Rape is knowledge but not the sort that does you, or anyone else, any good. When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been better never to know. And for most of my adult life, the knowledge has been killing me. Raymond Douglas, On Being Raped
I have been in recovery for almost ten years now. Recovery, by this definition, is the timeframe after revealing my secret: I was a victim of child sexual abuse. It happened five times over the course of a three year period and each time, the perpetrator was a little more daring, both in place and in action. The last time it happened was underneath a kiosk in a prominent New York City museum; the kiosk was in front of the exhibit for dinosaurs and their fossilized remains. In the briefest of definitions, a fossil is created when a plant, or in this case animal, dies in a watery environment and is buried under mud and then the mud hardens to the point of being stone-like. Similarly, as a coping device, the brain buries memories under scar tissue until a point in time when the individual can no longer hold it inside him or her. I have been in recovery for almost ten years now. I was seventeen when I could no longer hold it inside me.
As a victim, I held on to physical objects of my past thinking it would bring back positive childhood thoughts. Childhood books, old video games, a beat-up VHS tape of The Jungle Book. I held onto the idea of my abuser before he abused me; his smile, his gentleness. And so, in holding on, I was often hit clear and hard in my chest. There would never be another Before and my teenaged brain learning how to recover couldn’t accept that. In fact, this revelation is something I have only recently tried to put into words. I remember reading Christopher Lasch’s The Minimal Self (W.W. Norton, 1984) and was struck by the following line: “The first lesson survivors have to master is letting go.” I read that about six years ago and, in the quiet of my community college library, I wept. To me, it was another responsibility forced upon victims which I dreaded. I remember saying out loud: Don’t we already do enough? Is it not enough to live, or try to live, through this inhumane, unexplainable act? And so, the entanglement of these memories, among so many others, leaves me wanting to understand two things more than ever: Why does abuse happen? And how do we survive with the knowledge we were abused and people who abuse are out there?
The answers to these questions are difficult. And, like fossils and scars, take time to develop. Perhaps the answers will always be in a state of development or subject to change. I am drawn to a poem Granta published a couple years ago by memoirist and fiction writer Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. The poem, titled “A Description of the Architectual Impact of my Home, Age 7” closes with “…but most often/ I am simply between/and in this way I learn to live either above/or beneath the moments of my life/but never within them.” To be within something, is to be inside or enclosed by a place, area, object, person, or mind. If that’s the case, I understand the individuals who state writing should not be therapeutic, the individuals who believe there needs to be a level of distance between the Writer and the Writing. But if we read authors, particularly poets, in firm rootedness that the I of the poems is always the eye of the writer, for lack of a better term, it can get complicated. As a result, trauma writing might always be in a state of within, but the trauma writer can grow and develop and heal, and with time, therapy and care, move beyond the state of within. This makes the writing raw; it makes the writer tender with all of its intended definitions: vulnerable, gentle, painful at the touch. All this to lead-up to my intended books of review—Indictus by Natalie Eilbert (Noemi Press, 2018) and Scar On/Scar Off by Jennifer Maritza McCauley (Stalking Horse Press, 2017). These two books blur the lines of survivalhood and victimhood, recovery and healing, woman-ness and human-ness. And so, because of these and other blurrings, I find myself within these books and within them I will remain for a long, long time.
Indictus is a more than a book, it “…points towards my [Eilbert’s] history of trauma, as an object bound not by grief and terror but by paper and glue.” In Eilbert’s Thank You section, which reads poetically in its own way, she reminds again of the success of her book: the strength of process. The sentiment resonates with me the most came when she discusses her family, she writes: “I would like for us to be able to one day talk about this book. But not yet.” In this sentence, Eilbert reveals her humanity and her processing of the magnitude of her book. For me reading this, it was refreshing, it was not dismissive or cruel, and it was her way of acknowledging the book’s heaviness but expressing her desire to one day work together. Not only do I find that admirable but also wholly relatable. Turning the focus to the poems, I couldn’t help but think of Raymond Douglas’ line regarding rape as knowledge and, in reading; I was thankful, hopeful, and tearful.
The collection has a dagger of an opening before turning to a long poem (“Man Hole”) and closing with two poems and various subsets within them. The first poem, “To Read Poems Is to Follow Another Line to the Afterlife. To Write Them Is to Wed Life with Afterlife”, opens “Words are filthy./With themselves./With the past.” The lines, followed by periods, allow the ideas to stay with the readers and the readers to stay with the ideas. Having “To Read Poems…” as the opening poem, the speaker provides details of her violations, reasonings behind the title of the book, and ideas on memory. The last of which provides a line which stayed with me through the course of my reading: “Even in the highest form of truth, to access memory is to blunder its event.” In turn, this line reminded me of Joanna C. Valente’s forward to A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017) where they write: “No one is perfect—which means we can’t expect our survivors to be perfect humans either—and disbelieve someone’s story just because we don’t like them or know them. There is no ‘perfect’ survivor.” Eilbert’s writing is wholly and pulsingly human which is why I admire it so fiercely. This is, in my opinion, best exemplified in the long poem of the book titled “Man Hole”.
Once again, Eilbert writes stunning first lines: “I left him unfinished. I just wanted to.” This poem also uses the strength of white space on the page to create hauntingly powerful ideas which starts with the second page of the poem where she writes: “He digs a hole in the ground and climbs in and this makes him mine forever.” After this line there is about a ¾ blank page which allows the line to sink into the reader and the reader to sink into the line. The poem, and collection as a whole, concerns itself with this immersion: of language, of trauma, of viscerality. The immersion is designed to reflect the weight carried by survivors, even though the speaker of “Man Hole” states “In existing in this life, I have survived nothing.” And so once again, the question is posed; Where does survivalhood begin and victimhood end? While that answer may have parallels in the community, as with the Valente quote above, there is no perfect survivor, which brings me to Eilbert’s shining moment.
Almost halfway through “Man Hole” Natalie Eilbert executes the strongest ideas because it exemplifies the process(ing) of trauma, she writes:
To believe what was done to me is curable,
assumes a shape. This assumes
what was done to me is truly done.
But this world is not conclusion. I pull my history through a valve
and give it edges, give it holes.
I love men when they let me see myself.
A dog learning discipline laps up such pretty pearls.
This assumes what was done to me is truly done. Reading this line, I was (and still am) caught in the web of event, emotion, fossilization, and scarring. But this world is not conclusion leaves me trying to get out of that web and it is messy and complicated. It is recovery. Furthering that, the idea of pulling something through a valve has multiple meanings: in production, a valve is what controls the output of whatever’s being manufactured, and in music, it is what alters the pitch. This dualing meaning creates multiplicity and fascinates me greatly but leaves me gasping for breath at the stanza’s close. That skill is one of Eilbert’s best: just as you think you can’t be hit more, the writing hits harder and more direct, reflecting the impact trauma has over victims and survivors. In a similar vein, Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s debut hits hard and often as it finds its voice through healing and the recovery of self.
I first discovered McCauley’s work in A Shadow Map and was mystified by the deftness and the precision of her language. Similarly, her debut collection is profound in language and voice as it thrives on the intersectionality of place, person, healing, and pain. The collection is divided into three sections I, We, and Us and is graced with epigraphs by Rosa Parks and Monica Hand, the second a poet who spent time in Columbia, Missouri where McCauley is getting her PhD in Creative Writing. Hand returns in multiple poems like a dear friend rather than a looming shadow which provides gentleness amidst the rough nature of the narrative McCauley constructs. As blurb writer Allison Joseph remarks, “The truth this poet reveals are not pretty, but she handles them with an earned grace, a street-tested vibe” and I find that quite right. Quite right indeed.
One of the first poems in the book is titled “When Trying to Return Home” and I’d like to start there. The poem recalls an interaction between the speaker and “a Miami browngirl” and the poem concerns itself with origins and family. The speaker reveals she “…was born/where my culture rarely bloomed—amongst Northern steel-dust and/dead skies”. By opening up and revealing this information, the speaker of the poem is still in-quest for belonging. Furthermore, the speaker even admits wanting to say the following to the girl:
…I would love to be the type of girl
that says soy de Somewhere and everyone says “Girl, I see”
or “you’re una de las nuestras”
or “you belong.”
This desire for belonging takes precedent in the collection which is fiercely admirable but also fiercely vulnerable. The poem continues with the speaker’s longing to connect with not only this girl, but the reader, which makes the poem’s close all the more haunting:
I want to tell the browngirl this while she turns and walks off.
I want to tell her that when she came to me, thinking I was hers
in that moment we were together,
And similarly to certain sections in Eilbert’s “Man Hole” McCauley is able to wield the power of blank space on the page which is thoughtful and calculated. It really hones in distance in all senses of the word furthering why this collection rivals Indictus; they both are open and wide-stretching, searching lands of recovery and pain, but also of self and womanhood.
As mentioned earlier Scar On/Scar Off is divided into three sections and the second section of the book provides a multitude of prose poems and offers one of McCauley’s strongest lines of the book: “I am a rebel language”. Briefly considering the word rebel—the noun is a person who protests authority, the verb is the act of protesting—and McCauley’s collection embodies rebellion as a means of connection. When an individual is sexually assaulted, the brain and body rebels against the action as a coping mechanism. When your brain rebels against memory that is when the burying of events occurs. The poem that embodies this ideology lies near the end of McCauley’s book and it is called “Nothing Ain’t History” which connects popular culture with the speaker’s view of recovery and survivalhood.
The poem offers the readers insight into 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) which is a film with John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead though the girl is never mentioned. This decision by the speaker allows the girl to become universal. The film’s plot is explained briefly and provided necessary context while also hinting at its own disturbing truths, McCauley writes “…He (Goodman) tells her/she should be grateful he has saved her, but/she is suddenly afraid of being alive.” It is, at this point of the poem, where the name John Goodman went beyond the name of the actor to reflect intentions of John Anyman. Even though the girl is saved, she is still not safe. And that reflects the problematic nature of victimhood and survivalhood and where those lines continue to constantly be blurred. To this idea, the poem provides personal truths shared by the speaker, the lack of comfort felt when the speaker hears the following:
hey beautifulwhereyougoinI’llfollowyouforsafety. In that action, even if it was meant with the most sincere of intentions, is still threatening to the speaker and, universally speaking, women everywhere. This is magnified by the fact that McCauley and Eilbert both are sharing their stories and narratives of healing and trauma. The poem’s ending seems a fitting place to end:
Here is the ending:
There is no proper ending.
You don’t see if the girl survives or not, you just know
she is somewhere driving and running,
driving and running,
until those Southern shadows catch up to her.
And with that in mind, I turn my mind back to where I began Rape is knowledge that knowledge changes how individuals heal and how they survive.
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