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The Ethics of Bearing Witness in Poetry to Violence and Trauma

The issues raised when one choos­es to make lit­er­ary art out of trau­ma are com­plex and, as have issues sur­round­ing trau­ma in gen­er­al, they have been get­ting more and more atten­tion. Over at the Ploughshares blog, for exam­ple, Tra­cy Strauss has a series well worth read­ing called Writ­ing Trau­ma: Notes of Tran­scen­dence. On Octo­ber 15th, 2017 at the West­ern Mary­land Inde­pen­dent Lit­er­ary Con­fer­ence in Frost­burg, MD, I had a chance to offer some remarks on the top­ic as part of a pan­el called “After Vio­lence: The Poet­ics of Trau­ma and Resis­tance.” I’d like to share them with you here. (I also urge you to check out the three won­der­ful poets who were on the pan­el with me, Mar­got Taft Sev­er, Ellen Kom­biy­il, and Susana H. Case.)

Thir­ty or so years ago, when I was a grad­u­ate stu­dent at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty, a com­mon top­ic of dis­cus­sion among poets was what it meant to write “polit­i­cal poet­ry.” Hay­den Car­ruth, one of my teach­ers, using the word rel­e­vant instead of polit­i­cal, wrote in an essay that “poets are fail­ing more and more in the sub­stance of their work. I mean they do not write rel­e­vant poems….I’ve ‘taught’ three poet­ry work­shops [since becom­ing a pro­fes­sor late in my life and] not one stu­dent has turned in a poem that deals either direct­ly or indi­rect­ly with the impend­ing end of the world…in nuclear war.” (“A Few Thought Fol­low­ing Pro­fes­sor Clausen’s Essay,” in Efflu­ences from the Sacred Cave, pg. 154)

Carruth’s asser­tion that poets ought to be writ­ing “rel­e­vant” poet­ry, and his impli­ca­tion that we are respon­si­ble and account­able when we don’t, res­onat­ed with me. Not two years ear­li­er, at Stony Brook Uni­ver­si­ty, in the very first poet­ry work­shop I ever took, June Jor­dan had said much the same thing, though in very dif­fer­ent terms. “You write,” she once told me in her office, “because you have some­thing to say, and you write poet­ry because you want the per­son you’re say­ing it to to be changed by what they hear. The change might be big or small, some­thing of which they are con­scious or com­plete­ly unaware, but if that change isn’t what you’re after, why both­er turn­ing what you want to say into a poem? You could sum­ma­rize it for them much more eas­i­ly.”

The thing that I have to say, that moti­vates me to write “rel­e­vant poet­ry,” emerges from my expe­ri­ence as a sur­vivor of child­hood sex­u­al vio­lence and how being a sur­vivor has shaped the way I choose to live in the world. To put it in dif­fer­ent terms, my poems explore what that expe­ri­ence feels like, and here’s the para­dox: While sex­u­al vio­lence is any­thing but beau­ti­ful, a poem is, by def­i­n­i­tion, a beau­ti­ful thing made of words. To make a poem that some­how con­tains sex­u­al vio­lence, then, will inevitably be to fal­si­fy, or at least mis­rep­re­sent, not only the vio­lence itself, but also the victim’s expe­ri­ence of it, by turn­ing it into some­thing it is not: beau­ti­ful.

When I say beau­ti­ful, of course, I am not talk­ing about love­li­ness, the sim­ple, straight­for­ward beau­ty of sur­faces, but rather about the beau­ty that puts us in touch with the full depth of what it means to be human, that does not force us to choose between love­li­ness and ugli­ness, or between the impuls­es towards com­pas­sion and dehu­man­iza­tion, but allows us to expe­ri­ence them as they always already exist with­in us, and in the world around us.

That state of simul­tane­ity is, in large mea­sure, where the mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion I am talk­ing about lies, because there is noth­ing simul­ta­ne­ous about being vio­lat­ed, or about the shame that fol­lows it, or about the fact of sur­vival, or about not sur­viv­ing.

To write what Car­ruth called rel­e­vant poems, then—whatever the sub­ject of rel­e­vance may be—is to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for this mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and to hold our­selves account­able to our read­ers for the fact that we do it. It’s what makes writ­ing that kind of poet­ry the dif­fi­cult and nec­es­sary under­tak­ing that it is.

I’m going to read a poem of mine that I think illus­trates what I’m talk­ing about here. It’s called “Because I Can’t Not Know What He Saw” (pub­lished, in an ear­li­er ver­sion, as “The Rape of Nanking” in Unlike­ly Sto­ries Mark V). The sub­ti­tle refers to the fact that one detail in the poem, the sword in par­tic­u­lar, diverges from what the actu­al pho­to­graph depicts, though I did not real­ize I had mis­re­mem­bered the image until I went back to check the page on which the image appears. I chose not to “cor­rect” the poem because, at least for those who might choose to see the pic­ture for them­selves, I want­ed the act of mis­re­mem­ber­ing to be part of what the poem is about.

Because I Can’t Not Know What He Saw

—remem­ber­ing a pho­to­graph from Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking

This month, Harper’s “Read­ings” brings
from the peo­ple of Boro in east­ern India
a list of verbs impos­si­ble in Eng­lish:
khon­say, to pick an object up with care;
dasa, not to place a fish­ing instru­ment;
asusu, to feel unknown in a new place.
Some sound like Yid­dish curs­es:
“You should ur,” dig soil like a swine,
or “May your chil­dren gob­ray,”
fall in a well unknow­ing­ly.

I want that kind of verb
for the way who­ev­er-it-was
pulled the woman’s robe
up over her head,

for how the men
the man who did this to her
forced to watch—brother,
father, hus­band, son,
neighbor—for how each of them
invades my sleep;

and for the way I felt
when I first saw it,
what I feel now
remem­ber­ing it,
the way I kept tak­ing Iris Chang’s
The Rape of Nanking off the shelf
and crouch­ing in the cor­ner
of Bor­ders’ low­er lev­el
to stare, and to stare—
for that too I want a verb;

and I want a verb as well,
and it’s not rape,
though cer­tain­ly he raped her,
for the sword hilt ris­ing
from between her part­ed thighs,
and for the way I hate myself
for hop­ing she was already dead
when he buried his blade in her.

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