Body of Words

By J. Ruth Gendler

"Eloquence," Monoprint by J. Ruth Gendler

There is so much beauty in the way we are built and the ways we build meaning. Exploring the roots of language, the histories that inform the words we use, in naming the bones, the muscles, the capacities of the nervous system, the fluid soup of chemicals bathing our spine, I am filled with gratitude.  Studying the energy and structure of the body, the energy and structure of movement, the energy and structure of language, inspires a more subtle awareness, increases connection and intention.  There is purpose, intelligence, and beauty to everyday movement and everyday talk.

The embodiment of language is not something we are taught in school, but there is a root truth in language that comes from blood and bone, a sensuality in language that is a great source of pleasure, play,  and wisdom. When language comes from the body, it becomes a bridge that connects us, almost like a material we use to build houses of words and houses of silence.

Allison Luterman begins a poem, “I love the truth the way I love picking blackberries,” elaborating how “old truths hung too long on a bramble go soft and cobwebby/ and truth picked too soon is full of acid.”   I realize that I love the body the way I love language. The way each is a form. The body seems tangible and substantial, language elusive and intangible, but sometimes, it switches. Bones become visible from under the surface at wrist and ankle and knee, and language becomes transparent when we are most united with what we have to say.

Both our bodies and language are ways we give our beauty to each other—simple and straightforward or adorned and embellished with skill and delight.  Perhaps, as the scientist Robin Dunbar suggests,  language and, in particular,  gossip, developed as an aspect of grooming—casual, meticulous, playful.  It offered a way for humans to bond and keep in touch as the social group became too large for members to groom each other personally. A strange and delightful idea.

Elegant speech in courtship and prayer is appreciated throughout the world.   Delicate bold petitions, elaborate phrases, outrageous spontaneous raps, vivid laments, and litanies of grief—so many of the heart’s best poems are never written down.  Spoken at times of great need and love, there are whole tapestries of words we will never read, because they were spoken between lovers, from the seeker to the Source, from the inner soul to the Great Soul. Offered from the heart in the moment, these songs are serious and sincere, a beautiful, transient, essential sweetness.  Such eloquence reminds us of the beauty of living language, the honey of living story, the poetry that goes unnoticed in everyday life.

Language, like the body, is alive, expressing the soul, the self, the breath,  in phrase and gesture. Language becomes a dance, many dances. Dance becomes a language, many languages.  To me, the body can’t help but be about the body of language, spoken and written, chanted and sung.  How many times did we make a shelter of good talk? A language of doors and windows? A language of light and shadow? A language of forgiveness?

The body is multiple, like language, with interpenetrating layers of visible and invisible beauty, weaving together form and energy, history and presence.  I love the way tapestries emerge from the straight lines of the loom, music from the notes of the score, poetry from the energetic lines and small black marks, circles, half-circles, and zigzag lines of the alphabet, the human body from pictures of cells, X-rays of vertebrae, old Tantric diagrams, Chinese Meridian charts, the anatomical drawings of Renaissance painters.  From all these grids and maps something else emerges, full of curves and chemicals, the life force, glorious and spontaneous, always changing, finding form in our bodies, our expressions and utterances.

According to the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, the Guaraní Indians use the word ne’e for both “word” and “soul” because they feel that those who lie or squander words betray the soul. And isn’t it just as true that those who abuse or disrespect the body also betray the soul?

In the sacredness of both body and language, we sense their great commonality and realize how each can remind us of the other’s beauty. It is not often in our rush to existence that we celebrate the preciousness of language and story, the preciousness of body and nature.

Finding our own language, like finding our own movement, is a journey, a labor that requires both work and play.  Sometimes we have to stop making sense in order to find the real sense of what we have to say. In my creativity workshops, we gather words, making lists that move across sound and meaning: unwrap, unravel, temple, tremble, tassel, travel, ankle, uncle, shrug. Sometimes we specify physical words, emotional words, mental words, spiritual words, knowing the essential words like blood or light belong in all the categories. Reading the word lists allowed becomes a kind of prayer.  At a certain point, we make phrases by combining words from the various lists. These combinations bring up surprising images; boney prayers, coherent knuckles, joyful elbow, sad ankle, intelligent pelvis, holy mountain, magenta orgasm, articulate uterus, baskets of memory, bowls of soul. And more than anything else, these combinations suggest the beautiful coherence that the body offers, the movement of mind and muscle, the rhythms of wholeness that embrace us.


Earthman, Collograph by J. Ruth Gendler

May Swenson begins a poem, “Body my house/ my horse, my hound.” In my work with elementary school students, we consider that line as we hunt for metaphors for the whole body and its parts, the sense organs, the limbs. Children describe freckles as raindrops on dirt and cities on a map, eyes like cameras, arms like hammers and wings.  These days, more often than not, the brain is like a computer—quick, complex and efficient.  Dissatisfied with this analogy, I wondered how else we could imagine the brain. I was excited to discover that the Nobel prize-winning doctor, Gerald Edelman, suggests a better model—the intricately interconnected, abundant ecology of a jungle.  The brain, like a jungle, is filled with layers of growth and life, color, sound and dynamic rhythms. Like the rest of the natural world, it is a messy place, characterized more by organic excess than by goal- directed economy and efficiency.

In the contrast between the jungle and the computer, we explore where and how we find metaphors, as well as hear something about the beauty of the life force, the interrelationship between chaos and order in nature and in the mind. Sometimes I feel like an anthropologist of the imagination; I can’t anticipate when my students are going to be literal and concrete, and when they’re going to leap into the immense metaphorical wilderness of the human imagination. The metaphors of the body come alive when we bring art and writing together. After working on a life-sized drawing in a creativity workshop for adults, one participant describes this work, “I am a woman with wild blue hair, honeybees nest in my heart. I am standing on one foot rooted in the earth, the other foot poised in midair waiting for wisdom.”

Artist J. Ruth Gendler is the author of the best-selling The Book of Qualities, the award-winning Notes on the Need for Beauty, and the anthology,  Changing Light.  Gendler’s art, including paintings, drawings, and monotypes, has been exhibited nationally and featured on the covers of several books published in the United States and Asia. 

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