by Liz McGehee
Sandra Doller’s Leave Your Body Behind takes its reader on a ride through a series of compartments, as it interrogates gender or, more specifically, what it means to walk through the world in a gendered body.
Throughout the book women are likened to animals (mainly canine) and analyzed as such:
“No dog was ever shut in like a woman. The trauma of thinking. Well
aren’t you lucky…
Everyone wants to imagine themselves a girl. Beautiful, brown, saver.
There, isn’t that better. You didn’t even have to touch the middle.
Honey, you just bought yourself a dog.
Here, women equal faunae, while men either consume or abstain from meat and animal ownership. Additionally, many sections of the book begin with excerpts from environmental studies, psychological findings pertaining to gender differentiations, or quotes directly tying women to nature. Often, the relation between women and nature functions as a form of entrapment, conjuring typical images imposed by mainstream literature on women—flowers, softness, beauty, and delicacy—ignoring the human qualities that make women people. However, Doller picks up this culturally forged bond between the feminine and flora/fauna only to eviscerate it while we watch helplessly.
The form, too, doesn’t allow itself to be categorized. It isn’t clear if the text is meant to be essay, poetry, or some mixture of genre, adding another layer of dissection to the work. Separated prose blocks compose countless sections and other sections resemble a prosaic coagulation of sorts. Sentences sometimes drop off completely or change direction, leaving the reader uncomfortable, never quite able to figure out what rhythm the author is attempting to establish or what she will do next.
The prose itself is instructional and commanding, emulating the ways in which women are guided like dogs through the world, or it is disparately submissive, looking for someone to point it in the right direction. The narrator embodies this frenzied, uneven rhythm of the prose, oscillating between a hollow, instructive male, voice and an anxious, permission-driven, female voice. Both appear often within the same set of sentences, as if trying on a new gender.
In one passage, the narrator appears female-emulating-male in an attempt at adequation:
…Once I had a jacket like that but I gave it away. It was given to me. I gave it. Once I saw a boy fix a dock. Once in the middle of the room. Once I taped my mouth shut. For you. Flickered. Once I was handy with a hammer…
The female here transforms from receiver to giver, as well as becoming “handy with a hammer” after the boy is mentioned fixing a dock. The underlying voice throughout the book appears female, one attempting to escape female passivity and subservient placement through the emulation of masculine behavior and speech. But she is never quite able to escape this position as we see in this passage by her flicker and silence. Further, she encompasses this female attempt at masculinity and autonomy through participation in the destruction of other women when enacting the male, what feminist author, Ariel Levy, termed the “loop-hole woman.”
This narrator futilely attempts to leave her body behind with the ceaseless behavioral emulation of the dominant sex, a reflection of western, capitalist ideas of success. The world’s antiphon at her body—eroticization, subjugation, and dehumanization—is led by binarization of the sexes:
Man was here when he wasn’t. That is the style of Man. When the headdress of the bishop or the dovetailed wood joint configuration, the one I can’t figure, when that comes, we will all be matter together. Until then, until one word for two things can actually mean both things, I mean, until the thing can actually be both things its word is, then.
Doller’s book carries the futility of the female body in a world where feminization equals subjection, and with it the neurosis, Stockholm syndrome, compartmentalization, and self-hatred that ensues from dwelling in such a space. Leave Your Body Behind successfully makes its reader question modern, western impositions of gender and the potential for gender when it is no longer tethered to the body.
Les Figues Press.
Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Read another review of this book next door at The Volta.