brown calls it)[8] opens toward a view of apotheosis as a function of empathy. To become gods, this theological system assumes, we must ground ourselves in principles of Life and grace as well as in our divine heritage while at the same time opening ourselves to the presence of other bodies (including cosmic, divine, and human bodies) as they move at the margins of our experience; then we must feel our way into that experience and allow those bodies and their experience to influence and revise our being and desires.

Godhood is not a closed system in which gods seclude themselves from the chaos of an always emerging universe and shun their children who seek to navigate through, make meaning with, and find belonging despite the chaos. Rather, per Latter-day Saint theology, the gods participate in the cosmos’ perpetual emergence, holding out resources for relationship- and world-making that promise to carry us beyond our limited stories into more meaningful, sustainable, abundant—eternal—lives. In Stunt Double, Garcia can be seen invoking and exploring these resources, which she’s crafted into potent lyric morsels and offers at the table of our shared humanity.

Try an experiment: receive her sacrament. Read her poems. Give them voice. Consider how they move from your lungs through your windpipe, your nasal fossa, your mouth, how they shift your tongue across palate and teeth. Let these movements—their ebb and flow—invoke the processes of exchange that feed your body, that constitute life: breathing, circulating blood, consuming sustenance, interacting with other bodies. Let such giving and receiving settle into consciousness. Let them call you into deeper aching for the stuff of life. Let this aching call you into the body’s present participles. Let these verbs take root. Let them turn you outward. Toward goodness. Toward godliness. Toward the messy, complicated, holy poetry of empathy and love.

Footnotes

[1]Translated by Waltraut Stein. Springer, 1964.

[2]Jacob 5.

[3]Alma 7:11–13.

[4]Moses 7:23–40.

[5]Abraham 4.

[6]Moses 7.41.

[7]“The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text.” Edited by Stan Larson, BYU Studies Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2, 1978, p. 201.

[8]“The Early Mormon Chain of Belonging.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 44, no. 1, 2011, p. 4.