Monday, November 11, 2013

Interpretation and Imitation of Cheryl Denise's "Legs"

Interpretation of “Legs” by Cheryl Denise

Cheryl Denise’s poetry offers complex narratives through straightforward syntax and diction. In “Legs,” the speaker of the poem chronicles several different experiences she has had pertaining to her legs. 

By using synecdoche, the legs of the speaker, the absent “you” and other characters stand in for the whole throughout the poem. The poem can easily be taken at face value upon one reading, but after several readings, the reader can begin to understand the significance of the speaker’s legs to this narrative.

In the first stanza, the poet remembers “Randy in math” watching her legs. This stanza is comprised of four lines and one sentence and uses enjambment twice. The simple syntax allows the reader to focus intently on the significance of the motif of “legs” in the poem, setting the rest of the poem up for a similar understanding. Here, legs are significant to the speaker’s sexuality, as she alludes to some kind of crush or attraction to Randy. Both Randy and the speaker’s legs become symbolic of intimacy, a theme seen again later in the poem.

The second stanza contrasts with the first, exploring the physicality of legs rather than using them to suggest intimacy :“I remember jogging through lunch hours/with other legs” (Denise 44). The mention of “other girls” suggests gendered adolescent competition relating to the body. Legs, again, act as a symbol (is she using synecdoche here, too?) for something larger in the speaker’s experience.

In the third stanza, the speaker writes about scarring her knee on a hike, but “lying to Mike, telling him/just a scratch” (Denise 44). The speaker gains specificity in this stanza acting both as a bridge into the speaker’s adult life, and as an introduction to a new character that moves the narrative forward.

The next two stanzas introduce intimacy again, but with a different tone. First, intimacy is introduced playfully, as part of adolescence; the next two stanzas take a more adult tone. Throughout the poem, intimacy is the relationship the speaker has to another person, as she has with “Randy” and now with the absent “you.” In the fourth stanza, the intimacy is shared through walks, dancing, listening to music and sleeping. Legs are present in this stanza in “your jeans,” and “next to your legs.” Presumably the absent “you” is a romantic partner of some kind, addressed in the last five stanzas. The fifth stanza sounds markedly more mature than the first stanza, as the speaker states, “I put on my black leather mini skirt/with bare legs/and perfumed lotions/and you stay/a little longer” (Denise 44).

The progression of the voice from the first stanza to the fifth stanza marks an exploration of sexuality from adolescence into adulthood. The final three stanzas continue this theme. Images of gardening, driving and “standing in old brown work boots” give the reader a better sense of this “absent” you. Furthermore, Denise uses synecdoche in this stanza, specifically in that she states “my legs have always liked your legs” (Denise 44). It is clear that the speaker figuratively means that the speaker “has always liked you.” Synecdoche and symbolism allow the reader to glimpse the intimacy between the speaker and the absent you. The final two stanzas explore other intimacies through strong, yet simple imagery. 

In the penultimate stanza, the speaker writes, “I like the way my legs feel/after a shower/when you fill your hands with thoughts/and rub upwards” (Denise 44). Here, the speaker uses the image of “filling your hands with thoughts” to communicate a shared intimacy that is both physical and intellectual and romantic. In the final stanza, the reader sees the image of “leg over leg over leg,” which captures yet another means of understanding intimacy in relation to leg. Here, legs again stand in for the whole, as well as act as a symbol of sexuality and intimacy.

Imitation of “Legs” 


I remember the cold
plastic of the comb
against my scalp,
mother’s hand on my
crown, my eyes pulsing wide,
then brush ripping through
my tangles.

I remember the quiet
distance I kept between
us in the hallways,
watching her auburn
hair bounce and whip
across her face, wishing
my hands were twirling
the end of her curls.

My hair knows the stroke of
toddlers’ hands, their fingers
combing through the split
ends, their frail bodies
leaning against mine.

I love the feeling of wind
on my newly shaved head, the
jump each hair makes from
a hand as it glides across my scalp.

Now, my hair is its own gender,
the rustle of its tangles
against my face, its rigidity
warm in its shortness.

-Hayley Brooks  

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