The essays in Beautiful Flesh: A Body of Essays make up, collectively, a body, each essay on a single body part and so, moving from head to foot, the essays tell stories of the body, one that is multi-gendered, multi-ethnic, and multi-abled. The whole collection is, for me, summed up in a middle passage from Hester Kaplan’s essay “The Private Life of Skin,” a tale about her battle with psoriasis: “The heart beats faster when we’re scared, the chest clenches as we dial 911, the stomach flips with remorse, the head pounds with indecisions, the mouth waters for a kiss; we are our bodies.”
If we are our bodies, then this anthology seems to be asking “What are we?” Mostly, it seems, we are in pain. Beautiful Flesh is very much a collection of pain, as nearly all the essays are about a part of the body not functioning correctly: hair falls out, sinuses are blocked, a virus attacks the brain, a spine is misaligned. And when the body part is functioning how it should, human violence maims it: ears are bitten off, fingers are chewed at, an unsightly nose is surgically corrected, the toe is broken by a lover. If we are our bodies, this collection seems to argue, we are either causing ourselves pain or we are unsatisfied with ourselves to the same extent that we are supremely interested in ourselves, not just navel gazing, but a careful examination of every part, skin and testicles and veins and all.
Like most of the best essays that deal with maladies, the physical pain and the sensational nature of illness and disease are not the focus of these essays, ever present though those themes were. Under G’Schwind’s careful editing, the essays tell instead the emotional trouble that comes with having a body, especially bodies that must make their way through the world and survive interactions with other people. I am especially impressed how many of the essays dealt with issues of intimacy and family relationships: our body and all its idiosyncratic part stand between us and our lovers and children and parents, but it is also what connects us to them. This is lovingly featured in Steven Church nibbling on his daughter’s ears, but also shown in Sarah Viren touching her lovers with mangled fingernails and Wendy Call’s musings over her mother’s pancreas. And, of course, there is the ever-present mention of the doctors, physicians, healers who must care for this thing that houses us. We are so fragile, this collection shows, fragile enough to provide for a whole industry of caretakers. What it all comes down to, though, is that the caring for our bodies is not a solitary enterprise, just as the stories our bodies accrue are so rarely private because we carry these aches and longings along inside that body.
As an anthology, the essays represent a wide range of essayists, new and established, and are selected from the best literary journals. As such, it is a delightful anthology, one that anyone might use as a study of the essay as a form—a formless form, with many of the essays leaning towards the braided, fragmented type, a heavy emphasis on the lyric stylings of modern literary nonfiction. Following the essayistic tradition, these essays are successful in accomplishing what G’Schwind said she hoped to accomplish, that they would not summon “Frankenstein’s voice,” but instead become something united through “hearts and bones.” For all the reasons above—that it is through our bodies we experience stories and that our bodies tell these stories—Beautiful Flesh is an extremely compelling collection, a pleasure to read.