Review from Atlantic Books Today

Cuerpo amado/Beloved Body
Nela Rio. Translator Hugh Hazelton

Some years ago, renowned French feminist Helene Cixous issued her passionate call to pens, her manifesto-like declaration that “woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.” This politically engaged aesthetic of “writing the body” pioneered by Cixous and her contemporaries is alive and well in the work of Canadian women poets like Nela Rio, whose fourth collection, Cuerpo amado/Beloved Body, extends and enriches the lyric potential of bodily, poetry.

The thirty-nine poems in Rio’s collection, published in both Spanish and English, are prefaced by Gladys Ilarregui’s “A Greater Adventure: Having a New Body,” itself an eloquent text. Ilarregui suggests that “no fear is probably as deep as that of losing a part of one’s body,” since this loss can result in an “abandonment of the self.” Happily, this debilitating possibility is refuted by Rio’s affirming poetic voice.

Rio’s poems document paths of discovery in both experience and language. In the opening section, “Moments of Love,” two people whose years, added together, come to “over a hundred,” find “palpably eager companionship.” Rio plays at the edges of an Edenic myth in which the two lovers, like Adam and Eve, joyfully recreate their world: “They saw light form bodies in the water/and called them fish” (“Sheaf of Bells”). These taut lyrics, though frequently urgent in tone, celebrate, in sensual, vivid imagery, the body rediscovered through love and a world perceived anew. “There’s a certain urgency in the river’s origin/fluttering like a salt bird,” writes Rio in “Vigorous Taste.” This “fluttering” is transmuted, later, into the breast that “throbs with a girl’s surprise” (“Like a Dove”). Rio’s deft hand at figurative language allows her to delineate breast cancer without resorting to clinical language that medicalizes and disempowers the woman’s body.

The most striking moments in Rio’s collection redraw the woman-poet’s trauma in her own terms and, in so doing, reclaim her “beloved body.” This act of reclaiming is, as we might well imagine, extraordinarily difficult; it involves nothing less than forging a new language: “She had neither the language of pain/nor the right word of emptiness,” Rio writes in “The Challenge.” The poet’s new body is no one thing so much as an amalgam of elements: “a strange bird, without pity” (“Polished Amber”), an asymmetry “drunk with the truth that terrifies” (“Untiring Reality”).

Memory and imagination have a crucial agency in facilitating the poet’s rebirth: “She remembers the kisses/and her sunken breast rises united with the light” (“She Inhabits Herself”). In the collection’s final poem, the poet awaits her lover’s “first look.” This is not a moment of isolated terror, but rather of recognition, fired by visionary imagination: “I know I am all women and one”. The woman’s body is situated within a larger narrative. Given that the first poem in Cuerpo amado/Beloved Body also began with waiting for her lover, Rio’s collection inscribes a circle of imminence, return. Rio has “written the body” in fierce, memorable, uncompromising terms.

– Jeanette Lynes

Reprinted from the Spring 2001 issue by permission of Atlantic Books Today.

Return to Cuerpo amado/Beloved Body catalogue page.