BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
I read a lot of poetry. I spend a lot of time thinking about trauma and gender identity, as someone who has dealt with assault and various forms of harassment, as someone who is a nonbinary femme. So, when it comes to books that deal with gender, trauma, identity, and the self, it can be hard for me to find ones that really speak to me. But I finally have. Emily Corwin's Tenderling (Stalking Horse Press, 2018) and Natalie Eilbert's Indictus (Noemi Press, 2018) are exactly what I needed.
Corwin's book examines reality and the self - and what it means to be alive, especially as a woman. What is womanhood and girlhood? How do we exist in a world so full of hatred for it? Corwin answers these questions using pop culture metaphors (prince charming) while also existing in a witchy, strange earthy world that celebrates the uglinesses we see - illustrating that beauty and the grotesque are one in the same. For instance, on page 14 from "Tincture," she writes:
“here, a throat soured,
a hole plugged with taffeta. here, muscle
tissue. here peeled open with sugar ants.
... if you step in me, I won’t forgive. I
ruin, I hurt — "
We're in a world of beauty and feminine luxury (taffeta) - but also in a world of nature - and nature is messy and intense. We're in a real fairytale, where the roles and expectations aren't always cookie cutter (and shouldn't be). What I love most is the fact that the language is accessible and conversational, but also complimented by the structures of the poems, keeping us on our toes in a way prose does not.
It's not coincidence that Corwin employs a certain witchiness in her poetry, as if to show the dark underbelly not only of reality, but of womanhood. Women are not just pretty objects, but complicated figures. Her poems "girl/creature" and "girl/costume" illustrate this, both as what creatures and costumes and masks represent, but also the duality all people inherently have.
Just as much as the poems explore themes of identity, they explore mental illness and how stigmas inform our identities, such as in "girl/creature," with the line "from the bad thing lurking." The girl and creature are one in the same, showing we can be light and dark, monster and hero. Or neither and a strange conglomeration of all of these things. Clearly, this is a book meant to be reread over and over and over again.
Then, we have Indictus by Eilbert, which also explores contradiction, especially in the context of trauma and sexual violence. How does one accept trauma, how does one move on within their own bodies as a way to survive? These are the big questions Eilbert asks, that we all need to ask. Her long poem "Man Hole," for instance, explores a world where women take back their agency, post-trauma in a world where men are being held accountable, where men have created holes and destruction.
I admit my own bias: I have taught "Man Hole" many times in workshop - the excess use of language is beautiful and necessary, giving voice to the traumas many women and femmes face - and often internalize and sublimate in order to survive. Creating holes and voids in their own bodies where trauma didn't use to exist. Examination is a big word in this book and rightly so: All we can do is examine ourselves and our surroundings in order to help navigate the world, as per these lines: "An examination means question but also suggest torture."
The book deals heavily with the body, and bodies, and violence: "My friend disembowels a cow in Montana. . . I disembowel the sink"; ". . . I have had dreams in which men are awkward soldiers who need my touch." In many ways, the structure mimics this, constantly going from verse to prose to lengthy lines to short lines, giving the reader whiplash in a needed way - because that is what living with trauma is like.
In "Ezekielle," the reader can see this effect:
map a border so we can be the meat in it—but I’ve instead become editorial
director of prophecy, pulled out the Lord’s curls and tied their tufts to the highest
fencepost. I’ve produced a popular reality show called How Weak Is Your Moral
Constitution? and I’ve folded a net over my pursuers to force out apology each
But what shouldn't be ignored is the complexities and mashup of language Eilbert uses, which is both mathematical and also gorgeously new. She uses words as verbs, conjunctions as verbs, and mixes up unlike ideas in a way that seem so familiar, for instance: "I forest myself" and "a dead math" are just examples. Unlike things are what we are - and how to reconcile that but through language is genius. Eilbert is simply a genius - and I'm not quite sure what else you can derive from her book, but that. And comfort. It may seem strange to say a book so deeply involved with unpleasantness provides comfort, but it does. It means it's okay to be angry, to feel rage, to be broken, to try to make yourself whole, to feel your holes, and to just be.
Books are magic and these books are the kind of magic you need.
Joanna C. Valente is a ghost who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and Sexting Ghosts (Unknown Press, 2018). They are the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017), and received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine, BUST, Them, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere.