In a debate I once saw about faith, religion, and the nature of God, a prominent intellectual speaker made the point to his opponents that we, as humans, don’t have bodies but are bodies. It may have been a different take on a simple phrase, and the audience might have overlooked or dismissed it for larger arguments being made, but for writers who focus on the body, the distinction between what one has and what one is matters to how others perceive, use, and interact with it. Katie Condon’s Praying Naked (Mad Creek, 2020) is a collection that seeks to investigate the relationship between the two ideas, and as daring as it is vulnerable, Condon’s poems examine how the body endures the effects of shame and desire.
God, in the traditional manner one thinks of God, figures prominently in many poems, although he is an entity the speaker struggles to trust and accept, aware of the gross inequity that has existed in religion and religious thought throughout history. In “On the seventh day God says, What you’ve got is a virgin charm & a knife in your pocket,” the speaker doesn’t mince words when denying God his perceived absolute authority:
& I’m like, Thanks?
The heart finds its anchor in the sky.
The woman is told she is a tabernacle.
On the forty-third day, I confuse my hangover for grief.
God says, Your longing will be for me, & I will dominate you.
& I’m like, Nope!
The morning wears a cotton dress.
Is this all I will amount to:
The hot breath of months in my pocket?
Every telephone pole I mistook for a tree?
The melancholy suspicion of library security?
The bartender hums the tune
of a hummingbird rising from its flower.
I say, I inherited Sappho’s pussy
& I believe me.
God, and by extension the patriarchy, is adamant that the speaker follows a set of rules throughout her life, that she be thankful, that her body be a “tabernacle.” But the speaker, eschewing even a modicum of formality—mainly because it isn’t needed—responds with a “Nah,” since she knows—as a female, as a poet, as a person who is free to dictate the parameters of her life—that she doesn’t need to “long” or belong to anyone, no matter how much power they believe they have.
In “Poem from the Mouth of God,” God speaks, and the honesty is a rather welcomed sound:
There is a reason
I have yet to let anyone
see my face. I am a lonely man
& socially inept. I send angels
into women’s rooms
because I never mastered the art
of non-offensive pickup lines
& even with a wingman
only one woman’s ever said yes.
The hostility that stems from the inability to connect with women is not just God’s problem, but the problem of many men (one only need look at the incel community as a prime example of desire gone awry). Of course, God here wields a lot more power, but Condon’s ability to shed light on the many ways in which God is merely a reflection and embodiment of man provides reassurance to what is already known by so many.
While there is a rejection of the status quo, and of how certain institutions, as well as groups of individuals, believe a woman’s body is supposed to interact with the world at large, there is also a celebration of what the body is and what it desires. The title poem paints a rather casual scene—the speaker dancing with a stranger at a house party. But she confides how much more this moment means to her:
I’ve never let a man love me
without feeling very Mary Magdalene about it.
Just the other night I was dancing with a friend
of a friend & he got handsy & I got servant-minded,
letting him move his grip from my wrist to my hips
& lower, while a Motown bass boomed through the opaque
& sweaty darkness. It wasn’t guilt I felt
when I decided I was obliged to let him
explore the finer parts of my swaying
body. Maybe it was loneliness. Maybe
it was my own desire to be desired, since if a man
wants me, I know I have at least a little worth left.
The actions of the man are beyond inappropriate, regardless of the situation, but the speaker, desiring to be desired, feels an obligation to let the events play out further, to let the touch be a window into a future where bodies are brought together without suspicion or implication. The speaker wants this type of desire, and in this scene, she is not afraid to admit it. In “Desire is a Sickness,” the speaker elaborates further:
I’ve done some stupid shit—
thought men were meant to be with me
because they said so and because the sun
was hitting their faces through the trees
in such a way their skin was covered
in tiny seas of light. At the pump behind me
an SUV plays an impossible love song.
The trees drop more of their leaves—their
emboldened nakedness a ritual
that families park to watch.
Desire is a sickness we all want.
Even though desire is an ailment (both mentally and physically), it is still something that the speaker, and those like the speaker, want. Of course, it can come with believing that the person you desire is a godsend (hence the light glistening off the men’s skin in the scene above), but even if it doesn’t, it’s still worthy enough to seek and hold onto for as long as possible. Acceptance is the last stage of grief, and it’s a stage the speaker acknowledges we all, at some point or another, come to.
Desire, need, and the social and political implications of the body is a labyrinth with no clear end in sight, but it is one that needs to be navigated. Condon’s debut doesn’t shy away from the confessional, and although it examines uncomfortable truths, it never fails at being hopeful, in reminding us that for every perceived flaw, there is a perfection to be celebrated.