Body Memory

Body Memory

by Joel Peckham

ISBN: 9780898233520

Publisher New Rivers Press

Published in Self-Help/Death & Grief, Health, Fitness & Dieting, Nonfiction

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Book Description

The collection focuses on how all experience, especially the most intense, whether personal or collective, is literally embodied in each of us, right down to a cellular level. The implications for the individual artist and the community that surrounds him are profound. Body Memory suggests how difficult it can be to let go of trauma and move forward since it operates in unconscious or semi-conscious terrain. How can we let go of experiences that have literally become part of us?

Sample Chapter

from Swimming

— For my wife, Rachael


After the accident I wasn’t swimming, but I wasn’t drowning either. Treading water maybe? Holding my breath and going under, coming back up when I had to. Metaphors fall apart. They always do.


A few times every summer Camp Manitou would have an “island swim” in which campers could breast-stroke, crawl, and dog-paddle the half mile to Birch Island and back again. This was in the early eighties, before fears of litigation halted so many dangerous camp traditions. I often think about how insulated my own son’s life has become in comparison. When I was a kid, we didn’t wear helmets when we rode bikes. We played “touch” football games with bone-crushing fervor. We sledded down suburban hills and stationed lookouts in the road at the bottom to watch for cars. We played street hockey literally in the middle of the street. I think we accepted danger as a natural part of our lives back then. Or perhaps we simply didn’t want to face the reality of danger.

Of course, at Manitou there were attempts to keep the campers safe. Counselors would paddle out in canoes and kayaks to protect the swimmers from errant ski and fishing boats, pulling boys out if they looked exhausted. But with as many as fifty boys swimming at the same time in dark, murky water as deep as twenty-seven feet in some places, there was no guarantee of safety. The swimmers’ abilities varied. Not everyone even made it out to the island, never mind the return trip. And pulling an exhausted, weeping, fourteen-year-old into a canoe could often result in both man and boy holding on to an overturned boat while waiting for help. “We’ve got three more floaters,” Mel would broadcast on his bullhorn, and the Whaler would lurch out after them, slowly picking its way through the boys, trying not to swamp them in its wake.

Even crazier than the event itself was the fact that so many of us signed up for it. Other than an achievement patch and certificate, there was no reward for having finished the swim.

But most kids aren’t afraid of drowning. They can’t imagine death at all, can’t imagine not being, because for a boy the world does not exist without him in it. The camp itself came into being only when we stepped off the bus in June, and though we had changed over nine months of school — accumulating zits and hair in private places, having our first wet dream and maybe even our first kiss — the camp magically stayed the same.

From the shore the island, like the moon on a clear night, seems closer than it is, as if you could reach a hand out and touch the egret’s nest tilting in the highest tree. It’s not that far, you tell yourself. I can make it easily. But then you swim two hundred yards, and your arms start to hurt, and your back. You switch strokes and begin to feel it in your abdominals and your neck. Muscles you don’t use on the ball field begin to ache and cramp. And that island just looms out there. You stop believing there is an end to all this water. You pick your head up after three hundred yards, and some asshole guitar instructor says from his kayak, “Come on, Joel. Only, like, a thousand more yards to go.”

I remember sitting on the rocks of the island with my best friend, Neil, staring at the boys spread out all over the lake, some still paddling toward us and some back toward the beaches and the lodge.

“That,” Neil said laughing, “is a long fucking swim.”


What am I afraid of? Well, there’s swimming. I don’t like heights much, either. I’m terrified of driving at night. And, of course, there’s what might happen. The what if’s. Darius does not ride his bike without his helmet, and then only as far as my eyes can follow from the front steps of our house. And he goes sledding only at the park — with me watching. I’ve gotten remarried, to Rachael, a beautiful, kind woman who tries each day to pull me into the future with her, rubbing the pain out of my legs, encouraging me to write, to live. But when she’s late coming home from a night class, when she gets angry with me and storms out for a walk, I sweat, I gasp for air.

Sometimes I fear the past, the memory of those moments when I felt lost, when I wanted to take all the Percocet in the bottle by the bed and simply float off. I know those times could come again. There is no exemption from trouble for any of us.

But that’s not the greatest fear. Death is not the greatest fear. Neither is loss.

Living is.

A long fucking swim.


“I don’t want to get better,”the woman said, gasping, alternating between defiance — her hands clawing the air or squeezing what flesh there was around her bony knees — and a deflated calm. The Compassionate Friendsbereavement group met in a small reading room at the back of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church once a month. I was relatively new. It had been only a little over a month since the accident. My younger sister, Tina, would help me out of bed, belt me into the car, and drive me out there, then sit with me as we listened to the stories of other parents who had lost children. Tina thought that it would be therapeutic, and in a way it was. The first time it was my turn to speak was the first time I had told the story. It was the first time I’d been able to speak of it at all. But in this moment, even as I drifted in and out of the fog of narcotics, this frantic woman’s words reached me, stung me awake.

“Why do I have to get better? For who? Oh, sure, for the first few months everyone was willing to listen, but then it was like, ‘OK it’s time to get on with it. Get back to your life.’ What life?”

The other parents in the bereavement group nodded supportively. Some leaned into the words, as if walking against a strong wind. Some settled back into metal chairs, arms crossed, staring up at the ceiling or at the crucifixes on the walls. I remember one man who never said anything, just moved his lips, silently mouthing the prayers and psalms that hung everywhere. A young couple who had a lost a baby to cancer grasped each other’s hands as if at any moment one of them might lose their grip and be pulled out of the room and down the halls into the night. My sister rubbed the back of my neck.

The woman went on talking. As best as I can remember, this is what she said: “My husband used to come here with me, hold my hand.”She pointed to the chair next to her, where she had placed a flowered pocketbook, as if reserving the seat. “But even he is done with it. ‘We have to move on,’ he says. ‘Let go,’ he says. I tell him he’s not living either — he’s just pretending, just going through the motions. He says, ‘You go through the motions long enough, maybe you can start remembering how to live. Maybe it becomes living.’ But it doesn’t work that way. Or maybe it does for other people, but for me there’s no getting past it or through it. It’s everywhere. He’s everywhere. Except he isn’t.”

Her son was eighteen. She woke in the middle of the night to strange sounds from the den — like a cat coughing up a hairball. But they didn’t own a cat. And there was a shuddering sound. She got her husband up, and they crept in. When they found the boy, he was already having convulsions, frothing at the mouth.

“So it’s been ten years,” she said at the meeting. “So what? Every day you wake up, and nothing changes. His room’s still empty. He’s still dead. Family, friends, they act disgusted, like it’s indecent to grieve your own child for too long. After all, he was an addict, right? But everyone’s an addict. Addicted to something. He was my boy, and people act like there’s a stopwatch or an hourglass, and you only have so much time. They tell you it’s all part of God’s plan. That’s indecent.” She stared hard at the priest who mediated the group. “I’m sorry, but it’s true. And one day becomes another, and each day it’s like you move further away. It’s like you were walking together with someone on a path, and he’s stopped walking, and you want to go back, but you can’t. You just keep moving away, and it goes on like that until he’s so far back you can’t even see him anymore. Can’t remember his face without looking at a picture. Can’t hear his voice in your head. I should be a grandmother by now. You know what’s indecent? Expecting me to get out of bed, make breakfast, and act like everything is normal. Like I never had a son at all.”


Excerpted from "Body Memory" by Joel Peckham. Copyright © 2016 by Joel Peckham. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Joel Peckham

Joel Peckham

Joel Peckham is a poet, essayist, and literary scholar. He has published five collections of poetry, including God´s Bicycle and Why Not Take All of Me from Futurecycle, and The Heat of What Comes and nightwalking from Pecan Grove Press . His poems, essays, and scholarship have appeared in many literary journals, including American Literature, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Black Warrior Review, Brevity, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, River Teeth, The Southern Review, and The Sun. In 2012, his memoir, Resisting Elegy appeared from Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago Review Press. His newest collection of essays, Body Memory is now available from New Rivers Press.

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