Setting Intentions (Ujjayi)
This year’s global pandemic gifted me early on with two aspects of myself long recessed: running and poetry. I began pounding the Tuscaloosa pavement again because my gym closed in the spring, and when it reopened this summer, breathing around other sweaty humans remained ill-advised. I began reading poetry again because I couldn’t focus on any group of words longer than a couple of pages. Reading the standard-length essay, like the one you’re reading now, became impossible. I needed some truth mainlined quickly and beautifully, the way only poetry obliges.
I’d curtailed running years ago because of a knee injury, and stopped reading poetry because of a more imperceptible injury to my writer’s soul. I couldn’t hack it as a poet. As an essayist, the work was still brutal, but doable, with its ample space to fuck things up—fucking up in essays, in fact, is laudable—and I read less and less poetry because I didn’t want a reminder of my writerly shortcomings. The idea that I could do both well never occurred to me.
Which, given the history of overlap between essays and poetry, is insane. And as a reminder, lately the poet/essayists are popping up everywhere, like so many…like so many Gizmos fed after midnight. Rather than resenting them for writing two genres beautifully, I’m reading them. In a summer comprised of extra-long runs and extra-short readings, I waded into Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, which immediately revealed what years of self-pity obfuscated. An essayist is a poet is an essayist. Of course essays can be as brief and mainlineable as poems. And anyway, Fennelly isn’t constrained by genre. Heating and Cooling is a collection of poetic essays forming compressed portraits of her life, dark desires and warm wisdoms and petty jealousies. All feelings and forms welcome.
And hey, she writes about running! In the midst of reading the book, feeling all woo-woo, we’re-all-leaves-of-grass about my writerly self, my body broke down. First I strained a calf muscle, then re-injured my knee. (Fennelly gets to be a poet and an essayist and a runner, which I highlight here with zero bitterness). As an imperfect running substitute, I began yoga through Zoom, two modern practices that seem mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, week after week, as I listened to instructors marry poetic Sanskrit with prosaic American pose translations to teach the body how to move mindfully, I persisted.
In the midst of a yoga pose, it doesn’t like I’m doing anything, until I’m nearly finished doing it. For instance, the idea that not setting a clear intention can be intention itself—we shall simply see what this next fifty minutes holds. Once I’m in position for enough time to recognize all the work that’s behind me, the pose is over. It’s time to move onto the next one.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Arms rest at the sides, palms facing out. Really this pose requires just standing there, a simple enough position that can also, depending on context, make a body feel buck naked. Writing in the first person does the same; it’s at once natural and terrifying. It’s a reckoning with the self: this is who I am and what I have to give. Ommmm. I am an asshole who does yoga for exercise, not for the benefits of clarity or oneness. Let’s dive into the sweaty parts. I am a person who would rather be running.
From the outset of Heating and Cooling, Fennelly comfortably lays herself bare. In “I Come from a Long Line of Modest Achievers,” she writes, “I’m fond of recalling how my mother is fond of recalling how my great-grandfather was the very first person to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on the second day.” This early essay, presented fully here, is one of the micro-est of her memoirs, and as in so many others, we settle into the playful conversation between the title and the text. This one-sentence legacy of semi-greatness is a precursor to bigger stories, but the wry wit persists. She stands easily in the essayist’s Mountain.
Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Here I forward-fold and walk my hands outward to make myself an upside-down V, or if I’m feeling poetic, make myself the Charles, the Ponte Vecchio. This pose serves as a refrain for the yoga class, returned to intermittently between other poses, since it’s supposedly among the most effortless. A few weeks ago my son toddled into my Zoom yoga class during Downward Dog, and in his imitative fashion, Downward-Dogged underneath me, creating a double-human-bridge. Having lived so much inside Heating and Cooling lately, I thought of how this image would look through time. For now, I was the bigger bridge protecting him, showing him how it’s done, and soon, before I know it, the metaphorical human bridge he builds underneath will support the psychic and literal weight of tired old me.
Fennelly’s series of five “Married Love” missives act as the book’s Downward Dogs, interspersed at nearly equal intervals, and show the endearments of a marriage across time. That includes the tenderness of turning on each other’s seat warmers in a cold car, and tenderness of another kind: how best to cool testicles after a vasectomy. As a novice yogi, one of my skepticisms with the practice is its dedication toward centeredness. For me this translates to earnestness, a quality I despise most especially when I find it in myself. Like Fennelly, I want to be able to laugh at all our bodies can do with and for one another, and all we can’t. Even with our heads upside down, ass in air, which is obviously the best time for laughter.
Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana)
This hip-opening pose begs the question, was the human body meant to bend this way? Will I ever be able to de-pretzel my lower leg, currently tucked between my chest and chin, forward-folding over my knee into agony? When my creative writing students struggle with the essay, it’s often because they haven’t yet found the appropriate container, or form, for their content. If the stretch is supposed to center in their hips, their knees are aflame instead. Something is off, and though an instructor can guide them, only the practitioner can figure out how to right themselves.
Heating and Cooling itself is a lovely container of fifty-two micro-moments from a life well-lived. That precise number conjures the neat equivalent of weeks in a year, though Fennelly’s container is larger than that. The collection spans a lifetime and suggests an ongoingness of experience, as in “I Was Not Going to Be Your Typical.” It’s the most overtly poem-y piece in the book, written in fragments about the divergence between early “drunk years” of the narrator mother and her daughter, and the now time: the daughter, now a teenager, prefers not to reminisce about her mother feeding her with hands and breasts. Yet the mother insists, despite maybe even her own wishes, upon memorializing their drunk-love first years together, back when, as the mother says, “you’d scrunch smell / toward my milk / blind and earnest / as a worm.” In Pigeon Pose, when opening up the space through which women deliver life, it hurts both when you get the position wrong and when you get it right.
Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)
If ever I’m feeling like an overcooked noodle, physically or emotionally, this pose shifts the paradigm to man, fuck nah. Front leg’s bent knee lunges forward, arms poker-straight, reaching in opposite directions, back leg’s straight and strong with toes pointing at a 45-degree angle. Stretching the upper body toward opposite walls with legs rooted to the floor, well, I don’t want to stay here forever, but I’m so goddamn strong I could, if I wanted to.
While it’s true that as an American woman it is both my legacy and duty to hate my body, this is less the case since I had children. I’ve seen my body in so many permutations, my awe for it has stuck. During the birth of my daughter, for which I drew up no plan other than “survive,” the nurse asked me as we reached labor’s pushing stage whether or not I wanted a full-length mirror at the foot of my hospital bed to track my progress. Yesgivemeamirror, I breathed, and for the next two hours watched my vagina grow first into the size of a basketball, then morph into the Taj Mahal. Epidural-high, I narrated these metaphors excitedly to my husband and nurse. Maybe the confusion of pain crouching beneath drugs was so disconcerting I had to fill it with addled poetry.
Which brings me to Fennelly’s actual poetry in “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ as a Synonym for ‘Weak.’” The context for the title is her narration of the birth of one of her children: “I’d climbed as far inside me as I could. Everything else had fallen away. Midwife, husband, bedroom, world: quaint concepts. My eyes were clamshells. My ears were clapped shut by the palms of the dead…I was the fox caught in the trap, and I was the trap.” The essay is one of the briefest and most stunning accounts of what a woman and her vagina make and become during childbirth. As she quips at the end, “I did this without the aid of my hands.” The essay’s title reminds me why I rarely use the word “pussy” in any context. I prefer “cunt.” It conjures many attributes, but never weakness. “Cunt” is tree-trunk strong, a word that cuts.
Boat Pose (Paripurna Navasana)
Anyone who can hold this posture for more than ten seconds without shaking has a tree-trunk core. Here I begin in a seated position and make my upper and lower body into a V, balancing straight legs at a 45-degree angle. The Boat hurts every time, but like repeat childbirth, or childhood trauma, I forget the precise exquisiteness of the pain until I’m inside the moment again.
If the memoir were a Boat Pose, one half of the body, let’s say waist-up, is scene, and the half below the waist is reflection. This doesn’t require an even split, as some of us have longer torsos, others longer legs, but it’s all about your unique body’s (memoir’s) way of balancing the two. Throughout Heating and Cooling, Fennelly is a magician of this balance, but perhaps most of all in “I Survived the Blizzard of ’79.” It’s the story of her father endangering both her and her sister’s lives as they trekked for miles, scarfless, to attend an inevitably-closed church during a not-necessarily-survivable Illinois blizzard. The descriptions of the three trudging through the snow is a powerful enough story to necessitate its telling, but it’s the reflection at the end—that for years, Fennelly believed this was a happy memory—and the metaphor of how she’s unwound that scarf of trauma over the years, in how she’s cared for the lives of her children and for herself, that leaves the reader breathless.
Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
This pose lights glutes afire as I pretend to lower myself down into an invisible chair and…hold. Right there. But it’s not the burning quads that are discomfiting; there’s no difficulty in getting into the pose. The terrible part of Chair is feeling, what do I look like right now, in this awkward-as-hell position? There’s a Southern lady’s maxim, or maybe it was just my Italian grandmother who believed herself (and this is the power of America) to be White and Southern, that dictates a woman must always leave her house in clean underwear in case she gets into a car accident, lest she be embarrassed in front of the paramedics. Since the height of tragedy would be to have skidmarked or spotted underwear, even while bleeding profusely from the head.
I’ve never shared her fear, though one of the only reasons I’m scared of dying is all of the unfinished, terrible writing on my computer. Might so many shitty drafts, in the end, become the totality of me? It’s a fear just as irrational as the Southern lady’s, toward whom I feel superior. I too worry about how I’ll be perceived, particularly when I’m in an uncomfortable position. Which is where Fennelly finds herself in “Sweet Nothing.” In this essay she wonders whether or not her father deserves a death bed “I love you.” She says the words, but rather than saying them for him, she says it aloud for the sake of her future self, who warrants no regrets. She hovers over an uncomfortable truth about herself, and holds it, holds it…right there.
Dancer’s Pose (Natarajasana)
Balance on one leg, slowly lift the other leg behind you while leaning forward at the hip with the balance-side arm extended forward. It’s usually one of the later balance poses, since it’s a tough one. In Dancer’s Pose, I always imagine handing something over to an invisible someone, because if I give my arm a purpose, I might stop thinking to myself, don’tfalldon’tfalldon’tfall. In “Orange-Shaped Hole,” Fennelly hands readers the memory of a woman she met decades ago at a party of London intellectuals who, for no discernable reason, threw an orange through a closed window, creating a mess that someone later, unromantically, must have had to clean up. Fennelly asks of herself now, “Why, at nineteen, did that strike me as the height of glamour? And why—this is even harder to parse—why, remembering it now, does it still?” The genius of this essay is that when she’s considering the tenor of the memory, how and why we remember what we do, she proffers the orange as a gift, questioning how or if we’ll even remember it.
While prepping for Dancer a few weeks ago, my instructor said the pose’s name in Sanskrit: Natarajansana. Repeating it in my head, it sounded vaguely like a combination of the words for orange and apple in Spanish: naranja y manzana. These words conjured memories of how as a mixed-race child, I was sometimes embarrassed to learn Spanish alongside English. My White grandmother constantly warned that learning two languages would make me stupid (so much for the Silent Generation); my Ecuadorian grandmother told me my White one could come miedra. I don’t remember when I learned about cognitive dissonance, or if I’m constantly relearning it, even as I write this essay. Like the idea that being two things at once is actually okay. A steadfast non-dancer can do Dancer’s Pose. It’s acceptable to be a runner who can’t run, a writer who can’t write poetry. With her essay, Fennelly gifted me a memory within a memory of an orange, which bled into a naranja, and now, holding this pose, I’m gifting both of them to you. Aqui esta tu naranja.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
When yoga instructors claim this is the most difficult part of the class, they are lying. Corpse is just a low-key mini-coda allowing a mother like me for once in her damn day to lie on her back and do nothing. We’re encouraged to think about all the work we’ve done through class…or not. Empty the mind, open the chakras, instructors prompt, or maybe it’s an inversion of those verbs. I don’t know. For those last ten minutes, I sleep.
The last piece from Heating and Cooling, “Addendum to ‘Salvage,’” references an earlier essay in which Fennelly’s father-in-law, an octogenarian and salt-of-the-earth mechanic for sixty years (and to whom, along with her husband, her book is dedicated), laments missing several of his teeth, but balks at replacing them. Teeth are a great expense, and he isn’t sure how much more use he’ll get out of them. Still, he says, “All’s I need’s enough to chew a steak.” In “Addendum,” Fennelly acknowledges that with the earnings from a considerable literary contest prize, she bought her father-in-law one tooth. Though there’s much generosity in this moment, there’s little art to it. And that is the point. This final piece illustrates the stunningly simple truth that all the tough and lovely work of getting here can earn tooth money. It’s not a moment to sleep through, but it doesn’t require overthinking, either. Good words win teeth. That’s both a warm thought, and a cool one.
The translation of the phrase ending every yoga class is nearly universal: the light within me recognizes the light within you. We conclude in a bow, from me to you. This is also what the best essayists do. They show us who they are in such crystalline pieces that we paradoxically feel seen just by doing the seeing. The call to look at another’s life asks that we look more deeply into our own. This is the gift that, in short order, Fennelly and other poet/essayists grant us.
Heating and Cooling contemplates why and how we remember what we remember, and how the art of remembrance, in all its flaws and joys, shows us how to live in the now. Reading this collection does for the mind what the best yoga classes can do for the body. The light it shines in me is the idea that I started this essay saying, and really believing, that I quit poetry because I couldn’t hack it. This is only partly true. It’s also true that once I discovered the miracle of the essay, I fell in love with all it could be, and what it could make of me.
I certainly bow to Fennelly. But doing yoga during this pandemic has forced me to say Namaste to myself. I can run again when I’m ready, maybe even someday return to the poem, but for now, in front of the mirror before which I perform my flawed poses, I end each yogic attempt, or essay, by bowing to me, too.
Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. She was awarded the inaugural William Bradley Prize for the Essay for “Exercises,” published in The Normal School and listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2019, and was a finalist for the 2019 Lamar York Prize in Nonfiction for her “Bugginess,” published in The Chattahoochee Review. Recent essays are forthcoming in Barrelhouse and The Fourth River. She is at work on her first collection of personal essays entitled Nola Face, and her memoir about her Ecuadorian grandmother, Lala.