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Book Review: Theology of the Body by Donora Hillard

June 17, 2010

The cover of Theology of the Body: a black-and-white drawing of what appears to be a Gothic Cathedral. The walls are covered with souls. A woman in a robe which leaves much of her chest and cleavage exposed floats above the ground while look up ecstatically within a shaft of light.In Theology of the Body, Donora Hillard employs a variety of styles and structures to present a complicated picture of the body, desire, and heterosexual relationship. She makes use of the language of theology and an unrelenting physicality in order to create a sense of faith not beyond the body, but through it of a human divinity that is also at once diabolic. It is no accident that the opening epigraph comes from William Blake.

Within this sequence, Hillard manages to portray women with threatening sexualities as well as women who have been made victims. In portraying women’s surprising, and to some, disturbing strength, she does not erase the brutality. “Pursuit”, with the lines

You can see muscles
in my legs from running
after men like you

is followed by “Remedy” which concludes with a literal punch that the tight lines and simple imagery of the first two stanzas allow to have a particularly strong impact on the reader. Reading the last verse for the first time, I jerked back a little as if I had been punched. (This isn’t the only place where I reacted so strongly: take that as a trigger warning.)The only thing which separates these two poems is a line from Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, taken out of context in order to be made into an opportunity for poetic production and imagination. “Remedy” and the other poems interspersed with lines from this same source do more than dramatize or respond to the line which precedes each: poems and statements interact, forming machines that produce new possibilities for the spirituality of the body. The possibilities, no doubt, would have been heinous to the Pope from whom Hillard so skillfully appropriates. The spirituality of the body, after all, is really just the body and living in it. No need for robes, psalms, or Churches.

Every woman, by virtue of the nuptial meaning of her body, is called in some way to be both a wife and a mother.

This quote from the old Pope is followed by a poem that changes the meaning of the final two terms beyond anything he would have recognized. “Wife” opens:

My husband was a shotgun made of candy.
I wanted to kill his former lovers, especially
the Strawberry Shortcake-looking one

The only allusion to motherhood made comes a few lines later:

On our anniversary,
we made love in a kiddie pool full of sugar
and afterbirth.

This strange and joyful sweetness, interrupted by scars and knives with uncertain intents goes beyond the bounds of traditional and restrictive theologies. In doing so, it represents (particularly since it blends sweetness and at least potential pain) the peculiar strength of Hillard’s theology, whether you take it as a theology or not.

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