Reviewed by Angela Eckhart
In 2004, writer Joel Peckham endured a devastating car accident. He suffered emotionally from the loss of his wife and oldest son, as well as physically from his complicated injuries. He chronicles much of this ordeal in his newest book, Body Memory (New Rivers Press 2016), in several segmented essays and a prose poem covering themes such as loss, masculinity, and physical pain.
While the cover of the book states: “Essays by Joel Peckham,” these are not the common essays you would expect. Rather, these essays exhibit the fine art of creative nonfiction with an academic touch. Body Memory seems to be more of a portfolio of Peckham’s honest and analytical look at his emotional and physical pain, and he cites several sources to back up some of his logic.
The book begins with a short prose piece, “Flight,” in which this reader marvels at the connection Peckham makes between physically flying in an airplane (and his fear of flight), and perhaps the aspect of a soul flying into space. This prose contains the literal transfer of Peckham back home in an airplane following the accident. He writes, “By now, my oldest son and my wife are flying on separate journeys in real caskets beneath another plane, and I lie on a makeshift bed in an airplane in pieces placed together by so many gentle hands.”
Following this introductory piece are three segmented essays: “Swimming,” “Phys-Ed,” and “The Shattering,” and finally a poem titled, “Body Memory,” for which he named this entire collection.
The essays portray an aspect of relatability, which is not to say his exact experiences, but the emotions endured before, during, and after those experiences. While many readers may not relate to losing a spouse and child, Peckham explores his thoughts and emotions that span the general feelings of the human experience. His details and metaphors paint a picture in our minds of how an event relates to a common shared experience. For example, in “Swimming” Peckham relates his fear of swimming to the trauma he encountered. He makes an effort to overcome his fear by taking swimming lessons. The time in the pool not only scares him, but it becomes his therapy. He states:
“Feeling less alone—in the pool, in my grief—should be a comfort, but it robs you of something. We are possessive even of our pain. We become it, and even the suggestion that it could be shared is frightening. We want to be alone with it, to caress it and learn to love it like a child, saying, This is mine and mine only. But there are other people in the pool.”
While some people may directly relate to Peckham’s stories, others can only imagine what it was like, and Peckham provides insightful essays about the meaning of survival, whether it’s from a terrible accident, or from being bullied, or suffering from chronic pain.
In chapter 26 of “Swimming,” Peckham brings up a birthing technique in which the mother delivers her baby submerged in water. Throughout this essay, he reflects upon his fear of water, but here he thinks, “To dive into a pool should be an ecstatic return to peace and familiarity. To swim should be to find oneself in a natural equilibrium, devoid of the burden of gravity, in which the heaviness of life can be given over, given up, if only for a little while.” The discussion is deep and metaphorical, and Peckham’s writings all seem to provide these philosophical ruminations.
In the first chapter of “Phys Ed,” Peckham provides exemplary writing, showing and not telling, ideal for the burgeoning writing student: “This isn’t an after-school special. I got lucky. I was terrified, and it was more a spasm than a punch. But then the crack of cartilage. And through Koval’s trembling hands, so much blood.” As a former writing teacher, I appreciated such an astute description, and conclude that Peckham’s writing style and voice are gifted and poetic at the same time.
In “Phys-Ed,” Peckham examines the topic of masculinity and how it can be defined in our culture. He offers an honest look into the culture of the boys’ locker room and how that type of masculinity remains somewhat of a secret to the rest of the world. However, nowadays, cell phone cameras and recording devices are slowly leaking out what goes on in the locker rooms. Those who have played football will definitely understand and relate to Peckham’s reflections. Yet he also discusses his time spent as a boy—and again as an adult well after the accident—at a summer camp for boys. He suggests that at summer camp, a boy can feel most like himself and just be a boy, whereas in football and out in the real world, he is compelled to belong by portraying what he, and others, perceive as masculine. He admits, though, that he sometimes “felt like a fraud.” But, he says, “At least I belonged. I was looked up to.”
Finally, in “Shattering,” Peckham tries to communicate the physical pain he lives with, putting him in a group of other people in the world who suffer daily from chronic pain. He says what probably most people feel when in the company of someone living with chronic pain: “We want them to get better or at least to stop complaining about it. Sometimes we want both. We value toughness and become quickly disgusted by the weak.”
Anyone who has experienced physical or emotional trauma will either relate, or at least understand, the contents of this book. Peckham succeeds in weaving these essays together by unifying our human experiences of pain. He has stated that “all experience, especially the most intense, whether personal or collective, is literally embodied in each of us.” Peckham does what any person should do when trying to move beyond the pain, whether physical or emotional or both. “I take in all the air my lungs will hold, turn my face down into darkness, breathe out. And I swim.” Peckham’s stories are poignant and educational, and his writing is raw and beautiful.[boxer set=”eckhart”]