Striving for Better in Jared Harel’s Let Our Bodies Change the Subject
Review by Emily Hockaday
University of Nebraska Press
Publication: September 2023
The opening poem to Harél’s Let Our Bodies Change the Subject prepares the reader for what is to come—a meditation on mortality, the passing of the baton, generational knowledge, and existence itself. And somehow Harél faces these existential questions head-on, with care and grace. He casually introduces us to the “Sad Rollercoaster” the speaker’s daughter discovers—and which we all reckon with:
That night and the one after,
my daughter dreams of bones—how they lift
out of her skin and try on her dresses. So silly! she laughs,
until later, seeing the massive skeleton of a retired rollercoaster at Coney Island:
she sees a giant wooden spine,
this brownish-red maze traced in decay. She calls it
Sad Rollercoaster, then begs to be taken home.
After my family’s corgi died when my daughter was four, she asked, “Is Cordie a pile of bones?” I didn’t know what to tell her about death or about what happens to a body once it is no longer useful to the life that inhabited it. She had seen piles of bones outside on lawns in our Queens neighborhood—decorations for Halloween. One plastic skull was left out in a flowerbed all four seasons. As a parent, and an atheist, I wanted to do as little harm as possible to this young psyche that was—somehow!—in my care. I don’t remember whether I skirted the issue or if I was gentle and direct. But I did crawl into her toddler bed, our skin touching, arms open. Any of us confronting these difficult subjects either internally or with a child or parent will feel communion with this beautiful book, with Harél’s yearning to Let Our Bodies Change the Subject.
It was the bones in “Sad Rollercoaster” that stirred up this memory of my daughter’s experience, but the collection as a whole examines what the questions of children—or our inner child—reveal within an adult. How we cobble together facts and comfort and whatever philosophy we have internalized, or wish to, to answer these quintessentially human mysteries.
But it is not just the looming question of mortality that Let Our Bodies Change the Subject raises. That would be too neat for a poet like Harél, whose nuance and ability to weave the casual everyday details of life into larger more universal experiences is how he gets his hooks into the meat of us. This collection is as much about being parented as it is about parenting. The shockwaves and ripples that move through generations. This collection examines what it is to parent. How do we teach lessons we still haven’t learned? How do we learn them? How do we reconcile the choices that were made in our own rearing? Are we doing it right? And the few poems sprinkled throughout questioning religion and god reinforce these themes—another search for something elusive that doesn’t have exact answers.
One thread throughout this collection that really spoke to me was the sense of unease that lingers in difficult decisions. The speaker appears insecure in their happiness and good fortune—and in parenting. This is something we can all relate to. We first see this in “The Sweet Spot” on page five—a brief and lovely poem that gives voice to the universal insecurities that grow like weeds inside all of us. The speaker proclaims, “. . . we have hit/ our sweet spot, the best it’s gonna get . . .” But don’t believe it, reader. I refuse to. Later on in “Plastic Butterflies,” we are told:
. . .Nowadays
I can’t tell who I’m meant to help,
or how to help, or if anything really helps
anymore, although I guess that’s me
Set in contrast to his past, childless self, confident in youth, our speaker questions themself. This niggling insecurity weaves through the collection as a whole, making the speaker and their life relatable—and likable. In “Too Soon in San Antonio,” this echoing worry is stark: there are things the speaker should know, that maybe others do, but they do not. The vibrating insecurity behind the heart of this collection is brought to the fore: Are we doing this right? And miraculously, there is the acknowledgment that we can only do our best with the information we have. “The Other Side of Desire” gives us a slightly different take on this. The speaker is disenchanted and restless with the life he has found himself in. But even as he longs for a break in routine, we see the tenderness with which he loves his life. The care put into parenting and being a spouse. This poem is perhaps the one most full of love and contentment, despite the confession—that sliver of desire to escape that all of us feel and at times may even nurture.
We get our most interesting insights when we see the speaker through his children—their voices, their questions, the way he second-guesses himself, like all parents do. How daunting to find oneself a fallible parent with people who need you to be invincible and all-knowing. In “The Perimeter,” we hear our own inner thoughts in the voices of the speaker’s children—Harél skillfully draws parallels between generations:
My excitement hurts, my daughter sulks
at Columcille Megalith Park, where stones stack
on stones upon a great big stone circling
the sun. It’s mid-July, muggy, and my excitement
hurts too, though somewhere along the line
I lost the right to say so. Or the nerve. . . .
It is exactly when the speaker has the nerve to be his most frank that we see his thoughtfulness, his tender application of parenthood and even personhood. And this poem is a shining example of just that. In “A Moving Grove,” Harél writes:
. . . All year
I’ve been tring to say something
real, or at least really clever, which
might be my undoing. The kids
want answers about death and God
and if the Muppets are alive and why
is it sunny and when can they stop
hiding in closets at school? . . .
We know that the speaker, too, wants answers. About death and God and the relentless queries and how to know that our choices matter. I know how it feels for time to stop while formulating the answers to the unknowable. The weight of the words as they are parsed. And the poet gives us both the frozen moments of indecision and also the rushing of time, as the rug is pulled out from under us. In another poem, the speaker watches his child moving away from him. In “Overnight” we see a daughter racing “unencumbered/ toward her friends”, while the speaker reminisces:
Just yesterday she clung
to the nape of your t-shirt,
begging to stay.
she was yours, and you,
you gave her away.
Harél excels at depicting this motion—the inexorable movement of generations spinning forward as they only can.
In Harél’s examination of parenting and replacement, another refrain rises to the surface in this collection. The speaker considers his own childhood, acknowledging the replacement of one generation with the next, tying poems together, as parent and child, thematically. In “Beer Run,” the speaker is a child and is pulled from an unsafe vehicle at the last minute. The fear and anxiety of parenting—that has been so precisely described from the speaker’s perspective as a parent—now from his own parent’s perspective, is only something of which he is aware in hindsight:
“. . . How could I have guessed
why my father was sprinting, screaming after us
down the middle of the street, or why he wouldn’t stop
shaking as he ripped me from the truck?”
All of us who make it to adulthood have had to face our parents’ humanity. The full depth of it. Harél is generous in his poems—all of these parents are doing their best. Even when they aren’t perfect. We see the reckoning of the passing torch of parenthood in “Kin” and “Behind the Painted Guardrail,” but in other poems the poet goes even further, considering what is passed down through multiple generations. Jared and his speaker recognize that no one parents alone—behind all of us are our ancestors and their lessons, those we are trying to unlearn, mitigate, or continue. In “Cordoba,” we learn about the speaker’s grandfather, and the poem allows that we may all end up like the titular Cordoba—
. . . moved
to my parents yard
where it sat rotting
on deflated tires: a relic.
An eyesore. A pit of wasps
writhed under its hood.
The speaker doesn’t preclude himself as the possible someone who hands down what ought not be handed down. In perhaps the most musical poem in the book, “Ruins,” Harél deftly delivers a rhythmic poem in short-lined tercets about trying to teach a son about safety. He concludes:
—if I confess
terror casts me as a father
to son, like a shadow
that outruns me,
am I well overrun?
Ultimately Let Our Bodies Change the Subject teaches us that parenting is not done alone—even when it is full of what feels like recklessly choosing, in the moment, what we believe to be correct. In these choices are the experiences of parents, grandparents, and echoes of ancestors, just as the speaker tells their daughter in “Birthday” of aging and the self when “she didn’t want . . . to leave herself behind”:
[I] said, You take it
all with you, you bring all
your selves with you
into the future. I don’t know
what I believe, but I think
she believed me.
Looking back at the second poem in the collection (“All I’ve Ever Wanted”) we read: “what humbling work/it is to haul kids toward thoughtful—the kind/ in humankind.” And later in this poem the speaker says:
. . . My point about discovery
has escaped me by now, though I know
the old chorus for thwarted desire. My cereal
will be dry. Coffee taken black. I will try
against hope to be better than myself, which is all
I’ve ever wanted and everything I need.
By the end of this collection, the point has not escaped us, the reader. And it is clear that the speaker is striving for “better,” and from this reader’s perspective, succeeding. These poems speak to the connections between family members and generations, the powerful and versatile force that is love, and being exactly where you are, even as the ground shifts beneath you.
Let our Bodies Change the Subject, available September 2023 from University of Nebraska Press.
About the reviewer:
Emily Hockaday’s second collection, In a Body, is forthcoming with Harbor Editions October 2023. Her first full-length, Naming the Ghost, debuted with Cornerstone Press in September 2022. She is the author of six poetry chapbooks, most recently Beach Vocabulary out from Red Bird Chaps & Name this Body from Thrash Press. Emily writes about ecology, parenthood, chronic illness, grief, and the urban environment. You can find Emily on the web at www.emilyhockaday.com or @E_Hockaday.