A review of Let Our Bodies Change the Subject by Jared Harél

Reviewed by Karen Corinne Herceg

Let Our Bodies Change the Subject
by Jared Harél
University of Nebraska Press
65 pp; $17.95, Paperback; ISBN-13:1496237293

Jared Harél’s third and latest book of poetry, Let Our Bodies Change the Subject, continues his quest of maintaining hope against the inevitable perils of being human and how those challenges manifest in our everyday interactions and private moments. In particular, he examines this from the perspective of his closest relationships. His children provide a Petrie dish of opportunities along with a plethora of daily occurrences, none of which he takes for granted. Of course, while death is the obvious “inevitable” that hovers in our psychological and spiritual landscapes, Harél examines on a more microscopic scale how the choices and results of our intimate, routine lives are often inescapable and unresolvable. The devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and Harél conducts a consistent inquisition into the most subtle elements that comprise our days. He is haunted by the display of constant contradictions in the circumstances we face in the smallest matters of our lives. The beauty of his search is what he examines in our habitual, quotidian moments–in specifics that are universally relatable–as opposed to broad sweeping existential queries. He brings the larger questions home and into focus by concentrating on the actualities and physical responses we exhibit in hundreds of ways every day. These poems reflect a masterful ability to excavate inquiry from the tiniest minutia of our existence in the physical world. Let Our Bodies Change the Subject asks us to step down from esoteric pondering and examine everyday realities and how we respond to them. Every action or interaction is a chance to gain insight into what seems unknowable and unreachable, and Harèl is relentless in the pursuit. What do our physical bodies and the tangible world represent and how does it all speak to us? What nuggets of gold might we mine from each interaction if we dare to look deeply enough? 

In the face of continuous challenges and ultimate demise, we find the impulse to go on. But is this done by avoidance or sacrificing truth? Instead of residing in the corridors of hope, acceptance, and more traditional external comforts and distractions, Harél takes slices of daily life and studies them for greater insights about human nature in language at once accessible but piercing and eloquent for its raw, confessional style and vulnerability. He does not move beyond observations with lofty or sweeping proclamations but strides through the challenging muddy waters of the mundane to draw insights from our corporeal world that shift between hope and despair. We feel his pain because we share it. He does not rise above befuddlement with poetic platitudes or despondent capitulations. These poems harbor a profound intimacy with day-to-day life, a willingness to confess to our confusion, and a nagging, persistent impulse to examine life as we’re living it. Each poem is a plaintive plea for explanations that Harél realizes may not or cannot be answered. What he does know is that it’s critical to ask the questions, and this may be all it takes to define courage. 

In the opening poem, “Sad Rollercoaster,” the first line sets up the dichotomy between daily existence and the persistent implication of death and the unknown. We hear it in the innocent remarks of Harél’s daughter who “dreams of bones—how they lift / out of her skin and try on her dresses.” Harél asks if she is okay, and her response reverberates in deflection with “So Silly.” In “The Sweet Spot” he states we are “fighting like hell not to wake up.” He asks how we can protect our children but also let them go. Are such options even possible? In “Swim Lessons” he observes, 

Later when they emerge chlorine-slick and shivering
above the teal-tiled floor,
we wrap them up and swear
how brilliant they were,
which is the lie we recite
before pulling them in. 

In “Plastic Butterflies” Harél’s youthful self believes “he has so much more to give.” Then in “Takeaways” he acknowledges there is “this impulse to eliminate, name it, say Mine.” A cri de coeur of conflict comes through clearly in “A Moving Grove.” The world doesn’t want truth despite protestations to the contrary. He states, “A treasure to be told anything true / though to be fair, it / rarely goes well,” and adds the following lines that quote Macbeth,:

It takes
everything in me not to fall on all
fours and cry, Gracious my Lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do it.

The structure of language in these last lines is prayerful and a plea for truth. There is a recognition of our efforts toward honesty as consistently ineffectual and unsustainable. How do we function in the world and retain a semblance of sanity and worth against our limitations and external threats? How do we raise family in the face of unimaginable obstacles…how to even choose to have children…what act of faith or selfish desires prompt us to bring another into such a dangerous world, especially an America of escalating violence, fractured social support, and lack of connection? Then there’s the global scale of wars, starvation and lack; plagues and diseases; the threats of climate change.

Ironically, the impetus to birth seems to be our most obvious response. It might be the body’s defiance against all odds and eventual demise. In the title poem, Let Our Bodies Change the Subject, he states:

In the kitchen, with the kids finally asleep and news of another shooting
in the space between us,
you confess you think death
might feel like giving birth, the body insistent, having its way.

We might ask what sort of hope allows us, compels us, to perpetuate humanity? And when we do, how do we live with the uncertainties of daily life from the smallest fears to global disasters? For Harél, fatherhood, marriage, and family life are the platforms from which he launches persistent queries into these looming critical questions. Perhaps he offers a clue and sort of resolution when quoting Czeslaw Milosz at the beginning of the book: “Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately, / Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh.” Despite the illusion of separateness, our hope lies in knowing we are all here together, facing the same obstacles, fears, and ultimate fate. Herein is the heart of compassion and comfort for those who embrace it–the understanding and acceptance of our common struggles. We can recognize the reality of the ego, the willfulness, the arrogance, and righteousness that blind us that have nothing to do with objective truth. Does goodness come through us by default from an innate channel to truth that is most often sabotaged by our fears and desires and the will to power of the self? What do we sacrifice for truth to maintain self-preservation or even just our perception of it?

Harél searches for joy with the recognition of how much we are up against in the world. His has a willingness to see sharply the challenges and obstacles that are often devastatingly difficult to understand—to admit joy through inquiry and truth. If we do not see clearly, we are victims of magical thinking, wholly unprepared for those inevitable struggles and painful circumstances that are unavoidable. Harél does not retreat from the ugliness and uncertainties of the world, yet he doesn’t succumb to them either. We do not change the world, we transform the self in spite of it, not simply by resolute acceptance but by a genuine inquisitiveness that allows for compassion, gratitude, and mystery. In “All I’ve Ever Wanted” he concludes, “I will try/against hope to be better than myself, which is all/I’ve ever wanted and everything I need.”

Harél is one of our most important rising and contemporary poets. He’s a recent recipient of the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from American Poetry Review, the William Matthews Poetry Prize from Asheville Poetry Review, and two Artist Grants from Queens Council on the Arts. He publishes in various prestigious journals and has published a chapbook, The Body Double (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2012), and a first poetry book, Go Because I Love You (Diode Editions, 2018). Let Our Bodies Change the Subject won The Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and was edited by Kwame Dawes. These poems speak to us because Harél’s angst is relatable and real and cannot be wished away or dismissed with rational explanations or neat poetic pronouncements. If we choose to journey with him, we can keep exploring the questions together and benefit from his companionship as we continue to explore the enigma of what it means to be human. There is joy and truth in that.

About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg publishes poetry, prose, essays, interviews, and reviews in international magazines and literary journals. Her book Out From Calaboose: New Poems was published in 2017. Her website is: www.karencorinneherceg.com