A Gentle Reckoning: Blas Falconer’s Forgive the Body This Failure

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What I wanted was not possible: After the birds have gone, the great nests
of leaves and limbs high among leaves and limbs.

He catches the fish he’s wanted all day, pulls the hook from its mouth, and
lets it go.

Which I must remember and remember to tell you.

These are Blas Falconer’s last, prescient lines in “A Love Poem,” from his latest collection, Forgive the Body This Failure (Four Way Books, 2018). They exemplify Falconer’s language in this collection: simple and delicate, like the bodies and experiences he describes. This transformative book creates a mosaic of experiences that manifest where we are, and where we might be, in our own bodies. Each poem gradually builds in us a resolve which allows us to stay still or move forward, turn away or turn toward, our varied experiences as we search our memories through these poems. In this way, these poems remind us of a past, make real for us the present, and portend what might be in store for our future selves.

Poem by poem, Forgive the Body This Failure unfolds into expansive constellations of words that articulate our own hurts and hopes. We discover through these poems that bodies and relationships can, and often do, fail, despite our desire to have it otherwise. Refreshing, too, is that Falconer’s collection does not walk softly over the obvious ways we think of bodies—living and dying—but also lightly touches on, and opens us to, the ways in which bodies move and breathe, hurt and love, desire and ignore, and yes, as Falconer renders for us, fail. What is both terrible and wonderful about Falconer’s poems is the story-like quality that invites readers to catharsis. The images are known and felt and ordinary. His poems are perfectly paced, can startle and comfort at the same time. They have an ability to reach far into our own experience and touch something hidden.

Falconer’s third poem of the collection, “Vigil,” takes us through phases of a body’s failing and forgiving, each framed in the paradox of wanting the body to last, yet ever so grateful when death comes: a paradox all too familiar to those of us who have tended to a dying loved one. In part one of “Vigil,” the repetition of “the body” creates an uneasy distance between the speaker and the reader, yet Falconer’s use of the second-person “you” pulls the speaker/reader back to the center of those final two lines: “failing, the mind failing / to forgive the body for this failure.” Like gravity’s constant pull, Falconer never lets his language, or his readers, become untethered, but keeps us in the experience. The anonymous “body” is representative of me, you, and them, and each body we may know that is full of pain and painless, ever-present and ever-fleeting.

In part two of “Vigil,” Falconer’s encompassing “all” is not trite or conventional, but speaks to what the lingering and waiting feels like—everywhere, inescapable and overcast:

All day, it’s almost over.
All day, the body won’t,
the body says,

to the water glass,
but air fills the body

the way light fills
the house at night,
so those outside know
someone is living there.

Most affecting, however, are the last two lines of part two: “so those outside know / someone is living there.” Falconer reminds us that the body is real and exists, that there is a reality that unfurls behind closed curtains and closed eyes; we can wish the body away, but the body continues, until it doesn’t. Like many other poems in the first section of this collection, “Vigil” is visceral and corporeal; the unadorned images and unencumbered language makes felt each sound and smell both accessible and rich.3

Part three of “Vigil” maintains the uncomfortable tension of part two’s recognition, but at a cool distance outside where we are safe. Where Falconer leaves us with heated guilt the reader can only name standing outside of what a body experiences, he invites us back inside this “house” to hear a body grunt, to see a body lie, to understand that pain has become the arbiter of what is permitted and what is not. However, it’s the pointed rhetorical question in part four of “Vigil” that is left for the diminishing body, and for the witnesses of its passing, keeping the “you”—that is, us—centered and full in a loop of unforgetting:

You, who tended to the body, what

will you do when all
the bedding has been washed

and folded, what pain

will you tend to, now,
if not yours?

The longing “what pain / will you tend to, now,” leaves us wanting the routine of tending to remain and reminds us of an untenable dilemma: The one that tends this body must let it go. The tension between what is and what is desired never quite goes away but simply recedes, as the ocean water at low tide does, only to return again and again.

“Evening Walk” typifies two of this collection’s finely threaded themes: solitude and despair. Here the speaker delivers the burden and failure of a body through a confession. But what body and whose? One of Falconer’s many strengths in this collection is his ability to shift the unnamed body from one of distance to one of nearness. “Evening Walk” highlights this regrettable distance, while acknowledging a coming absence that is as close as it is unbearable. The experience Falconer crafts is like two poles of magnet repelling each the other, full of tension and pressure, framed within the barely speakable admission of those final melancholic lines: “is just another thing / I don’t tell you.” Falconer’s language is spare, though descriptive in its simplicity, yet in two sentences he does for us what we sometimes cannot do for ourselves—admit that it’s better to be away and think about the unthinkable than face a dwindling body. If those two lines are not enough to holdfast our emotions, the middle lines are vice-like in their revelation:

_________… I don’t want
to think of us
less and less, …

What hinges on these three lines is a painful admission of what’s to come as the speaker, desperate to hold onto a remnant of an “us,” sees an eventual end, a kind of premonition of the pain that will belong to the body that is left standing, not of the body that has left.

Perhaps the most poignant of the poems in this moving collection is “Leave-taking.” Here again, Falconer plays with a shifting and anonymous pronoun—someone. He has a subtle ability to find the well of our melancholy and prick the guilt that resides at its bottom. The reader becomes that someone doing the leaving; they are also what is left in the wake of the “leave-taking.” That remaining body follows “a shirt into the suitcase” as the body leaving “exits a room and takes / everything with him.” That careful move presses pause in our own memories, asks us to deal with our own regrets of leaving, our own shutting out and shutting in. We are moved from a place of forgetting to a place of remembering. In this way, “Leave-taking” renders a kind of gentle reckoning for the reader, an internal struggle that seems monstrous at first, but becomes whittled down to something manageable, when seen, and set right. Readers become actors in the self-drama playing out in “Leave-taking” because of our experiences, not despite them. Again, the actions and observations in this poem are delightfully ordinary. The images convey a sense of the mundane, the simple but elegant language draws us in to each stanzaic scene.

If the first two stanzas catalyze our experience within this poem, the resulting catalytic energy lies in the final three stanzas of the poem for what is heaviest on our heart—finality:

Shutting the door on
a pocket of stillness.
If the curtain or

the pillow sighs, no one
knows. All week
under the mind’s prattle.

If we have nothing to give
each other, we have
nothing to give each other.

Falconer’s choice of the conditional “if” repeated twice is brilliant for its contrariness. Those conditional declarations are questions the poem has already answered in stanzas one and two. The guilt pried open here looks back to what was or might’ve been without a hard look at what’s happened, or is happening, by the speaker’s (or our) own hand. Guilt is nostalgia gone awry in “Leave-taking,” and all of the “mind’s prattle” cannot reopen the door to choose again.

If “Leave-taking” is the most poignant poem of Falconer’s collection, then “The Promised Land” is surely the most plaintive, if somewhat unexpected. This poem asks us to reconcile not what is left, but what might be found. Up to this point in the collection, Falconer reminds us that bodies leave through death, are bruised and rattled by illness and injury, are cut by words, embody shame, regret, and, yes, joy, but how do they fail when leaving a place? “The Promised Land” takes up the complicated issues of moving from places we call home to places that are unknown. This so-called promised land seems as burdened by regret as it seems buoyed by the hope of what can be found in the simplest of images Falconer leaves us with in the first stanza:

They disassembled the bed, emptied drawers, and left what they found no
longer necessary or too heavy, or what held a memory they’d rather not
carry: the small deaths, for example, buried in the yard.

From the final line in this poem, we can intuit that what is disassembled and emptied can certainly be reassembled and made full. Yet, this poem’s power comes at its center through the redemptive quality of “gone” three times moving us through to the third stanza’s awaiting “new tenderness”:

Gone was the barn with the rotting roof.

Gone the broken lock.

Gone the overgrowth, the rusted carport, the little ways one person can
diminish another.

Those that leave seem heartened and encouraged by what is “in the picture” of this unnamed promised land, of where the body travels away from to enter a “new tenderness.” What comfort, however, for those that are left reaching for Falconer’s question: “… / but wouldn’t the light be different there?” The question might be what is different for a body that resists being left?

What stands out for me, aside from the openness of each poem, is the strength of the thematic elements present throughout the collection. Falconer touches something deeply personal in all of us, and we are the better for it. For me, it’s my coarse nostalgic threads woven through many of these poems—I’m the living and the dying, the loving and the lying, each strand frayed just bit, yet mercifully burnt to a knot. At the end of the collection, we understand that he tells us a story, many stories, actually. These stories are familiar, intimate. If there is distance in this collection, it originates with our own discomfort with its subject matter. What best captures this collection’s sentiment are the final few lines of “Apology for My Son Who Stops to Ask About His Mother Once More”:

This is your story. This
________________is your share

of the world’s grief, what you must carry, and
_____________which I cannot bear
_________for you.

The onus is on us to understand what Falconer asks of us in this collection: to forgive. Not simply to forgive the body—mine and yours—for failing to understand and to take account of, but to forgive the misunderstandings and distances that our bodies can create.

Dameion Wagner lives and works in Columbus, Ohio. His work has appeared in Crab Creek Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and The Gordian Review, among others, and he has also written reviews for Heavy Feather Review. He won Miami University's 2017 Jordan-Goodman poetry prize judged by Janice Lowe, and most recently was the 2018 recipient of the Academy of American Poets University Prize. He received his MFA from Miami University’s Low Res program. More from this author →