Aziza Barnes’s “Alleyway” speaks with curiosity and conviction about the versatility of the conscious, even when the body cannot follow the same adaptability. Barnes demonstrates the restraint between mind and body through the prosaic poem’s form. Poetic features stand in to explore the contingency of the mind, which teeter between rejection or acceptance of the body’s limits, leaving the prosaic form to symbolize the body’s limitations. Aziza Barnes’s speaker is transparent in their criticism of themselves:
As fresh garbage is. As dirt sucked out of a fingernail. As a wall clean of prostitutes. When I am this I am at the mercy of my nakedness.
Barnes’s imagery can be taken as a display of self-deprecation, yet it is not an acceptance of how they see themself, but an exploration of where this view can take them. In the following lines, the speaker shifts from their study of themself, to a study of bodies:
I watch porn. I study the geometry of limbs splayed. Not the moan but the angle of a moan. I swallow. In this way I am a thief. Sometimes I forget my body & go untouched until I am touched & scream.
The speaker is speaking to the view of a person’s pleasure, not to the fixation of genitalia, showing a nuanced expression to sensuality, while forgetting gender as a medium for pleasure to exist. Barnes’s speaker gives brief, direct statements, to land on uncertainty. The focus on “touched & scream” depicts the anxiety in having a body the speaker does not recognize or consider theirs. The speaker continues:
Sometimes I want to eat my breasts down to their bitter rind & spit them out. I want to be the bitter rind without suck and easily thrown. Easily thrown I want to be the pebble thumbed & wished upon before enveloping the lake I sink in.
Barnes’s speaker desires malleability for the body, wishing they could mold and shape their body; perhaps, into a body more appropriate to how the speaker views themself. Shifting to the image of the “pebble” being “thumbed” reinforces the idea of the speaker seeking malleability for their body. When the image quickly moves to “enveloping the lake,” the recourse for the speaker is concealment, creating the idea that if the speaker cannot appear the way they desire, then they must hide. I consider the image of the “lake” to rely on various connotations of motion, fluidity, depth, possibly even rebirth, revealing the importance of the speaker’s submersion, or lack of, that follows:
I sink in. I sink in you the lake & by lake I mean gutter a water that does not hold me well. Here we are not the bodies our mothers made.
Quickly, Barnes subverts the connotations of motion, fluidity, and depth with “gutter a water,” displaying an unexpected image for the “lake.” The statement, “we are not the bodies our mothers made,” illustrates the need for another body; again, a body that is more appropriate to the speaker’s view of themself.
Moreover, Barnes’s ability to shift from image to image is representational to the fragmented view of the speaker’s body, but also a universal representation to how many of us view our own bodies. Alterations in images stand in for the change in the speaker’s thought, but with the effect to transpose a change in physical appearance:
If you are to hold me hold me as a gun. Grip me & profit the dark. The unattended purse. The pair of heels darting from us in dull claps sharpening against the concrete as teeth against stone.
Barnes’s speaker takes on a variant of transformations in “Alleyway,” and with absolute grit, especially when arriving at the final line, displaying the friction between conscious and body, like “teeth against stone.”
Click here to read Aziza Barnes’s “Alleyway.”
— Miguel Soto, Asst. Managing Editor; Book Review Editor