To experience Toti O’Brien’s In Her Terms is to enter into the physical and mental space of someone else’s reality, to feel what it is to be that person, the good and the bad. This collection is about many things, but much of it comes down to what it means to be a human being today. Much of that is made explicit by the way she relates to the physical world within her body. We are allowed to see both the pleasures and pains of staying alive. Equally, she invites us into the vastness of her intellectual and emotional world as she discusses what it means to be a multilingual artist. In Her Terms is an inside, often gritty, often exuberant look at what it means to live the life that she has lived.
Part of what drew me into her collection is the way that O’Brien allows me to see the world through the lens of artistic multiculturalism. She is an Italian, whose relationship with words brought me insight on how language affects perception. The poem ‘Terminology’ explores this concept:
As I struggle to translate into
my mother tongue the word “soothe”
one I so like that during a conversation
I’d produce it at every turn
uncaring of why
I can’t possibly find a proper
equivalence. The two words
that in my vernacular come nearest
to “soothe,” if translated in English
are “comfort” and “caress.” (3)
Of course, “comfort” and “caress” are weak approximations of the word soothe, and she, who is a master of words, helps us to see the beauty of our language and the limitations of it too. These meditations on words work directly with meditations on the power of art. One of her arts is poetry after all. But she involves herself and us in sculpture, music, and dance. All of these draw us into her intellectual and emotional life. Each helps us to understand how creative meditation and action can help us to experience life more fully.
Another motif that runs through the collection is how the poet relates to her body and invites us to experience greater humanity through a kind of physical empathy. In one poem, she brings us along through a medical examination:
Do not breathe.
You can breathe now.
Close your eyes.
Now follow the blue light.
The AC is running wild.
You are freezing.
Leave, or you’ll get a cold. (28)
I find the discussion of the air conditioning as interesting as the moment by moment of the examination, what it feels like to be looked at as a collection of parts as opposed to a person. In the moment, the animal that is our body is affected as much by the chill in the doctor’s office as it is by the impersonal probing. We are also invited to see her sexuality and her body as it dances.
Toti O’Brien’s In Her Terms is beautifully intimate and exceptionally vulnerable. It draws us into the personal space of O’Brien’s world, taking on the subtleties of life that often go unexplained.
John Brantingham January 4th 2022