Emily K. Michael

A Conspiracy of Readings: A Review of Jill Khoury's Suites for the Modern Dancer

I indulge in the fantasy of maneuvering effortlessly to a shady oak, slim volume of poetry in hand, and losing myself for an afternoon. With birds and breezes for companions and sunlight unproblematic on white pages, my escapism thrives on the act of reading, rather than the text itself. In reality my reading of standard-print texts is mediated by real and artificial voices. I can't follow the text visually unless I enlarge it myself, so I download books to my phone and use VoiceOver’s text-to-speech features. Such readings are mechanical but precise. If I follow along with a large-print version of the text, I almost forget that I am reading collaboratively. 

But I prefer real human voices. My friend and I settle down at the kitchen table with two copies of Jill Khoury’s Suites for the Modern Dancer. His is the 2016 paperback edition, and mine is a manuscript copy in 18-point font. Since I can't skim the collection by sight, I use adhesive red flags to mark each page I write on. 

Having an extra pair of eyes is useful here: my friend points out the variety and subtlety of Khoury's visual style. Italics within lines and italicized separate lines, small caps and no caps, and whole stanzas broken into columns, split down the middle by elongated caesuras. Lines marching across the page with abandon—Marianne Moore and E.E. Cummings would be proud! These are details that VoiceOver cannot comment on.

But reading with a non-digital companion offers its own challenges. It’s cumbersome to jump around the collection, to repeat a poem or skip ahead. So after the first 30 pages, I return to VoiceOver. I load the book onto my phone and ready my red flags. I open the iBooks app and turn on VoiceOver, comforted by the even voice of Serena. I swipe down with two fingers: 

“VoiceOver does not support this content.” 

I am a blind poet who cannot read another blind poet’s poems about disability. In Serena’s smooth British accent, VoiceOver offers a microcosm of Khoury’s central question: How do we support these poems, these poets?

Fortunately, Serena is willing to read with the Kindle app. 

Suites for the Modern Dancer begins with “Collected Works,” a poem that frames the body on display. Khoury opens with a definition: “Our bodies: tables / of translucent skin / on which is inscribed / a topographical depiction”—setting two precepts for the poems that follow. Our (translucent) bodies are invoked in the creation of art, and someone is inscribing them with meaning, unearthing the “stories buried deep.” The poem ends with these lines: 

“…For a modest
fee, you can put your eye to the scope, 

walk our many alcoves, peruse the shelves,
ambiently lit. Locate your own reflection.”

In this promise, the poem quietly draws a line between observer and observed, and the following poems illustrate the “small fee”—the cost of possessing effective and defective vision. 

Promises and oppositions run freely in this collection, highlighted by the movements of five speakers. Suites places an anonymous “I” in conversation with four named characters: Emma, Annie, Nixi, and Lisa. Emma and Annie are the most memorable, perhaps because they are introduced in the first movement. We meet Emma as a nine-year-old with “red wooly hair,” while Annie appears in “Kudzu” as the embodiment of her mother’s luck, tearing through the supermarket in a shopping cart. The poems follow the characters in and out of an institution as they explore their traumas. The “I” of this collection may not be a coherent persona, but chronology and conversation with other characters encourage the speaker’s continuity.

The “I” first appears in the third poem of the collection, “Residual Vision / A Feast for Young Corvids,” which details a blind child’s experience of an occupational therapy exercise. The poem’s slashed title suggests a conflict between medical and literary interpretations of an event. In this poem, Mr. Charlie drops a handful of black beads for the speaker to retrieve, but the speaker becomes conscious of the “young corvids” — raucous sighted classmates who can complete the task far faster than she can. Khoury writes: 

“They can cast their eyes in one direction, two beads
strung on a strand. They watch me operate; my own eyes

shiver in their sockets, legs twist to protect my fragile
balance. All the heads turn at once toward me. Sharp beaks.

Lithe bird-beast bodies dive to trap the shining things
swallowed by the corners of the kindergarten wing.”

Here, the avian imagery unites two oppressive forces in the poem. Mr. Charlie “wings” the black beads from “the valley of his palm,” and the corvids dominate the kindergarten “wing.” Khoury’s child-speaker is set against these authorities: the sighted who accomplish tasks as prescribed and the therapist who assigns tasks and measures progress. The sighted do not have to “operate” their eyes. 

The child’s voice continues in “Coexistent Conditions,” where Khoury uses all lowercase and ampersands to emphasize the smallness of the speaker. The poem begins with Cinderella images in these lines: 

soot on my lips
& soot on my eyelids
& hard floor of the attic
             where a thousand alarms astonish my brain 

But this speaker is oppressed by a male villain who “makes me run laps around the yard b/c I am fat” ending the line on a word that defies the smallness of the poem and emphasizes the child-logic of a cruel adult. Regardless of the speaker’s body (we don’t know who chose to label her “fat”), the poem offers an encounter with someone outside the speaker who knows best, someone adjusting the speaker’s body toward normalcy. 

The shadow of medical corrective looms across poems like “Red Room,” where the “I” meets Emma of the red wooly hair. Emma’s hair is red “like strawberries and stop signs. / Red like valentines. Red like mine.” The images and rhyme create a child’s voice that makes the poem’s talk of institutional privileges—outside time and communal eating—heartbreaking. Emma encourages the speaker to make her bed because “they see it as improvement,”, but even Emma must flip over her pillowcase to hide the signs of restless sleep. So in a place that argues for health, the speakers still keep secrets. 

Khoury is at the height of her craft in “Perihelion,” a poem where the “I” saves her husband from the “muscular sea.” In two-line stanzas, the poem pulls together powerful images:

The thug’s-eye sun measures my actions.
my shoulders blush and burn. I press 

with dumb fingers until he exhales ocean. 
My shouts send two gulls reeling, ashy wings 

beat too near our heads. I breathe for him, 
and waving wildly, chase the gulls. 

Otherwise, they’d steal our eyes. 

In this poem, the speaker is too close to the sun, too close to sparkling danger. Everything glares until even vision might be too much and the last line carries an old fairytale threat. 

The collection ends on “Saltation with Cane,” a poem about a child’s exploration of the speaker’s body and world. The speaker teaches the child to say white cane. Far from the corrective authorities who see the cane as an emblem of defect, the child wants to twirl around it “like a maypole.” The speaker says, “She is joyous. I am circumscribed.” With the speaker’s help, the child tries the cane, spins, explores. The entire collection is circumscribed as the poem ends on this line: “I chant spin spin. I don’t care who sees.” By closing the collection, this child’s game creates a powerful alternative to the scientific readings promised in “Collected Works.” 

“Saltation with Cane” thrums with collaborative play — a stark contrast to the oppressive authorities of earlier poems. Even Khoury’s title poem, “Suites for the Modern Dancer,” is a sad choreography of mobility mishaps. Any blind person can empathize with the slamming doors, crowded hallways, hidden bruises, and embarrassment that covers the many movements of the title poem. But the collection pivots on that poem, on the work of the modern dancer. Must we maneuver alone and ashamed? “Saltation with Cane” says no—and ardently limits the oppressive diagnosing and observing promised in “Collected Works.”

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RETURN TO ISSUE 5: August 2017