The Body as a Site of Affirmation:
Barthes and Belcourt’s This Wound Is a World
by Robert Russell
In the short preface to his 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse, famed French structuralist-turned-post-structuralist Roland Barthes writes, “the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude…spoken, perhaps, by thousands of subjects, but warranted by none; it is completely forsaken by the surrounding languages…severed not only from authority but also from the mechanisms of authority” (Barthes 1). With such an exposition Barthes launches his book, a discourse about the discourse of love, but one predicated on the recognition, understanding, and acceptance that “love” is a deconstructive force, one which thwarts totality, universality, complete comprehension, and even language. That the essence of love is founded in fragmentation is a notion which Barthes takes to heart; A Lover’s Discourse being comprised nearly entirely of axiomatic fragments. According to Barthes, “once a [love] discourse is thus driven by its own momentum into the backwater of the ‘unreal,’ exiled from all gregarity, it has no recourse but to become the site, however exiguous, of an affirmation” (Barthes 1). A discourse encapsulating the unclassifiable essence of love inevitably opens a space, a “exiguous site of affirmation,” between the subject and object, the lover and the loved, the poet and the reader; and it is only from such a liminal space that, as Barthes expounds, any productive conversation about love can begin.
Cree Nation poet Billy-Ray Belcourt, in his 2017 poetry collection This Wound Is a World, uses the body as an imagistic vehicle to establish a discourse on love from which arises a Barthesian “site of affirmation.” In Belcourt’s poetry, the body is a locus which penetrates social narratives and forces the reader–through corporeal, and at times grotesque, imagery–to separate and dismantle all connotations, associations, and preconceived notions of love. By unmooring definitions and estranging ideas about the body, Belcourt reconstructs a new discourse of love–a discourse of “decolonial love,” which explores and encapsulates his own personal experiences and the countless other experiences of marginalized Native groups whose perspectives and understandings of love have been exiled from the commonplace, colonized discourse of love. Through his poetic strategy, Belcourt affirms the power, resilience, and strength in such a decolonial love and its necessary space in the dominant conversation and discourse surrounding love.
Belcourt introduces bodily imagery in the preface to his collection through the meta-poetic personification of poetry. He writes, “Poetry is creaturely. It resists categorical capture…It is an entity because our skin becomes its and its skin becomes ours” (Belcourt ix). By drawing a connection between the category-resistant nature inherent in the creation of poetry to the image of the body via skin, Belcourt affectively severs the definition of poetry from its perceived connotations, conveying through metaphor the deconstructive faculty of poetry’s effect, one which, Belcourt asserts, is reflective in the body. Corporealizing poetry conversely turns the body into a poetic site which resists category and thwarts classification: the body becomes both an image and a tool which Belcourt wields like a knife to carve a new space into the prevailing discourse on love–a new space for “decolonial love.” Just as he severs the body from physical and symbolic connotation, Belcourt effectively severs love from the authority that dominates discourse about love, and in doing so, embodies Barthes’s notion that a detachment “not only from authority but the mechanisms of authority” (Barthes 1) is required for a new kind of “lover’s discourse.” Belcourt introducing such a notion in the preface to his collection is a cautionary summons to the reader to leave all previous understandings and conventions about love at the door.
In the second piece of Belcourt’s collection, “The Cree Word for a Body Like Mine is Weesageechak,” the body lies at the crux of the poem, an image around which revolves Belcourt’s poetic assertion that the body is a deconstructive force. Belcourt begins by explaining that “a body like mine is weesageechak,” a body with the power of “shapeshifting” (Belcourt 4). Already, from the onset of the poem, there are echoes of Barthes’s “site of affirmation,” in that the body is “severed from authority,” detached from the realm of common understanding of the body. Belcourt further explicates the shape-shifting nature of the body, writing:
“there are weesageechak days when gender is a magic trick i forgot how to perform and my groin floods and floods trying to cleanse itself like the women and i too become toxic for men who have built cages out of broken boys” (Belcourt 4).
Not only is Belcourt estranging anatomical conditions of the body, collapsing biological limits through the conflation of female-male bodily functions and the performance of gender, but here Belcourt also disentangles the “body” as a semiotic sign. By deconstructing the linguistic interplay of the “body” as a signifier and “body” as signified, Belcourt invokes what Barthes called in his 1977 book Image/Music/Text the “third meaning”: “a word which has the advantage of referring to the field of the signifier (and not of signification) …seem[ing] to open the field of meaning totally…extend[ing] outside culture, knowledge, information” (Barthes 53-4). The body as a “third meaning” carves a place into the dominant prevailing discourse surrounding love in that such an image defies categorization and unsettles authoritative interpretations of love. About the effects of such a “third meaning,” scholar Chela Sandoval writes,
“Even in the political and strategic quest for nationalist solidification of strength and identity the third meaning is always present, no matter how concretely identity becomes fortified against or within the historical imperatives of nation, culture, race, sex, gender, class—or love” (Sandoval 163).
Through his poetic rendering of the body and its detachment from its “concrete identity” within the “historical imperatives” of dominant social, cultural, and political understanding, Belcourt transmogrifies the body into a “site of an affirmation” from which a new and decolonized discourse extends. By making the body “unreal,” Belcourt subverts both the dominant authority and the mechanisms of authority which define the prevailing discourse on love.
Similarly, in his poem “Native Too,” Belcourt brandishes bodily imagery to portray intergenerational trauma and its effect on intimacy between two lovers. Painting in first-person a sex scene between two Indigenous men, Belcourt utilizes bodily imagery, invoking the senses of taste, smell, and touch specifically, to disentangle the body from its common relation to the romantic act of intimacy. He writes,
“i wanted to taste / a history of violence / caught in the roof of his mouth. / i wanted our saliva to mix / and create new bacterial ecologies: / contagions that could infect the trauma away. i wanted to smell his ancestors / in his armpits: / the aroma of their decaying flesh, / how they refuse to wilt into nothingness. / i wanted to touch his brown skin / to create a new kind of friction / capacious enough / for other worlds to emerge / in our colliding.” (Belcourt 22)
Through striking, even grotesque imagery, Belcourt seemingly detaches both the body and love from the romantic act of sex. By de-romanticizing an act of intimacy, Belcourt deconstructs common preconceptions on the act–a poetic method which strips the corporeal components from the act itself. However, Belcourt reconstructs those components into a new relationality and, in effect, reinspires a new sense of intimacy–a new sense of decolonial love which reclaims the love that intergenerational trauma inflicted by colonization has threatened to extinguish. Belcourt affirms the love that can arise between two individuals who have been traumatized and oppressed, and at same time, encapsulates the nuances within such a love. It is from this decolonial love that a new decolonial discourse arises, one which Belcourt enkindles through the use of deconstructed imagery of the body.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “affirmation” is “the action of confirming something established,” but the word also has a second definition: “emotional support or encouragement; positive acknowledgement of one’s worth or value” (OED). This latter definition is especially apt regarding the effect of Belcourt’s poetic strategy. The love which permeates Belcourt’s poetry is a love which, as he describes in the epilogue, “opens us up to that which feels like it can rupture the ground beneath our feet” (Belcourt 55). It is a love which not only affirms one’s value, worth, and existence, but “ruptures” the dominant structures which threaten to exile it. As he writes, “This Wound Is a World is a book obsessed with the unbodied” (Belcourt 55). And in his collection, Belcourt “unbodies” the “body” itself, untethering it to its connotations, associations, and understandings. By deconstructing the body–from both its corporeal connotations as well as semiotic–Belcourt effectively decolonizes the body as an image, and upon such a decolonized body, Belcourt inspires a new decolonized discourse surrounding love. Belcourt uses the body as a means to grant readers a glimpse of his own experience with love as well as that of Indigenous groups–a love which rebels against oppressive forces of colonization; and, in turn, paves the way out of “an extreme solitude” (Barthes 1) which had confined the discourse of decolonial love thus far.
 Belcourt calls to mind the work of feminist scholar Judith Butler who, in her 1990 book Gender Trouble, asserts that gender is performative act: “Gender is…a construction that regularly conceals its genesis…the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions” (Butler 2387).
"affirmation, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/3423. Accessed 22 February 2022.
Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, New York, NY, 1977.
–––––––. “The Third Meaning,” Image/Music/Text, translated by Stephen Heath, Hill and Wang, New York, NY, 1977. Pp 52-68.
Belcourt, Billy-Ray. This Wound Is a World, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2019.
Butler, Judith. “Chapter 3: Subversive Bodily Acts, from Gender Trouble,” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism 3rd Ed., edited by Vincent Leitch, William Cain, Laurie Finke, John McGowan, WW Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2018. Pp 2377-2388.
Sandoval, Chela, and Angela Y. Davis. “Love as a Hermeneutics of Social Change, a Decolonizing Movidas,” Methodology of the Oppressed, University of Minnesota Press, 2000. ProQuest Ebook Central. Pp 156-174.