Part I: The Tender Experience of Things I Didn't Do With This Body

Part I: The Tender Experience of Things I Didn't Do With This Body

written by Brittany

Have you ever read poetry with a lump in your throat? Where your eyes are heavy but warm from the connection of relation they just read? Heavy strings pulled my heart with each line of Things I Didn’t Do With This Body by Amanda Gunn. I read feelings that felt like mine and feelings that belong to my parents, passed on to me through their telling. I thought to write this post on the entire book, but found more meaning in only writing on each half. And so far, there is so much meaning in the first half.

My best friend donated this book to Candescent Books and as soon as I released it from the veil of its packaging, I felt drawn to dig in to it. To feel it. Knowing her enough to know that of all of the many poems that move her, she chose to send me only this one, and that there must be something special about it. Something in it that will expand my mind, move me along.

Section I.

Gunn welcomed me into her life from the perspective of a daughter in “Father At Table,” and instantly, I’m moved. As a daughter myself, with a great love for her father and equally as great perplexity for his actions, I felt warm envisioning this scene. At the start of dinner, her father demands with “a pointing finger – “chicken”, “cornbread”, “’tatoes” – the delicacies his labor both purchased and prepared for us, all his long hours ours.” She goes on to process, “that godforsaken finger. How stingy it seemed then. Now how tender, how pleading.” An unspoken compassion and love masked with pride and exhaustion, is that of the great burden a black man carries alone for his family, not always privy to the knowledge of how to carry it with his family. “’A Long Ways From Home’” brought me back in time to my own mother’s father, who left before we could meet, and too, had a blue-eyed father. He, too, “wandered far afield, from home to war, to work, to marriage, out of marriage, gone.” There are mysteries to his life, his why’s that I’ll never know, but Gunn’s words of “looking for a father, finding none” brought tears to my eyes from my soul, from a knowing.

To “Kati, Who Doesn’t Remember” knocked the breath out of me like a punch to the gut. Grief. Empathy. Compassion. Love.

I don’t know how so serenely, I bear your rage, shivering and crystalline in the air between us, though its mostly meant for Peter and your own self… I love you, I say. You would do it for me, I say…Eight years ago, in summer, riding shotgun in your rust-built truck, I was wrung, sad, unequal to the heart in my chest, and weary of the sunlight lifting the maple trees. I wanted to be gone – a pale and bloody effacement – as free as Peter would be. Forgive me for ever feeling I could leave you that way.

In “My Father Speaks,” Gunn describes an experience dear to my own, “In school in Connecticut the other Black children mocked me for the way I spoke (wannabe-white-girl-Oreo-cookie).” This isn’t an unfamiliar experience to many people that I know but is certainly a hard battle of acceptance for any child, nevertheless. Then there’s what it can produce: “Each time I opened my mouth, how those children must have believed I hated them. Then they shunned me and I did.” This poem is broken into parts – she weaves in the beautiful, southern-native accent of her father and him navigating northern pronunciation and the silent and hidden truths he chooses not to speak. Unspoken words laced in grief and sorrow and regret that long to be met by his daughter with connection and love.

Section II.

I sat in silence digesting this section. The section that honored the legacy and bravery of Harriet Tubman. Through the pen of valor and conviction, Gunn staged Harriet’s story, our story in “Araminta.”

And in “Thirty-Nine Objects at the Smithsonian,” Gunn snapped, “and now your face on the dollar you dared to subvert…I recall just three things from the tongue my lover taught me, three things her love bought me - hello, I love you, how much does it cost? What did having, holding cost, leaving him there, too? How many twenties would have bought you?”

Yo…*breathes in*

In “Mystic,” Gunn’s beautiful use of metaphors paralleled her own soul’s journey with Harriet’s. What a beautiful and reverent section, a reminder of the where’s and how’s of now.

Section III.

Gunn opens this section with “Go North.” To me, this is a poem that sets the tone for the rest of the poems in this section – checkpoints (or turning points) of significant events along her path that make her her and as she states, “nearly whole.” I cried after reading this section. The emotion she relays through the prose of these poems are not unknown to me; though some events I have not experienced, the depth of them all feel near to me. In “Notes on a Dream of Dying,” Gunn paints the portrait of trauma and guilt following death, the cost of its unacceptance, the pain of its acceptance.

There was the sweetness of “Ordinary Sugar” that reminded me of home, those string of houses on the land that my grandfather bought where the butter of soul food was thicker than blood and held the family together. The richness of those memories and molding of who I am. There’s an air of duty about a black grandmother that I have witnessed closely, and from the privilege of my millennial mind, it doesn’t always feel like happiness. Gunn captured this in the line in which she states, “She’d mastered, in a life, how to grow a winter meal, to till, to weed, to water, to tend, learned how, I hope, to be satisfied.”

And, then, there was “Hystersisters” that describes the sentiments of miscarriage only known to those who know and knew. Life-changing. Gunn possesses the golden skill of telling a story through her work and through “Repair Work” and “Admissions,” she tells stories of different scenes within a mental health hospital. She brings to light the silent battle of superiority and inferiority between the staff and patients, “He said, its nothing, you know. You’re not that much different than me, proving that even to the best of them, we weren’t whole, weren’t quite human.” She also highlighted the healing in community, connection, and laughter – that amongst the imperfections of life are the perfections of life that make it all make sense even though it doesn’t and even that’s okay. The section ends with “Prayer,” another poem that left me breathless and in honor of the female form and of flesh itself.

As expected, I feel deeper and my mind awakened. I shared in Amanda Gunn’s grief, wonder, and love, her wrestle, her search, her compassion. I feel softer and it all feels aligned. I haven’t asked my best friend what her experience with the first half of this book was, but for me, it was quiet and tender, nostalgic and thoughtful.


This is community.


Gunn, Amanda. Things I Didn’t Do with This Body. Copper Canyon Press, 2023, pp. 5-49.
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