Nov 10, 2015
10 Min read time
Imaginging, and depicting, sexual trauma in verse.
Cathy Linh Che
Alice James Books, $15.95 (paper)
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, $15.95 (paper)
In the dense forest straddling the Czech Republic and Germany, red deer do an about-face when they approach the site where a fence once marked the Iron Curtain between Czechoslovakia and West Germany. These deer have had no direct experience with barbed and electrified wire or gun-toting guards, removed more than two decades ago. The deer’s behavior substantiates the notion that memory can be inherited not only socially but also biologically.
In a similar vein, two new books of poetry by U.S. women consider how bodies register trauma, often facilitated by extant systems and cultural values. Cathy Linh Che and Lizzie Harris balance personal traumatic experiences, widely considered indescribable, against the ethical necessity of imagining and depicting. Crucially, they demonstrate that history resides in the body, rather than in murky or contentious fact. Split and Stop Wanting transfer experience back onto the cultures that have enabled both the violation and the silencing of particular bodies and voices.
• • •
In Stop Wanting the specter of sexual abuse by the speaker’s father is conjured through Harris’s masterful use of figurative language. However, the particulars of this violation are virtually absent; the book begins, “I want to say what happened / but am suspicious of stories.” Despite the urge to bear witness, memory proves unreliable or irrelevant: “I must have slept / in his hotel bed. I must have eaten. / I must have gotten into, then out of, / his shower.” Rather than focus on shadowy specifics, Harris illustrates the acutely disorienting impact of abuse on the speaker’s childhood body and her adult psyche: “I could have grown / giant-sized, buildings / at my ankle. // Instead I was that coffin, sealed /and translucent. Restless.”
Body parts recur throughout Stop Wanting as synecdoche and suggestion, acknowledging awful experience and implying that the whole truth is unknowable, or knowable only through its physical reverberations. One of the book’s most explicit statements of abuse, “At eight I lost my body,” is followed by a surreal description of the speaker’s inadequate defenses:
[I] spent a decade
building a soft model
with bones made from straw wrappers. I tried
to bleach the teeth. I tried
to coat the stomach.
Each break on “I tried” evokes both the speaker’s burden and her inability to heal. Similarly, in “Rough Chronology” Harris depicts the physical impacts of trauma, while showing how responsibility for it is thrust upon the victim:
Can you keep this thing quiet?
Teeth are collecting in my hands
Can you keep quiet?
Mouth is empty tasting marrow
Already vague, “this thing” is erased the second time the question is asked. But Harris refuses to close the visual gap, which would suggest, also, letting her abuser off the hook. Acknowledging erasure implies the speaker’s need to hold onto the past, as a fundamental part of her identity. Having earlier figured sexual violence in passive terms (“I was ink / woven to a man pinned / to his body”), Harris further thematizes the erasure of the victim in “Erasure of a Self Help,” but the process becomes active—the speaker controls the story, what is told and what is omitted.
Harris and Che write out of the silence that so often accompanies sexual abuse.
While we know “awful things happened” in the past that Stop Wanting documents, in Cathy Linh Che’s Split we are certain from the outset about the particulars of the speaker’s ongoing abuse, as she seems to take up the charge of one of Harris’s refrains: “I don’t want to be vague.” Plainspoken facts challenge readers to confront these experiences:
While I slept, my cousin placed
his mother’s mask on me,
asked me if I loved him.
He wore wolf ears.
I willed him to hear the change
in atmosphere, the tilt of air
—no, no, no—
his finger slid
under the white
Form helps focus Che’s scenes. Just as the speaker may not opt out, readers cannot skip past the unpalatable parts of her experience. The short lines of Che’s tercets simultaneously organize “the ruptures to form / a sequence” and convey the disorientation and fragmentation of the child’s life. Here, they allow the single line of protest, “—no, no, no—,” itself set off by dashes, to register both as ineffectual in the moment and necessary now.
Although she writes more directly than Harris, Che also relies on figurative language to convey the body as a repository of epistemology. The untitled preface poem introduces many of the book’s recurring motifs: body parts, dreams, maps/schema, weather, family, and a deck of cards where each card represents an abuser or instance of abuse. There are stunning descriptions of undoing (“I unwind like a skein”) and disassociation (“I lay there, / my eyes open like a doll’s”). Associative logic further helps Che challenge the notion of snapshot memory, which so often informs our understanding of particular experiences. As if in response to the question that opens “Story”—“If every cell / inside my brain / is replaced // after seven years, / then why can’t I excise this”—in “Home Video,” Che enumerates the feelings, rather than the facts, that attend experience: “There are flowers on this bed, an elbow planted by an ear. No, you cannot touch this breast. No darkness, no shatter, and no, no pendulum.”
Further complicating Che’s retelling, she points out the limitations of figurative language, particularly in the series “In what ways does violence map out the room?” whose very title suggests a structural problem—both in terms of how sexual violence comes to pass and how we regard this violence:
His thumb was crooked—double-jointed rather, and it hurt—
Minus pleasure, what we experienced was, on one hand, a kind of rape—
There is no other hand but the one he used to palm my stomach—
Idiom crumbles under the weight of lived experience, which must be acknowledged for what it is, “a kind of rape.” Che’s focus on the domestic spaces where the violations occurred and the speaker’s intimate knowledge of her abusers insinuate the apparent normalcy of this experience, “A family secret / ending in shhh.”
• • •
Language provides both Che and Harris a way of making sense of the past. But perhaps the most compelling conjunction between Split and Stop Wanting is the way the poets shift some of the responsibility for their abuse back onto society, which also enables resolutions that approach the therapeutic. This belief that culpability lies beyond individual perpetrators is strikingly evident in a gesture common to both collections: “wearing [her] brother’s // green jeans,” Harris’s speaker “wanted to be a boy / or to find [herself] closed,” just as Che’s speaker “sometimes dressed in [her] father’s clothes.” Male clothes offer armor against the dangers of girlhood, an idea that lives amidst the books’ broader considerations of the systems and patterns that facilitate trauma.
Harris is attuned to how violence may be encoded in certain relationships. Descriptions of the speaker’s mother often involve passivity—“you said a woman’s body / could be broken into”—while descriptions of the father usually involve aggression and those of children (the speaker and her siblings) powerlessness and victimhood. Gender safety proves a myth when the speaker’s brother experiences violence too: “a boy who can twist // his child-fist might get stomped / in his neck, tiny as a stem.”
Che looks to Freud, therapy, family trauma, Catholicism, and mythology to find the personal and political circumstances and sources of rape, but these fall short, as the speaker fails to find comfort in the reduction of her trauma to “A pattern, a pattern—.” The initial question posed by the title “In what ways does violence map out the room?” remains unanswered. In fact, eight pages later, Che concludes the poem with another question: “How do I forget the child / in the dim room / of the sleeping house?” The speaker’s isolation is clear, and Che’s language accommodates both the idea that the speaker wants an instruction manual of forgetting and that she is unwilling to turn her back on the past.
Harris and Che write out of the silence that so often accompanies sexual abuse. Che is further concerned to give her Vietnamese family, and her immigrant parents in particular, a voice in the larger story of her life. In “Self Portrait in Summer I,” the speaker sees her parents as protectors: “I climbed between [them], / when I was afraid.” In “Self Portrait in Summer II,” an account of their lives in and dangerous journey from Vietnam, the speaker herself is not yet born. This is Che’s origin story; her absence from the poem suggests the relevance of her parents’ past to her own life, as well as the way in which antecedent trauma narratives can shape—and eclipse—more recent traumas.
Che’s speaker inherits an imperative to survive, as well as ideas for how best to accomplish this. Her machinist father is described as “an unwilling soldier, / for over twelve years” and “an angry brick,” who “looked like a human / with holes punched in.” Yet, he shows his daughter “what it means to survive / and how to build machines // and terrible wings.” He does the best that he can, but “he [keeps] to himself,” an approach to trauma reflective of Vietnam itself: “In Vietnam, the landscape / is aftermath / . . . / No one talked of the war.” “Bloodlines” reveals how bodies, like landscapes, bear witness and exhibit evidence of trauma. The speaker performs on her mother cao gió, a process of scraping the body to release a poisonous wind that has caused illness:
my older sister dead,
buried in the motherland—
somewhere in Vietnam,
a broken seed, still
waiting to grow.
The excavation process is therapeutic, “each bone / a story” worthy of representation.
Likewise, in Stop Wanting, a handful of poems invoke “Birdie,” a misfit persona that enables Harris to approach the detritus of the past: “Once she turned trash into a nest.” This nest, which serves as a metaphor describing how the things we carry—our memories and feelings, other people’s perceptions—become our home, for better or worse. Harris asks, “is one Bird’s trash another Bird’s / larynx?” There is progress in acknowledging that the past is crucial to who we are in the present. Elsewhere Harris ponders, “Is it strange to want / the past like too many hairs clinging in a drain?” A bad past is still one’s own.
• • •
Scientists estimate that it will take several generations for the red deer in the Bavarian Forest and the adjacent Šumava National Park to begin crossing, with regularity, from one country into the next. The instinct to remain where the deer know it is safe is a strong one. In the human world, remaining silent about trauma can feel safer. This is likely a socialized instinct. But implicit in Stop Wanting and Split is the idea that the trauma resulting from sexual violence, war, and immigrant struggle is, or should be, everyone’s problem.
Che closes the long poem “Letters to Doc” with this compelling image of consensual love: “I want to rewrite everything. / In love, my back arched / like a cat’s. The feeling // swelled, hovering.” This could be the end of the book, but revising history wouldn’t be honest or powerful enough. Instead Che concludes, in the next and final poem, “Gardenia,” “I can crown myself / with my own life.” Like Birdie, building a nest from the trash of her past, Che’s speaker is empowered to accommodate the breadth of her experience, to create “An arrow / that joins a split heart.” Che and Harris argue that such suturing is possible only after the damaged body has been acknowledged and incorporated into our culture. If societally encoded narratives of struggle and hope, of victimization and salvation, inform the trajectories of Split and Stop Wanting, Che and Harris resist facile notions of recovery. Take the uneasy resolution suggested by “Want Stopping,” a reversal of Harris’s title. The speaker sees the “sky changing / to a new sort of blue,” a backdrop against which she can acknowledge her own desire. But her insecurity is palpable: “man that I love for a moment love me.”
November 10, 2015
10 Min read time