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Tell Me Again Polar Vortex How Bodies Change Into Other Bodies


And these days anyhow I am reminded more often that usual about my cold childhood in Jenpeg, Manitoba. The cold polar air crashes down the latitudes to meet us!

Normally it circles the pole but because of the warming Arctic Ocean it presses southwards. I don’t know much about science but I know this snowy friend is the tail end of a system-wide shift that also included Hurricane Sandy traveling west into the coast. Systems shift and change with only a little input here and there.

Last year as 2012—year of supposed apocalypse—slowly shut itself down I had one of those painful party conversations with a person who was sure I was a raging fool. The more I tried to explain my point the crazier I sounded even to myself. But in the cold light of day my general argument seems completely rational: since we as human beings are made up of metals and minerals and the earth itself is made of these same, couldn’t there be something akin to magnetism that draws us to one part of the earth or another? Could that be why some are drawn north or south or to rivers, mountains or sea? And what does it say about me that I am so attached to places mountains fall into the ocean?

Anyhow, where I live the water of the Great Lakes crawl up into the air and hover there all winter so I’ve had to learn the art of the supplement—in my case Vitamin D pills on account of lake effect, Vitamin B12 on account of veganism. Voluntary and involuntary don’t always look so different from one another.

Here’s part two of my New Year’s argument, the part where the other person really thought I went out to lunch: if human bodies are affected by minerals in the earth, which seems reasonable, then could our current mental health states be correlated to mining and fracking? And if the moon alters tides on the earth’s surface, can some physical truth basis of astrology be so far-fetched? I lost him there. I lost myself.

But I don’t mind being lost. As Lisel Mueller’s Monet complains, “I will not return to a universe/ of objects that don’t know each other,/as if islands were not the lost children/ of one great continent.” And as far as kooky science goes, I want to remind you that when James Lovelock first started bandying about his so-called Gaia Theory—that the planet as an entire system behaved like a single self-regulating living organism—he too was thought of as drifting a little far afield.

But madness in another time is called prophecy, not merely Cassandra the god-cursed but her traitorous brother Helenus who went to the Greeks and gave away all the Trojan secrets. Is something about both prophecy and madness tied to a kind of betrayal or border-crossing? Certainly for Teiresias it was like that, his prophecy accompanied the curse (or was it a gift?) of living seven years as a man to be followed by seven years as a woman. None of the myths include his life as a woman but such an experience must have given her (or him?) an even greater insight into the physical world in which she lived.

Not all bodies crossing borders are content with the limitations of language. Though in Farsi pronouns are gender neutral as in English, with the exception of the subjunctive case (oh that oft-used subjunctive!) they aren’t. You have to choose. But how do you choose a gender if you have changed from one to the other? Or if you aren’t either? And what if you are all at once? Such are also the complaints of animals and planets, neither of whom are deemed in the human-centered vision to have subjectivity or agency. If we are wrong about one we might be wrong about the other.

In Jorie Graham’s poem “Treadmill” the path before us is ever-renewing. “It wants us to learn ‘nowhere,’" writes Graham. It may seem an odd wish indeed for a poem in a book called Place but in the end don’t all of us want to know “who are you going to be when all this clay flowing through you has/ finally become/ form, and you catch a glimpse of yourself at daybreak,/…what was it you were told to/ accomplish”?

We are at odds, at the moment, with the limits of our planet—what it can give us in the way of resources, what we can do it in the name of getting more resources. According to Lovelock, it’s not a lose-lose situation: the thing is self-regulating so it will take care of us before we can ruin it beyond repair, thus goes his so-far-borne-out science. It’s not a reassuring principle to lean back on.

So the cold weather drives us indoors to huddle in the winter. It’s supposed to. The difference now is that heat in the winter and the ability to stay cool in the summer are both commodified.

Last summer I found myself teaching at a writing conference at Manhattanville College alongside Bill Ayers. I got to have a little laugh to myself when I finally got up the guts to ask him, “Do you know about the web site called Weather Underground? You put in your zip code and it tells you the temperature.” He laughed. “They didn’t just steal our name,” he said, “they stole our logo too.”

I check Weather Underground every day to see the dropping degrees. 11. 7. 1. – 3. “It is possible we should have done things differently,” Ayers told me, “but we weren’t wrong about what we thought. Everything that we said was going to happen with the country politically and economically has happened.”

As the system changes the bodies inside the system change too. But what are bodies and what is a system? We have been coded, throughout our history, by caste, by race, by class, by gender, our physical bodies assigned roles and tasks deemed somehow more fit for one or the other. CA Conrad is one writer who sees the possibilities for prophetic utterance in marginalization: “It sounds strange but being queer made creativity easier for me if only because I was shunned, forced outside the acceptable, respectable world.” He goes on to embrace what he calls “(Soma)tic Poetry…the realization of two basic ideas: (1) Everything around us has a creative viability with the potential to spur new modes of thought” and “(2) The most vital ingredient to bringing sustainable, humane changes to our world is creativity.” In this way Conrad creates exercises and physical practices that lead the body into the experience of the poem physically itself.

We do have agency as human bodies, and we are more than those physical bodies. “I/ entered the poem here,” writes Graham in “Treadmill.” It’s a breathtakingly weird moment. “I had been trying to stay outside, I had not wanted to put my feet here too, but the wind came up, a little Achilles-wind, the city itself took time from dying to whisper into my ear we need you.”

The planet may need us but how are we going to be able to do anything unless we know who we are, not limited and bound by the mere physical conditions of a body. In an interview with Katie Couric recently, actress Laverne Cox had this to say about fixating on the physical body when talking about questions of gender: by focusing on bodies we don’t focus on the lived realities of that oppression and that discrimination.”

In other words, the vortex that brings the cold had its origin in some other quality of the system. We exist in a net of infinite relationships, what Islamic philosophy calls “kismet” which Western thinkers generally mistranslate as “fate” when it is actually anything but. If anything it is closer to the Vedic notion of “karma,” an accumulation of cause and effect that has assembled itself over an infinite period of time to manifest itself in the present moment.

And who is one body in the face of everything outside of it? When I was a little boy in the Canadian North I wondered the same thing, swinging on the swing set at school during the short, chilly summers, wondering with crazy child logic, Is my body a bowl the wind is stirring or is it me that’s the spoon soaring wild up to taste the cold white blue?

Originally Published: January 9th, 2014

Poet, editor, and prose writer Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA from New York University. Ali’s poetry collections include The Far Mosque (2005), which won Alice James Books’ New...