Complex Anatomy in Imani Sims's (A)Live Heart
by Rochelle Hurt
Last week I watched a horde of neo-Nazis march through Charlottesville on my computer screen, their confederate flags waving alongside swastikas, and for a moment I thought about Imani Sims’s chapbook, (A)Live Heart. It had been over a month since I’d finished reading it, but the work had left me with a visceral understanding of pain and resilience that seemed to reactivate when I saw a car drive through a crowd of people as if they were mere debris. Though I knew what I was watching, I still felt shocked at the moment of impact, as if I had expected the whole scene to simply tear open like a paper façade in a cartoon. The relationship between media and reality becomes labyrinthine in these clips and photos of violence. Take the footage of Philando Castile: a man bleeds out in a car as a woman films it and we watch her film it in real time and perhaps with every update on the case we watch it again and again, bringing the man to life and then watching him die over and over, making the woman refilm and refilm. It’s so maddening and surreal that the pain of the matter—the actual physical pain—can sort of fade as the dead man begins only to exist in this suspended frame within a frame.
It’s even easy to forget, amid the shock and outrage, that this antagonistic relationship between real bodies and media images also causes real physical damage. It prescribes our understandings of who is allowed to be real, whose body feels pain, who is a subject and who is an object. Many people have written about this relationship in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and ability. So it shouldn’t have been surprising that when I searched for stock images of a realistic human anatomy illustration as I prepared to write about (A)Live Heart, I found only white bodies (along with a few cartoonish men of color, no women). Look at the one below—the little scrap of pink flesh clinging to the hand, desperately labeling the default human epidermis as white. White bodies are real things to be studied and medically treated, it says. And what of other bodies—the ones we see not in anatomy diagrams but in images of violence?
This is a long introduction to Sims’s book, I know, but it is a work that calls for synthesis of ideas, for a living and breathing context. Sims develops an anatomy of the vulnerable, resilient, hurting, sensual, and sexual self in all of its complex reality.
“Take inventory: a collection” of passages on the body in Imani Sims’s (A)Live Heart
(A)Live Heart breathes steadily through the wounds and broken bones of otherized bodies, often answering violence with sensuality. In “Pretty Girls Don’t Get Tickets,” the speaker notes that “black girls / get arrested. Die / in jail cells,” and asks: “What does it / mean to be / captive parts piled // beneath‘you are just a black / girl, mule, mammy, // pick-a-ninny, object: oppressed.’ ” The next poem, “Consanguinity,” provides not a direct answer, but a brief antidote: “She is blood / Deep ancestral chime … Slick pussy lips: // Eternal night.” The bloodshed and darkness in the previous poem has become a well of sensuality, and one of the "parts" a way for the subject to not just survive violence but continue to thrive and feel pleasure in a physical body under constant threat. When depictions of violence are deployed in this book, they are subsequently transformed into ammunition in metaphors that resist the notion of the Black body, the femme body, or the queer body as merely a target for violence; Sims returns these bodies to subjectivity.
Pleasure, love, and joy in the midst of pain is a theme that courses through the collection. In “Soul Retrieval,” the villanelle form emphasizes this process of transformation through evolving repetition of refrain words like “witness,” “white,” “stars,” “darkness,” “aspiration,” “limbs,” “brown,” “feminine,” “wilted,” and “blaze,” which see the subject “frozen in time,” yet godly, forming stars with her own laughter. Parts of her are broken, but “Survived [is] inscribed across this wilted // Body.” The poem dances through a duality of victimization and empowerment until finally the speaker ends as she began, ultimately “coiled but unbound.” Yet the message of (A)Live Heart is not one of pat consolation. Sims denies this early on in poems like “Cages Never Sing,” which drives home the brutality of gendered oppression without leaning on platitudes for comfort: “Her aging breast, buckled legs / An open cage, her lovers // Piss in.” Sims’s work is urgent rather than consolatory.
In re-reading (A)Live Heart this week, I returned to the idea of media imagery and how it can dehumanize people by glossing over the visceral reality of bodies in pain and bodies in pleasure—particularly when those bodies are already otherized. Sims’s book is a passionate and necessary reminder of this reality.
Rochelle Hurt is the author of In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016), which won the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City (White Pine, 2014), a novella in prose poems. The recipient of awards and fellowships from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Poetry International, Vermont Studio Center, Jentel, and Yaddo, she is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Slippery Rock University.