Arts Books Muse

Book Review: If My Body Could Speak

Emily Mellows explores the portrayal of societal pressures faced by women in Baird’s hard-hitting anthology.

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Image Credit: Button Poetry, 2019

Blythe Baird’s poetry collection If My Body Could Speak is fundamentally unpretentious. As an author, she is less concerned with impressing the reader through clever wordplay and  is instead more focused on  sparking a dialogue. Her work is relatable and easy to read, tailor made for the female, perhaps teenage reader. Anyone who is a fan of the Instagram poet Rupi Kaur or the slam poet Sabrina Benaim, will  appreciate  the bluntness and conversational tone of Baird’s anthology. Like many slam poets, she aims to make her poems accessible and engaging even to those who have no interest in literature.

Baird’s collection is primarily concerned with the same issues many young female readers face; concerns over the body, the desire to gain the approval of parents, young love, puberty and finding their identity. Her strongest poems are those in which she chronicles her fight against anorexia. Unsurprisingly, she chooses to begin and close with poems centring on this struggle. These poems are what gained Baird her reputation in the slam poetry world. Her poem When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny has amassed millions of views online, making her one of the most popular and searched for Button Poetry writers.

Her poetry aims to educate and dispel the myths surrounding eating disorders, fighting back  against the stereotypes and lies that prevented her from identifying her  own disorder sooner. Exhaustion haunts the pages. She desperately wants to recover but struggles when she is surrounded by people who applaud her for her dramatic weight loss; "I say I am sick. No they say, you are an inspiration". Baird is equally terrified of recovery as she is of her illness. If she stops writing about her suffering, she fears her audience will no longer buy her books; "why would I ever want to stop being hungry when anorexia is the most interesting thing about me?"

If My Body Could Speak is more than just a feminist manifesto. The writing itself is superbly  crafted : a must-read for any young writer who aspires to become a slam poet. Her similes are always self-contained, clean rather than sprawling across several lines, tailor made for Instagram. As my eyes crossed the pages, I always found myself stopping every couple of pages to underline some of the brilliant  metaphors. The cleverness of the line, ‘How could I not mistake the ceiling of her love for the sky?’ in the poem The Way I was Taught to Love made my hands itch for a highlighter.

Baird’s collection is at its most compelling and engaging when she acknowledges her own limitations and privilege. Unlike many other millennial slam poets, Baird has an eager awareness of the power she wields as a writer, the control she has over the narrative and her reader’s perception of her family life.

Furthermore, Baird has always been quick to recognise that the way she presents her mother within her poetry is one-sided. As a writer, she is her mother’s greatest critic yet also her greatest defender, highly aware of the historic misrepresentation of women in literature as well as  her undue power as a writer. Baird has always tried to present her relationship with her mother truthfully, whilst still drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that she is likely presenting a biased rendition of events.

In Pruning into Art she acknowledges that, "poetry is the way I choose to expose the myth of reality I am always trying to be a good story". Meanwhile, in An Invitation, she gives voice to her mother who "hates my selective memory…why don’t you ever write about how I used to sing to you before bed every night?" It is refreshing for a writer to highlight their own power and bias.

So too, does Baird acknowledge her hypocrisy, her failure to be a ‘good feminist’ in real life whilst simultaneously monetizing her feminist poetry. In Pocket-Sized Feminism Baird laments the fact that she is often ashamed to stick up for other women in real life, that she keeps her feminism "in my pocket until it is convenient not to like at poetry slams, or in women’s studies classes". She acknowledges the fact that even in the post #metoo era, it is sometimes advantageous (if damaging) for women to "hide" their true beliefs; "I want to stand up but if I do, what if someone takes my spot?...Is silence not an act of violence too?" Is she hypocritical to hide her feminist beliefs until she can find safe spaces? Ultimately, that question is left up to the reader.

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