By Modi Deng and Grace Tong
The Body Might Be a Jar
She languishes in the sun-drenched portion of the yard. When she stands, it is reluctant and
cautious. A hand to her lower back, a groan fluttering on her lips. All she wants is joy and
elasticity back in the muscles. It is frustrating to know how the body should bend. Energy and
flexibility, out of reach. Today she is a plant. There are new buds rushing to open and she
turns her face to the sun. Days lengthen and her spine does too.
So many people argue on their phones on London streets —
If the brain were a muscle it would hold much tension. I try to relax the parts
of myself that are forgotten. The nose, the ears. The chin, the jaw. Tension in
cheekbones, forehead. If only I could take a knife, slice round the edges of my
face and lift it free. Soak it in warm water. Bathe it, lay it flat. Let the flesh
still fixed to the skull, the flesh that was underneath, release.
All my pain of late is muscular. The doctor says to me, “us professional women hold our
poker faces so often
hold our tension
need to practice deep exhalation.”
She prods and pokes
“does this hurt,
does this hurt?”
it is cruel: I try not to cry. The doctor says it is my muscles. The nurse might be
watching my face. It is crude and crude.
Nothing feels better than new socks that fit perfectly. Hug the arches, snug around the heel.
Nothing feels better than
the jarring and calming surprise of seeing someone nice in
a terrible place. Didn’t Kundera say?
Beauty appears suddenly, like a world betrayed.
The anatomy of the heart is made up of beautiful words. Each has the
sound of its function. Can you not hear my pulse in my pulmonary
arteries? The space in my atrium? The aorta is aortic, contracting in the ‘a’
and expanding in the ‘orta’.
What is it about pain that makes us write?
We circle around it and poke at it. We nestle it in the language most familiar to ourselves, and it is tender and tender.
In Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy, she uses the language of religion – the one most familiar and most painful to her – to describe her deepest losses.
Her family’s health problems, her own ensuing childlessness, and their tragic realisation they have been living close to radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project in their local landfill are her ‘crosses’ to bear.
After her husband Jason’s eyes are damaged through a faulty surgery, Lockwood walks and walks until the words of Matthew 11:4-6 come to her, painfully and without solace. Religion for Lockwood is a ‘vestigial organ’, one only to be rummaged around in for healing.
You mean to do one movement and your hand does another, or neither. Or it claws and folds into itself helplessly, like a baby’s chin.
When we watch videos about focal dystonia in a musicians’ health lecture, a slow dread crawls across the room. Something of focal dystonia tugs at the darkest recesses of fear. If excessively overusing tiny motor movements results in severe degradation of finger representations in the somatosensory cortex, where is the tipping point? Even its scientific language carries decay and a sense of being out of control. This painless neural condition debilitates pianists, requiring years of recovery and retraining with basic movements.
My professor in New Zealand has trained and worked with musicians affected by dystonia. When she talks about her past chronic pain, she calls it worse than her recovery from a serious illness. It stopped her from doing the thing that defined her the most.
Two U.K. winters ago, I realised that the sky hangs black at four in the afternoon. It made me timid. As soon as it became dark, I took the tube and made my way up the circular stairs of where I was staying. I wanted to rest early before my first audition.
The first thing I noticed were my hands when I woke up in the middle of the night – clawed. I tried to breathe out slowly and opened out my palms. I pressed them against the cold of the stone wall.
In my dream, I had focal dystonia but it was incredibly painful. My hands curled and folded inwards every time I set out to play. They were uncontrollable and knotted like those videos we watched in our circular lecture theatre. Perhaps I’d manifested my moment of reckoning into a dark bundle. I had dreamed about something I didn’t yet know.
I walked across the ratty carpet and opened a cold window of air.
She is flat on her back, blades of grass crushed beneath her limbs, the gentle damp rising
through her clothes to settle on skin. She closes her eyes against the midday sun. She is below
the path of the cold wind, below the summer heat. A heartbeat throbs at the base of her skull.
It seems as if she is spinning, her head tipping backwards into the earth. The blades rustle
gently across her flesh. She thinks she can hear worms beneath the soil. She thinks she can
hear the planet turning.
In the city there is a yoga teacher who, at the end of the class, while all the students are
reclined in savasana, makes her way to each student, lays a rug over their feet and gives a
divine foot rub. It is unexpected, intimate. The rug is lightly scented. It shifts the practice
from the individual to the collective. It shifts the power balance. She is no longer leader,
expert. She is carer, nourisher. After savasana the class breathes together.
In gyms, yoga studios, dance studios, anywhere based around movement, there is a
common language for the body. The yoga teacher encourages us to soften our gaze,
exhale, adjust a pose as needed. In forward bend she invites us to bend our knees,
which is good, because mine are already bent, an inflexible body refusing to obey.
Language for the body is loaded. Mine is a sedentary body by default. I force it outside.
When I exercise, it changes how I feel. Reminders that the legs have a purpose. I am
not just a brain pickling in a jar. I despise and adore running. Find a mantra in my mind,
pow-er-ful-thi-ighs, an obsession with rhythm.
As I breathe out, I feel how nice arm weight is.
My finger beds can sit on the piano keys with the right technique.
I went swimming last night, the third time in three weeks. Shoulder injury is healing, so
swimming is better. Breathing is better. I have to encourage myself to rest between laps.
The best lap is the one that comes just after resting. I push off from the wall and spring
out into the water, head down and neck aligned in a way gravity never allows.
Floating face down feels perfect, but
lungs must breathe.
Blood rushes to my face, hot on the cool water. Water is a
wall that surrounds my heart. When I swim, I experiment.
Taking shorter breaths is hard but I can hold off breathing
for longer. I try not to hum when I exhale, but I fail.
I tend to hold my breath when concentrating, forgetting to let it out, until the tension
is all too much and it releases
all at once.
I float above and watch myself swimming breaststroke,
ungainly and frog-like. Return to my body and leave the
pool parched and thirsty. Swims will always be associated
with the taste of Milo and Weetbix, the post-workout fix I
had as a ten-year-old.
I alternate breathing sides, shoulder tweaking a little. Encourage myself to rest.
When I swim there are no thoughts. All I do is count strokes, count breaths,
count laps. It is a shame to return to land.
the rain line
I walk along the rain line
the invisible line, beds of the homeless
well-groomed lady tugging dog-
French guy shouting
over his full breakfast / estranged
divorcée / mound of
trash / blood rust / cigarettes…
mucky heat rising from
concrete / sandalled filth like New
I used to sit at the dinner table and
defend something I didn’t believe in
(no one could look at me, including myself)
now I get stared at, stern love
lying down in the brow
but I always walk past the hooded man bowed
in a puddle
knees crossed in the cold. the
the words that hold life. rich turtle in a shell. never mind what
they tell us, yesterday,
or ten years ago
doesn’t the rhythm of our words push forward now?
don’t they snap back, a double-edged
sword? stitches left to laugh and unpick
don’t you understand?
this fine line we mend? amend? could you have foreseen this …
What happens when you transfer tiredness from work like electrons?
In the surrealist exhibition at Te Papa there is a recording booth where visitors are invited to
speak their dreams. They are transcribed and printed from a machine. Dreamers are instructed
to file their dreams by category. I describe mine and file it under Place; Home. It could also
go under Time; Past, or Feelings; Longing. The easiest way to describe a dream is with the
simplest words. Its own strangest will fill the moments. Our subconscious provides the best
images to capture the emotion.
I dreamt about childhood, our house in Brightwater Terrace, bags of feijoas and walking to
school. Went around the streets where neighbourhood kids were my friends. Stood under the
blossom tree in the yard.
In the movie Bright Star, Keats stretches himself out onto a mound of
blossoms, he rests atop a blossom tree. He finds things by touch and
then lingers in their finding. He presses his ear and his hands against
the wall where Fanny’s bedroom is; he finds her childhood carved into
her bed, a fairy princess in a butterfly gown. Everything moves in
scenes or small moments, like a dream to be pieced together later: he
forgets his scarf, his coffin is carried down the steps in Rome, he
storms out after Fanny receives a valentine from another admirer.
In the New Zealand accent there is no great distinction between the vowel sounds for wary
and weary. The difficult thing about tiredness is trying to explain it: everyone feels tired,
everyone feels tired all the time. My mother says I am a good traveller and I seem to have the
ability to sleep anywhere:
close my eyes and float above myself.
Places I have slept:
On beaches everywhere, trying not to get sunburnt.
On the floor in a meeting room at work x2
On the floor at countless airports, in a café at the airport, on the plane before it took off,
on the plane just after it took off
On more planes, trains, ferries, car rides, buses home from work
once I missed my stop because I was asleep
On the couch watching TV x infinity
In my boyfriend’s bed in the middle of the day. At my aunt’s place in the middle of the day.
On my brother’s couch in the middle of the day.
On friends’ couches x infinity
I’m actually quite a bad traveller because I am constantly weary. My feet protest walking
even a little bit, anywhere at all. My favourite parts of art galleries are video installations
because I can sit down. I like taking public transport when it means I can sit down. I slept in
the dining room of a backpackers on Sunset Boulevard while someone was vacuuming.
She thinks: I am very good at floating. Throw me in the ocean and I’ll lie on my back
We began with a dream / ‘noticing’ journal, where we documented our dream sequences, our pressing questions, and our observations. A hybrid poetry / prose essay began to form – one rooted in the common theme of the body and how our physical self is part of our creativity and our experience in free, inhibiting, and nuanced ways. Because we are in different time zones and places, we Zoom-called and would often wake up to new writing from each other during our most productive times.
Modi was much more focused on structure which made me think more intentionally about sentence placement, formatting and transitions. Each piece of new writing from Modi was inspiring and so fun to respond to! I feel very lucky to have collaborated with her on this piece.
Grace has encouraged me to write in a longer, more sustained creative format and to immerse myself in the writing process without knowing exactly where it will lead. It has been so special to collaborate on this piece together and I can’t wait to meet one day!
About the Authors
Grace Tong grew up on the Kāpiti Coast, and now lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. She recently completed an MA in fiction at Te Pūtahi Tuhi Auaha o Te Ao , Te Herenga Waka/International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington. Her short stories have appeared in Aniko Press, Newsroom, Turbine|Kapohau, Stasis Journal and Headland. Once described as a ‘professional worrier’, her writing often circles around everyday anxieties, awkwardness and the strangeness of a physical being.
Modi Deng is a pianist and writer based in London and originally from Dunedin. Her first poetry chapbook is part of AUP New Poets 8. Her poems have appeared in the anthology A Clear Dawn (AUP, 2021), Starling, the Stay Home Zine (Bitter Melon Press), and on NZ Poetry Shelf. She cares deeply about literature (especially poetry, diaspora), music, psychology, and her family. Her portfolio can be found at https://modideng.art.