If My Body Could Speak by Blythe Baird
Button Poetry, 2019; 104 pp
Reviewed by Sarah Senseny
Although Blythe Baird’s If My Body Could Speak focuses unashamedly and unblinkingly on the experiences of young girls in high school, this is no retrospective anthem to the “good old days” but is rather a savage glimpse into eating disorders, feminism, rape, toxic relationships, LGBTQ identity, and puberty. Brutally honest, Baird shapes the world of the adolescent female into a playground filled with razors—the sheer pain and confusion of being born a woman. From her personal history, Baird recounts moments and people that molded her into the person she is today, for better or worse.
Most people remember the rough times in high school, but Baird catches each sickly sour moment and fashions it into a collection of poetry that speaks to the universal female experience. Baird brings that vision uncomfortably close—almost as if, by recalling her own experience, she can conjure in the readers’ minds faces of their friends who have struggled with disordered eating. And Baird doesn't shy away from the gruesome and ghastly horrors of eating disorders, painting one of her friends as a “chandelier of bones.” With simple yet effective phrasings such as this, Baird shows her strength in lashing the reader with this brutal experience.
One of the bravest ways Baird uses her poetry is through her stories of surviving rape. As there are several poems on this subject in the book, some might say they encompass too much space, but for Baird, and many other women and girls, this subject has lacked a voice for too long. Baird speaks honestly about her past and about the events that impressed themselves upon her mind most vividly—unfortunately, that means rape. Although she speaks about her personal experience with the subject, she makes it clear that it in no way touches only her life; she shows that it universally effects teenage girls. In one poem that mimics a call to a sexual assault victims hotline, Baird writes “She chirps, / The first thing / you need to know / is that you are / not alone. / I tell her, I know. / That’s what I’ve been / trying to tell you.” Though Baird constructed the poem in a manner short and simple, the poignancy of the message creates a lasting impression—a sucker-punch to the gut. This poem does some heavy-lifting for the book in terms of stretching the gap between author and reader. Baird evokes discomfort in the realization of the universality of the experience for women.
Another aspect that marks a poignancy in the book is Baird’s simple communication of the absolute confusion and subtle fear of coming into womanhood; all the gruesome sexual experiences, periods, and boys/men. As a girl growing into the skin of a woman, the discovery of being gay, the experience of a first period, and the relationship with her mother and father—each of these tore her, pushing her onto different paths with no guidance or resources. Particularly, the confusion about sexual identity and the second-guessing of oneself connects in honesty with the reader. This shows in her poem, "The Lesbian Reevaluates," where she says, “if it turns out I’m not 100% gay, / who do I ask to forgive me?” Baird shows the confusion of growing through phases where one needs labels and the questioning and second-guessing whether those labels, like new clothes, actually fit. This once again shows the brutal honesty in Baird’s poetry— that identity is slippery for everyone. Through this pin-point honesty, Baird endears the reader and embodies the comfort in a mother’s arms, saying, “me too.”