'Spastic messiah / erotic daughter'

On Petra Kuppers's 'PearlStitch'

Photo at left courtesy of Petra Kuppers.

PearlStitch

PearlStitch

Petra Kuppers

Spuyten Duyvill Press 2016, 122 pages, $15.00, ISBN 978-1944682066

“Initiate, I greet you. / Claim back the beloved’s bodies, for ourselves,”[1] Petra Kuppers writes in PearlStitch, her sensuous, rhizomatic new book.[2] “We stand, and sit, and lie down my hand resting on your foot your hand in mine / head on shoulder” (51). Kuppers’s second full-length book of poems — which combines queer, crip, anticapitalist, anticolonial, and eco- poetics — intertwines ritual with epic, eros with documentation, and speculation with life writing. Her idiosyncratic iconography — which includes Hermes, witches, dragons, and Luce Irigaray — is framed with reiterating phrases of direct address whose referents slide between the reader, the author, and a third party (e.g., “Here is your mission, should you choose to accept it” [22], “stitch an armor of skin for yourself” [38], “be my mistress, Sophia, silent or screaming, let me swim in your lymph” [24]). This evocative, open-ended juxtaposition conjures notions of bodyminds who are differentiated yet porous and foregrounds language’s ability to signify in multiple ways.[3

A salve brewed for those with different forms or desires, this text is a healing touch that is attentive yet open, soft yet firm, erotic yet maternal (44). A love song for those deemed nonproductive, illegible, or otherwise invalid, PearlStitch offers not a universalizing anthem for the misfits and monsters, but rather caring via observation and listening, love expressed through complex and unwavering description and engagement, approaching queerness and disability in a sensual, seductive way, without normalizing or idealizing (“I need to feel your footsteps / your wheels’ path your snaking ways” [23]). This text is revolutionary rather than reformist in the sense that instead of merely moving such bodyminds from the margins to the center, Kuppers constructs and uncovers a world where those who are seen as heavy-footed or broad, abundant or shaking are lovingly embraced, and we are invited to “Saturnalia, festival of lead / heavy foot thump deep on asphalt street desert track” (6). 

Questions about the meaning and mutability of a body’s form, how bodies constitute one another, and the kinds of alchemical social processes that can alter the makeup of those relations are central to PearlStitch

Change gender

Change genus

Change somatic structure

Change your mind

just keep in motion. (99) 

This vision of metamorphosis is complicated by Kuppers’s insistence on weaving the violence, anger, and pain of living in a too-often heteronormative world into the fabric of her poems (“taste do not even scream, frozen / startle reflex like a fucking possum his meat on my teeth groping deeper why don’t I bite down” [43]). Here I am reminded of “Stolen Bodies, Reclaimed Bodies,” where Eli Clare reminds us that “paired with the external forces of oppression are the incredibly internal, body-centered experiences of who we are and how we live with oppression. To write about the body means paying attention to these experiences.”[4] Like Clare, for Kuppers this unconditional acceptance of the different and changing shapes that a body may inhabit must also include the mark left by violence and invalidation.

Anyone with an investment in the liberatory projects of queer, disability, and feminist movements and in collective and individual transformation will find much of interest in PearlStitch, which offers a memory of love as a complex process that is also a possible future, by turns appreciative, tender, and sensuous, but always attentive to “the other side of the seam” (7), to how queer, disabled, and female bodies are made and unmade. In addition, since much of this text comes out of Kuppers’s work with the The Olimpias (a disability art and culture performance collaborative) and out of the Somatic, Writing, and Movement Symposium, PearlStitch will also be an important text for anyone interested in performance or somatic poetry.[5] Indeed, PearlStitch is in conversation with writers who investigate the relationship between somatic performance and poetry, such as CAConrad, Amber DiPietra, Denise Leto, Bhanu Kapil, and David Wolach. This text also resonates with the growing field of writers who approach disability and queerness as intersectional processes, such as Meg Day and Brian Teare. 

PearlStitch seems driven in turns by both speculative (“Take this recumbent dragon’s blood” [5]) and documentary modes (“dust upon your brow, beloved // fight in the circle of the activist camp” [52]), as well as by the sound of the language itself (“in the rap gap of the knife edge rap trap [54]). This play with language and sound is purposeful: Such reworkings, sonic pleasures, and performances of wit are part and parcel with Kuppers’s (re)construction of the world, where linguistic (and [inter]personal) seams signify desirable difference and texture rather than imperfection or illegibility. Like this aural play, the poems’ visual layout alternates between right and left-justified pages and mixes prose-like long lines (often continuing beyond the width of the page) with short, sparse, generously spaced interludes to create a sense of continuity with variation and a performative, process-oriented aesthetic.

Divided into nine sections, PearlStitch begins with the matter-of-fact “Hagiography,” a list of mythological, pop culture, and historical figures such as Orphea, Olivia Newton John, and Mother Ann Lee (“founder of the religious orders of the Shakers. / Disapproved of sex, thought the Shakers should multiply through / conversion. Shaking as prayer” [1]). In the second section, “Laboratory,” our foremother-narrator beckons us forward, inviting readers on a journey in pursuit of alchemy, which begins with “Saturn” and ends with “Moon and Sun.” Throughout PearlStitch, the form is reiterative and self-reflexive, foregrounding both Kuppers’s improvisational approach to language and her investment in poetry as a means of community-building, connection, and world (re)making. The syntax slides from internal epistemologies that ask us to learn to read anew as we come to understand this idiosyncratic vocabulary to sentences that appear transparent on the surface, but are then taken out of context in a way that requires a kind of alchemy of interpretation: how and why would a nucleus recline, and what deadness might a retort contain? (7). 

“Laboratory” also includes an arresting description of the experience of working on an assembly line, and draws on both Kuppers’s childhood in Germany — when members of her family worked in a fabric factory — and on her own experience working in a factory (8). Sections three through nine echo the “seven planetary spheres” that “the Gnostic hero” must visit “in order to heal the world” (54). The final seven sections map the resonances between a wide range of subjects, including representations by designers at New York Fashion Week of maquiladoras (makeup factory workers) in Juarez, the 2010 Arnieville disability activist camps, the Nazi program to euthanize people with disabilities, and the writings of Gloria Anzaldúa, Carl Jung, Gertrude Stein, and Monique Wittig (among others). “Venus” (part seven) is a reflection on care that accommodates a specific body, on how particular bodies can come to fit one another, and on a love that embraces “my poor knees, my back unsure of its bend” (68). “Mercury” (part eight) calls for a hospitable, healing space and for soothing via interrelation and language. “Moon and Sun” (part nine) raises a challenge and a question, offering a theory about how to live in a body in a way that is cognizant of borders if only to cross and undo them (“Contained. Open.” [92]). 

The poems in Pearlstitch are essential reading for everyone with a body, but they also contain coded references to disability and queerness. For example, readers familiar with disability culture will  read lines about Hermes’s slyness and Mother Ann Lee’s interpretation of shaking as prayer as allusions to disability culture, where slyness signifies resourcefulness and shaking is associated with a variety of physical disabilities, including cerebral palsy and fatigue (1). Likewise, as Marissa Perel demonstrates, readers familiar with queer cultures will interpret lines about the dangers of public transportation as a reference to the harassment that often takes places in these kinds of public spaces.[6] This combination of openness and specificity means that much of the cultural knowledge present here may be lost on readers who are not familiar with crip or queer coteries, but this inclusiveness also means that readers from all backgrounds will still find much insight and pleasure in this text. 

Kuppers invites us to engage more deeply in the world, to see it anew, to squirrel away small pieces in order to better feel their texture, and to peer beneath the loom as it runs:

… my writing remembers playing at the base of giant mechanized looms, and delving into buckets of fabric remnants in order to get away with small items of pilferage, little icons, forbidden textures. (Notes) 

PearlStitch also asks readers to take part in incantation, to give ourselves over to sensory healing rituals and intuitive logic. It invites us to more fully engage our somatic experiences and the knowledge that they bring. 



1. Petra Kuppers, PearlStitch (New York: Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016), 47.

2. In contrast with binary logic, the rhizome (or rhizomatic logic) eschews hierarchy in favor of complex, decentralized multiplicity. Gilles Delueze and Felix Guatarri, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 3. 

3. Margaret Price, Mad at School (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2011), 11. 

4. Eli Clare, “Stolen Bodies, Reclaimed Bodies,” Public Culture vol. 13, no. 3 (2001): 361.

5. See “Pearl Stitch/Spherical.”

6. Marissa Perel, “PearlStitch: Petra Kuppers,” The Poetry Project 250 (2017): 25.