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Repost: Domestic Violence Has Always Been a Current Running Through My Life

Going through some old emails, I recent­ly came across the name of the woman I talk about in the begin­ning of this post, in whose escape from her abu­sive hus­band I played a small role. I remem­bered this post, which I wrote back in 2010 when I first met her and which I think is worth repost­ing.

Three weeks ago, as the stu­dents were fil­ing out of the room at the end of one of my class­es, a woman stopped in front of my desk and said some­thing along the lines of, “So I want to write poet­ry, but I don’t know how to start. Can you help me?”

A ques­tion like that is not one you want to give an easy answer to, at least not with­out hear­ing a lit­tle more of what the per­son who asks has to say about them­selves, why they want to write and per­haps even what they want to write about. So I asked the stu­dent to wait while I packed up my things and we went to find an emp­ty room where we could talk. As we sat down, it was clear that my stu­dent was ner­vous about some­thing and I, of course, assumed it was relat­ed to her ques­tion about writ­ing poet­ry. It was, but not in the way I antic­i­pat­ed, and so I am going to skip over most of what we talked about to get to the point. After talk­ing a bit about strate­gies for start­ing to write, I sug­gest­ed to my stu­dent that she might want to check out a local read­ing series run by one of my col­leagues. It’s a won­der­ful, warm, wel­com­ing place for begin­ners to go, both to hear oth­er peo­ple’s work and to begin to share their own, but as soon as I sug­gest­ed it, my stu­dents said, “You know, I bare­ly have enough time to work, go to school and go home. I am in a very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion and I know I won’t get the chance to go.”

Some­thing in her tone of voice told me she was not talk­ing about a mere­ly prac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ty and so I asked her, “By dif­fi­cult do you mean dan­ger­ous?” She said yes. I don’t want to give any more details, since I don’t want any­one to be able to iden­ti­fy her from what I write here, but suf­fice it to say that she accept­ed my invi­ta­tion to tell me more about her sit­u­a­tion. She is in a mar­riage that she needs des­per­ate­ly to get out of. Her hus­band has not phys­i­cal­ly harmed her yet, but she is afraid of him, and while she did­n’t say so explic­it­ly when we talked, I think she believes him capa­ble of killing her if things ever get to that point. [I will add here that he did sub­se­quent­ly threat­en her life, show­ing her a gun he’d bought just to prove his point.]

I am doing what I can to help, and if it becomes pos­si­ble, per­haps I will write more about that, but what I have been think­ing about today is how domes­tic vio­lence has always been a cur­rent run­ning through my own life, from the boyfriend who held my moth­er hostage with a butcher’s cleaver to my moth­er’s best friend when I was a young teenag­er, who was found stabbed six­teen times in the chest with a ser­rat­ed knife, most prob­a­bly by her boyfriend; from the woman in whose bed I spent the night–no sex was involved–because she was afraid that if her boyfriend came back he might get vio­lent (see the poem below) to the woman who lived down­stairs from me who screamed like she was dying when the cops showed up at her door because I called them on a night when I was home to hear her boyfriend beat­ing the shit out of her. (Some weeks lat­er, he heard me, through the way-too-thin walls of my apart­ment, telling the sto­ry about that night to a friend of mine, and called back that, now that he knew I was the one who’d “called the pigs on him,” he was going to make me pay for it. He nev­er did, but it scared me into doing every­thing I could to avoid him for about a month.) And if I go even fur­ther back in my life, there was my step­fa­ther’s belt; and then, when I was in grad­u­ate school, my own too-close-for-com­fort-brush with being the one on whom some­one else might have had to call the cops—which I will write more about in the future.

I don’t real­ly have much to say about all this tonight in any ana­lyt­i­cal sense; it’s just all been com­ing back to me in waves of feel­ing and it put me in mind to share this poem, “Coitus Inter­rup­tus,” which is from my book called The Silence of Men. There are like­ly to be all kinds of trig­gers all over the poem, so if you decide to read it, this has been your trig­ger warn­ing. The only oth­er thing I will say about this poem is that, with the excep­tion of a few details which I had to alter in order to make the poem work, it is entire­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal:

Coitus Interruptus


Naked at the win­dow, my wife calls me
as if some­one is dying, and some­one
almost is, pinned to the con­crete face down
beneath the fists and feet and knees of three

police­men. I’m still hard from before she
jumped out of bed to answer the ques­tion
I was will­ing not to ask when the siren
stopped on our block, but now I’m here, and I see

the man is Black, and how can I not
bear wit­ness? They’ve cuffed him,
but the uni­forms con­tin­ue to crowd our street,
and the blue-and-whites keep com­ing,

as if called to war, as if the lives
in all these dark­ened homes
were tru­ly at stake, and that’s the thing—
who can tell from up here?—maybe

we’re watch­ing our sal­va­tion
with­out know­ing it. Above our heads,
a voice calls out Fuck­ing pigs!
but the ones who didn’t drag the man

into a wait­ing car and dri­ve off
refuse the bait. They talk qui­et­ly,
gath­ered beneath the street­lamp
in the pale cir­cle of light

the man was beat­en in, and then
a word we can­not hear is giv­en
and the cops wave each oth­er back
to their vehi­cles, the flash and sparkle

of their dri­ving off
throw­ing onto the wall of our room
a shad­ow of the embrace
my wife and I have been cling­ing to.

When I was six­teen, Tom­my
brought to my room before he left
the Simon and Gar­funkel tape
I’d put the pre­vi­ous night

back among his things. He placed it
on the book­shelf near the door
he’d slammed shut two days ear­li­er
when he was hold­ing a butcher’s cleaver

to my mother’s life. I want­ed
to run after him and smash it at his feet;
I want­ed to grab him by the scruff of the neck
and crush it in his face, to dan­gle him

over the side of our build­ing with one
ankle in my left hand and the Great­est Hits
in my right and ask him
which I should let drop.

But I didn’t, couldn’t real­ly:
he was much too big,
and I was not a fight­er,
and one of my best friends right now

lives with her son in the house
where her hus­band has already hit her
with a cast iron fry­ing pan,
and so there is no rea­son to believe

she is not at this moment cring­ing
bruised and bleed­ing in a cor­ner
of their bed­room, or that she is not,
with her boy and noth­ing else in her arms,

run­ning the way my moth­er
didn’t have a chance to run,
and there’s noth­ing I can do
but look at the clock—Sunday,

11:11 PM—and remind myself
it’s too late to call, that my calls
have caused trou­ble for her already.
When they pushed Tom­my in hand­cuffs

out the front door, past where my moth­er sat,
qui­et, unmov­ing, and I did not know
from where inside my own rage and ter­ror
to pull the com­fort I should have offered her,

the offi­cer mak­ing sure Tom­my
didn’t trip or run winked at me, smil­ing
as if what had hap­pened were sud­den­ly
a secret between us, and this our sig­nal

that every­thing was okay. I won­dered
if his had been the voice, calm
and deep with male author­i­ty—Son,
are you sure your mother’s in there

against her will?—that when I called
forced me to find the more-than-yes
I can’t remem­ber the words to
that con­vinced the cops they had to come.


Sopho­more year, walk­ing the road
girdling the cam­pus. Up ahead, a woman’s voice
plead­ing with a man’s shout­ing to stop.
A car door slam­ming, engine revving,

and then wheels dig­ging hard into dri­ve­way dirt
that when I got there was a dust cloud
obscur­ing the blue vehicle’s rear plate.
The woman sprawled on the asphalt,

her black dress spread around her
like an open por­tal her upper body
emerged from. She pulled
the cloth away from her feet,

which were bleed­ing, and I drove
to where her spaghet­ti strap san­dals
lay torn and twist­ed beyond repair.
She left them there. Then to her home,

two rooms in a neigh­bor­hood house,
and I helped her onto the bed
that was her only fur­ni­ture, and filled
a warm-water basin to soak her feet,

and he had not hit her, so there was noth­ing
to report, but she said she was afraid
and would I sit with her a while.
We talked about her home in Seoul,

the man her par­ents picked for her
that she ran to Amer­i­ca to avoid mar­ry­ing,
and here she laughed—first trick­le
of spring water down a win­ter moun­tain—

So instead I take from Egypt! I so stu­pid!
Then: What you think? Can man and woman
sleep same bed with­out sex?
I said yes.
So, please, tonight, you stay here? Maybe he com­ing back.

He fear white Amer­i­can like you. I was not a fight­er,
but I stayed, and in the morn­ing when I left,
she said kam­sa­ham­ni­da—thank you—
and she bowed low, and she did not

ask my name, nor I hers, and though
I some­times looked for her on cam­pus,
I nev­er saw her again. Just like Tom­my,
whom I for­got to say before was white.

Just like the Black woman who lived down­stairs
before I got mar­ried, whose cries—Help!
Please! He’s killing me!
—and the dead thud
of him, also Black, throw­ing her

against the wall, and his scream­ing—
Shut up, bitch! Fuck­ing whore!—filled the space
till I was drown­ing. The desk sergeant
didn’t ask if I knew beyond a doubt

that she was being beat­en,
but when she opened her front door
to the two men he sent, she shrieked
the way women shriek

in bad hor­ror movies
when they know they’re going to die,
and I almost felt sor­ry for calling.A few weeks lat­er,

a voice on the phone: You know
what’s going on below you, right?
Please, tape a mes­sage to the door: “Mr. Peters
has been try­ing to reach you.” Noth­ing else.

And what­ev­er you do, don’t sign it.
For a month all was qui­et. Then,
com­ing home ear­ly from work
I walked upstairs past peo­ple mov­ing fur­ni­ture

out of her apart­ment. No one ever
wants to get involved,
right? a thin white man
in shorts and a t‑shirt whis­pered bit­ter
behind me. I kept walk­ing

the way Tom­my did when he saw me
try­ing to catch his eye: head down,
gaze nailed to the floor, and then he was gone,
and the ques­tions I want­ed to ask him

nev­er became words. That tape
was all I had, till one day,
clean­ing house, my moth­er
held it up:

Do you still want this?

I nev­er play it.

Throw it out then.

So I did.

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