Poetry Friday: “Living in the Body” by Joyce Sutphen


Change was the watchword for these several recent days. Well, when is change ever not the way things are? It never ends.

And so, I take great comfort from the three stanzas of Joyce Sutphen’s poem, Living in the Body, which parallel news and views that have been shared with me lately:

Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. …

I’ve heard from two dear young friends (in their 20s and 30s) who feel, man and woman both, that they each look too young — for their workplace, for the job market, for (perhaps) life in general. I hear: – I want them to take me seriously; – I need to grow a beard; – When they see me, they think I can’t handle the work; – I need a better title. Something there is, in other words, that isn’t enough. We are recognized, they concede, but not in the way we would like. Not in any way we find useful.

I, who am about to hit their combined ages (a significant multiple of eleven), in my own one body, that continues somehow moving forward, am nonplussed. I recognize that I and look and too and young are indeed four words of English — the combination of which is nonsensical to me. Laughable. I wish. With my (significantly eleventy) years of experience and, thereby, some store of wisdom (that they teach you in growing-old school), I drew on the good grace to neither laugh nor cry as I received the lamentations of my friends. I tried to hear their plaints and pleas and to hand back something containing respect and encouragement.

… Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror …

Yes, I love him — well, at least more than I once did. I’ve seen him in mirrors in each of nearly twenty thousand mornings thus far and he’s still a mystery to me — sometimes a burden, other times a joy. He’s all I’ve got; I think I’ll keep him. I think I will keep on keepin’ on. Here I am, I think, and whatever I look too young for is genuinely frightening now.

Why can’t we stay forever playing on a beautiful beach somewhere?

Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it …
… one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.

Eventually, yes, but did that really have to mean by influenza at age 32? By cancers, within a month, at an even 80? And now, the 40-something and all with him hope that chemotherapy will postpone “eventually” for a few more decades — sometime, at least, later than now. Who will help the grandchildren grow up?

In all this, joy and sorrow alike, growing and aging, life and death, Joyce Sutphen explains that our imperfect bodies will not always perform as we need or would like. Sometimes, the only possible response is a practical one. “Body,” she suggests, will, with a mind all its own:

pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

At the end of a long day and a very (very) long week and the anniversary of a quite decently long life (that, I will hasten to add, is not yet complete), chocolate cake sounds like a good idea. No candles needed; we have sufficient light.


Joyce Sutphen is the author of five books of poetry. She is Professor in English at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, and since August 2011, has been Poet Laureate for the State of Minnesota. Several of her poems, like this one, are available online at The Poetry Foundation.

(“alone in the bush” from micmol  / michele molinari // cc by-nc-nd)


1 Comment to Poetry Friday: “Living in the Body” by Joyce Sutphen

  1. February 15, 2013 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    Something I think about all too often, Daniel, on a whole lot of levels. I wish I could take you out for a drink for this life anniversary, and we could at least toast to the vagaries of age. In lieu of that, I wish you a very happy and healthy one, and all best.

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