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Writing Toward a Poetics of Aging

Shoshana Olidort on Erika Meitner's Useful Junk

My crumpled, wrinkled
blurt
of flesh.

“Let’s face it,”
it says.

–Rae Armantrout
*

My father-in-law likes to say that if you wake up after 40 and nothing hurts, you’re dead. I’m not yet 40 but am already, and have now, for several years, felt the effects of my getting older in the body that holds me together, that often feels as if it is falling apart. Aging may be a gradual process, but I wonder if the noticing of oneself getting older can ever be anything other than a sudden, rude awakening. The realization that things I once did with ease, without a second thought—running, staying out late, standing on my feet for hours—now take effort, with ramifications that are more long lasting, continues to catch me by surprise.

Reading Erika Meitner’s recent collection, Useful Junk, in which the poet unearths childhood memories and decades-old love flings, I experienced the jolt of pleasure that comes from finding the thoughts swirling around one’s own head take shape in the world. Perhaps it comes down to something as simple as affirmation and camaraderie, however abstract or indirect; the sense that your perspective is legitimate, reasonable, relatable, that your feelings can be put into words. “I revisit all the bits of my past I can’t shake,” says the speaker in “The Practice of Depicting Matter as it Passes from Radiance to Decomposition.”

Though the speaker insists “it’s not nostalgia,” Meitner’s poems are suffused with, if not longing for a lost youth, then an aching desire to “skip / forwards and back in time at once,” to reimagine, as the title of one poem puts it, both “Past and Futures.” I see myself now at the very juncture between past and future, but of course we’re always in that space—it just becomes more apparent when what is behind us begins to resemble, in terms of sheer volume, what we imagine still lies ahead.

Even as she laments the passage of time, Meitner is hopeful about what’s yet to come—the many possible iterations of which she gestures toward with the plural form “futures,” which stands in stark contrast to the past, of which, it seems, there can only ever be one—although that, too, is thrown into question when Meitner reflects on having “lived what feels like many restless lives in this / one body,” a body that, as Meitner insists, is “our only home.”

I think of the many homes I’ve inhabited over the course of nearly four decades—from the Section 8 apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, into which my parents moved, with me, immediately after my birth, to the top floor unit of a duplex in central Los Angeles, where I now live with my husband and our two children—not one of them truly my own, each one containing fragments of the different lives I’ve led, lives that seem to me now, in hindsight, utterly incongruous, incompatible, with only one tangible thread tying them together: my body.

I wonder how I might disentangle the pleasure and disgust I feel in this body, and whether this intensity of feelings around my physical being will become less charged as I grow older.

Many of the poems in Useful Junk center on the body, “heavy / with the weight of adulthood,” but also “without regrets—persistent and mortal and relentless,” as if in acknowledgement of the fact that the effects of our most intimate experiences are not limited to the realm of the psyche, that love and loss and longing leave an imprint that is as much physical as it is psychological. Meitner’s focus here is on the aging female body in particular, “marked,” as she puts it in one poem, “with the raised scars of everything // that passed through me and also loss.”

I think of the marks on my body, those that commemorate specific moments in time I might otherwise not recall, and others that came about through events so monumental as to render the marks all but superfluous, even tritely symbolic.

There is the small raised red bump on my right instep from a fall I took one Sunday in the summer of 2017, in Ithaca, New York, where I was staying temporarily while attending The School of Criticism and Theory. I was enrolled in Emily Apter’s seminar, and I remember we watched “L’intrus,” a film inspired by an essay written by the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, about a heart transplant he’d undergone. Much of the discussion focused on the phenomenon of having a foreign organ take root in one’s own body, on the ramifications of such an intrusion. I sat there perplexed, wondering how it could be that all of these people, presumably all born of a person with a uterus, were mesmerized by the idea of a man walking around with a heart that was not his own, even while each of them had at one point occupied another human being’s body. 

A scar on the tip of my right middle finger is perceptible only to my own eye, only under bright light—a slight irregularity interrupting the otherwise continuous pattern of thin, curved lines along my skin—the result of a careless shaving incident sometime back in the late 90s, one of several summers spent with my family in upstate New York. I remember it was just before nightfall on Friday, and I was taking a quick shower in anticipation of the arrival of Shabbat, when I would be prohibited from using hot water. I must have been new to shaving—I recall lifting the shaver by its head instead of by its handle. I remember also that my father consulted with a doctor at prayer services that evening, since the cut, though tiny, was spurting out significant amounts of blood. The doctor assured my father I’d be fine, and I was, but that blip on my finger remains. 

On my left leg, a web of blue and black and yellow lines thread themselves around my shin and calf, having first emerged during my pregnancy with my second child (not to be confused with my second pregnancy, which resulted in my son’s birth; my first, like my third, having ended in miscarriage). My midwife had urged me to see a specialist to rule out deep-vein thrombosis, and I remember the nurse gasping at the sight of the veins which, under the strain of my pregnant belly were thick and heavy and protruding—apparently it was the worst she’d ever seen, though the X-rays revealed no internal bleeding, and I was given a clean bill of health. 

Recently, while retrieving my luggage after a flight I flinched when the suitcase brushed up against my knee as I pulled it off the conveyer belt. In the last few years I’ve taken up running and have fallen more frequently, my knees now bearing bruises in a way that recalls my early childhood, a period of which I have only vague recollections, among them the sight of my elbows and knees perpetually scabbed. I remember thinking that one day I’d grow up and out of these falls. But if those childhood bruises were quick to heal, my body is no longer quite so resilient and every fall feels like it’s taking me closer to some point of no return, to a time when I’ll be unable to run at all, at least not without significant pain.

*

Many of the poems in Useful Junk engage directly with the change we often associate with middle age—much of it revolving around loss, but also renewal, or rediscovery. In “from this thought a hazy question” the speaker talks to a friend who’s “on break from finishing some plumbing in a guest house she’s refurbishing because her job quit her and there’s the divorce and she needs the rental cash,” and who, because of her “formidable skills with sexting and secret loves” is able to offer insight into the ways in which “men see women’s bodies,” which, as she explains, is “not the way we see our own bodies, with the scars and misshapen bits and hanging flesh, but as gifts, as wrapped things filled with pleasure and surprise.”

I think about the contrast itself, between scars and gifts, between pleasure and disgust, about how often these are like opposite sides of the same coin, which may be where the element of surprise comes in. I was raised in an ultra-Orthodox, Hasidic community, and internalized, from a young age, the subtle and not so subtle messaging I received about my body, which had to be fully covered, lest it provoke untoward thoughts in men. I wonder how I might disentangle the pleasure and disgust I feel in this body, and whether this intensity of feelings around my physical being will become less charged as I grow older, will I ever not recoil from my own hanging flesh?

In Meitner’s poem, the speaker talks about her “self-conscious c-section scar” then asks her friend “to tell me about my body, to introduce me to my own luminous skin.” What would it mean to be able to see one’s own luminosity? “Mama, you look so beautiful,” my 8-year-old said to me recently as I sat on the sofa, feeling sweaty and unkempt after a run. At what age do we begin to notice misshapen bits—our own and those of our mothers’?

The body one inhabits informs the person one is, which is not to say that one can be reduced to the other, only that they are deeply intertwined entities, inseparable.

Around the time I turned 35 I started to put on weight in a manner that was utterly out of character, if one can talk of a body having a character. For years, I had gotten away with eating pretty much whatever I wanted—croissants for breakfast, ice cream for dessert every night of the week, and at most I’d put on a couple of pounds and lose them just as quickly by staying off carbs for a few weeks.

I remember walking into a J. Crew soon after my second child was born. I was 31, and my waist had never been narrower. I bought a pair of cargo pants, size 00, and felt euphoric. I had birthed both my babies at home, and my body seemed to me almost invincible—not in the way it had when I was in my early twenties, before my children were born, when invincibility was simply what I associated with being young, and mostly carefree. No, once I had children that invincibility felt more hard-won, as if by sheer willpower I had managed to maintain my trim figure.

And then age did its thing, slowly at first, or perhaps it was just me taking my time noticing it, holding on to that pair of J. Crew pants for years, well after the time I could not lift them up above my thighs, and to myriad other clothing items that sat in my closet collecting dust as I held out hope that it was just a matter of time before I’d be able to wear them again, to slip back into the person I’d once been. But of course, the body one inhabits informs the person one is, which is not to say that one can be reduced to the other, only that they are deeply intertwined entities, inseparable.

In Meitner’s “Nude Selfie Ode,” the speaker considers how “[o]bjects become larger” as the phone moves in, so that her “ass becomes Kardashian in lace” and her “cleavage an endless National Park canyon,” and in “Elegy with Lo-Fi Selfie” the speaker fantasizes about sending a photo of her ass to an old fling, except he’s dead, and she can’t reach her ass, an observation that comes back again in yet another poem, when the speaker considers sending a similar photo to an “imaginary lover,” but gives up because “taking a selfie of your own ass requires some dexterity which is in short supply with me.”

These observations bring me back to Loehmann’s, which I visited often as a child, accompanying my mother on her Sunday shopping excursions to the discount designer store whose communal fitting room—memorialized by now in many essays—was a gathering of female bodies unlike anything I’ve ever seen elsewhere, with women of all ages in various states of undress, their buttocks and breasts hanging loose.

*

In “Welcome to Fear City: A Survival Guide,” Meitner recalls her late grandmother, a Czech-born Holocaust survivor who, “right before death … when people get truer than usual lose their filter start saying things they normally wouldn’t …” warns her “about not being sexually cold or frigid” with her husband. My own paternal grandmother, who turns 90 this summer, survived the Holocaust as a child in Ukraine, though I only learned the full story a few years ago, through a recorded interview with Yad Vashem, in which she describes, over the course of two and a half hours, some of the horrors she endured. “I had no childhood,” she states matter-of-factly, the tears welling up in her eyes.

I started phoning my grandmother more frequently after my grandfather, her husband of more than 60 years, died three years ago. But I soon stopped because our conversations invariably ended with her warning me that if I didn’t have more children, I’d live to regret it. This is the same grandmother whose marital advice to me, on the night before my wedding, was to let me know that all men are difficult, that my husband would be no different because, in her words, “they’re all the same,” and that I’d be best brace myself for a lifetime of hardship.

Still, this year, I FaceTimed my grandmother before Passover, which she was spending with one of my uncles in central Israel, about an hour’s drive from her Jerusalem home. She looked much older than she had even on our last call just several months ago—but she seemed giddy with pleasure at seeing me and my family, and this time there was no warning, no guilt. Her wrinkled face broke out in a broad smile, and she thanked me profusely for having called. In facing her, I wonder, am I also learning to face myself?

Shoshana Olidort
Shoshana Olidort
Shoshana Olidort is a writer, translator, and critic. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Stanford University and is web editor for the Poetry Foundation. Her work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Paris Review Daily, Los Angeles Review of Books and World Literature Today, among other publications.





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