This debut collection (a 2013 Open Book selection, chosen by Tracy K. Smith) from Lizzie Harris deals with sexual abuse and the wake of pain to be dealt with following. The poems are gathered into four sections, and the book opens with a preface poem, “Mythology,” which almost serves as a warning of the rawness that is to follow: “I want to say what happened / but am suspicious of stories,” it opens. The trauma of abuse is revealed early at the end of section 1, with poem “Swan Princess, 1994″:
For years, that night sparkles
like the shell of a mussel,
the easy memory of love. But if I follow
the long string of logic, the glow
darkens to a clot.I’m ready to know, but
the shell won’t open.
it hangs like an eyelid of stone.
The remaining three sections, however, is where so much of the heart of this collection lies. The abuse is the point of impact, and the following sections are a map of recovery and aftermath through the ripples of effect coming from the point of impact (which the cover design reflects). The first poems in section 2 are ferociously raw, such as “White Loss of Forgetting”:
I remember the touchingwas softer than I wantedand after I wanted things quiet
because I didn’t trust the skin
that skinned my little body I don’t want to be vaguehe had my body run the water
he took my body for a carpet
he took my body from men
I would one day want to love me
I don’t want to be vague
In this section, we are also introduced to “birdie”, a coping mechanism about which Harris writes “What if Birdie is a word / for asking breath to leave a body?” to look straight at the traumatic abuse by the speaker’s father, but to come at it in a round-about way, a way of shutting down to protect the speaker. In the last two sections, we get a few scalding direct glances at the abuse and the abuser, in addition to context of familial relationships feeding into the speaker’s story. The ending isn’t a clean slate, but rather a careful look to a possible future. We also get a few glimpses of consensual love and sex, and how the trauma affects those relationships, such as “Want Stopping”:
I’m so blanched with blue now
how was I as meek as a penny in your loafer
how did I stroll without a spine or pulse
for a moment I was a train-car the landscape
paned me with you moving tall
as trees please I miss your jaw
resting on my shoulder
cup in saucer
man that I love for a moment love me
While many of the poems follow typical format of stanzas flowing straight down the page, Harris deftly wields diverse forms that she sprinkles throughout. These different tactics, such as blank space to punctuate and pause, tabbing over to carry the reader across the page with her, and even footnotes without the actual notes, keep the writing fresh and engaging, without getting too heavy (since the content is heavy enough as is).
This collection of poems brings to mind Matt Rasumussen’s Black Aperture (which we reviewed here), if only because both are debut collection of each poet, and both deal with intensely personal and traumatic situations, working through it as the pages go on. Harris writes in a way that leads the reader through the process of the trauma, with vivid grief and the loss of trust, of self, of so much more. As the speaker works through all of this, so do we, the readers.
Stop Wanting was one of Cosmo’s “10 Books by Women You Have To Read This Spring.” Harris’ poetry has appeared in The Caroline Quarterly, Barrow Street, Sixth Finch, and more. From Brooklyn, NY, she’s also the poetry editor for Bodega Magazine.
What other poets write through processes in a way that allows the reader to join them? Are there other collections that are deeply personal, while still maintaining poetic integrity?
The teetering pile in my closet means that it is laundry day today. As I fold sheets and stack shirts, would you care to join me? I’ll even roll your socks for you if you write some pretty (or witty) words about it.
Benjamin Hole, Untitled, 2014. Photograph. www.benjaminhole.vsco.co
Stanley Spencer, Sorting the Laundry, 1927. Oil on canvas. National Trust Collections, United Kingdom.
David Welch, Laundry Totem from Material World, 2011. Photograph. www.leftfork.net
If you’ve ever run a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass you know the eerie sound it creates, like the voice of a ghost, piercing, haunting, and beautiful. Change the amount of liquid in the glass and you can draw out a different pitch. That’s the basic concept of a glass armonica, also known as a glass harmonica or bowl organ (played here by Thomas Bloch). The poems in Rebecca Dunham’s third collection of poems are as haunting as the sound of the instrument the collection is named for.
Glass Armonica is about bodies, particularly women’s bodies, and about how they’re touched—often without consent. It’s about how sometimes touch isn’t physical; sometimes a look is a touch, sometimes a word. The title section of the book, a crown of sonnets, takes touch of women as its central theme. The first section sets the scene:
List of all I can recall: his hair,
red and curly; I was ten; how I slept
in the top bunk, in July heat;
his first name: Richard;
damp-swollen smell of pine
and unwashed clothes in the girls’
cabin; waking to his hand[.]
The remaining 13 sonnets use voices of historical “hysterics” who are touched or almost touched by their male physicians. “I never quite touch,” Franz Mesmer says in one poem:
[…] I urge her to put
aside this hysteria and play her
like a glass amonica, pull tone upon
tone from her, for hours.
These doctors, and Dunham herself, are in the business of trying to “unfasten, to unbed trauma / from memory’s sediment.” What Dunham sees—and the doctors don’t—is that small pains become large hurts until the original wound is buried by the “sediment” of new traumas inflicted by the act of “unbedding.”
Dunham’s diction can be a precision instrument, a scalpel so sharp you hardly notice the cut until you see blood. Perhaps you never notice it, like the alert speaker in “Hemispherectomy” who asks, “How can I survive?” as a doctor,
[…] drills, stippling
a semi-circle across my shorn
scalp and peels the dura free
The language is precise, employed to maximize effect and minimize impact on the page. Dunham leaves much white space, which acts as a screen on which the mind projects her images. Dunham’s language can be fragmented as well to make more sharp edges that might cut even the most careful reader. Perhaps the most fragmented poem is “Is Pear :: Is” which includes this passage:
my :: hymen my
mons :: no
stiletto :: let slit
wheal awl :: hew all
predator :: or parade
Assonance and alliteration run together, turning words inside out to make familiar words dangerous.
Dangerous words are what the speakers in Dunham’s poems need. Throughout the collection, words are hard to come by. They are “untranslatable” or won’t come because “all of our jaws / were locked” or because the speaker is “closed like / a knife” (those sharp edges, again). Ultimately, though, the speakers do want to speak and be heard. “Unplait me” asks the final poem, “To Winter:”
I want this for us:
both the re-leaf and release of furrowed brow and chest.
To feel the blossom of a lover’s breath.
To feel you untie the knotted throat.
Since to be “untied” is the final request, it’s important that we listen and remember the stories these poems recall. It’s important to remember the history of touch and how it relates to women’s bodies, and it’s important to listen to the women whose bodies have been touched. Dunham’s poems pierce the psyche and unsettle the reader, but they have to if the cycle of nonconsensual touch is to be broken. Her poems are, like a glass armonica, ghostly and melancholy and lovely, and will pierce to the reader’s core.
What other poets use discomfort and unsettling language to shape the way we read a poem?
We’ve polled the experts and they agree, there’s nothing easy about “being a writer.” Whether you struggle to discern the best publication for your work or to keep your chin up in the face of ubiquitous rejection, we feel your pain and we’re back again to discuss strategies for submission and how to guard your writerly heart.
Hazel & Wren: Beginning the submission process can be more than a little daunting, what’s the very first step?
Timothy Otte: The first step is in two parts, and it has nothing to do with actually sending work to any editor/publisher/literary magazine/whatever. It may sound like I’m dodging the question, but I promise I’m not. The first step of the submission process is to write A LOT and read even more (especially literary magazines, since that’s where you’ll do most of your submitting). Write a lot, revise it, write some more, revise that, ask someone you know and trust to give you feedback, and then revise it all based on their suggestions. Once you’ve built up a body of work that you’re proud of, and you’ve read all those literary magazines, then you can decide where to send it. And THEN the first step is to read a publication’s submission guidelines VERY CAREFULLY and FOLLOW THEM.
Ethan Rutherford: I think the best thing to do is to approach the submission process with some humor, some hope, and a lot of optimism. You have to have faith in the quality of your own work. There’s going to be a lot of rejection, that’s just part of the process. So prepare to hear “no” but don’t get discouraged. The very first thing I’d recommend, though, is going to your library, or bookstore, or buying a number of literary journals in order to familiarize yourself with the work they publish. Support literary journals, become familiar with them, and soon you’ll develop favorites, the journals you’d most like your work to appear in. Those are the journals you should submit to first. Swing for the fences. Even if they say no, you’ll discover new writers you’ve never heard of and are excited about. Win-win. If they say no, write another story, do it better, and send it to the journal again. Be kind to the editors, only send them your best stuff, and don’t get discouraged. Wash, rinse, repeat until the day they finally say yes.
G. Xavier Robillard: Research! Read the journals in which you would be published. I started submitting long enough ago that it was all done by post. There was a certain value lost when submissions transferred to email, because you don’t have to print out the manuscript, and then spend a few dollars on postage and the SASE. The value then was you really had to consider: am I wasting postage on a journal that I know in my heart isn’t right for me?
Andrew Watt: I’m terrible at submissions. I submit things on whims when they strike me. What a horrible career tactic. Honestly, most of my efforts are screenplays, which have a different sort of afterlife. However, if you’re serious about submitting fiction, I recommend making a list. Start with publications you read and like, and think would be a good fit for your writing. Then do some research, until you’ve got 50+ journals/magazines/websites/etc. that might conceivably accept your work. Submit aggressively. Be mindful of fees. Avoid them unless you really, REALLY like the publication. Don’t start with the New Yorker.
H&W: It’s not just how to submit, but where? Do you use an agent? What have you found to be the best way to seek out the right publishing opportunities for your writing?
Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Outside of translations, my poems haven’t been published since 2008. If you want my advice, don’t take my advice. Marshall said that.
G. Xavier Robillard: Most of the time you don’t need an agent to submit somewhere, unless you’re talking about a book-length project. The reason an agent is so helpful is she will have cultivated relationships with editors, and will know whom to submit what. Agents also pay attorneys, who read over your contract for free. Free meaning part of the agent’s 15%.For literary journals, this is where research helps you. You might go to a bookstore that stocks literary journals, the library, or clmp.org to learn about specific publications. Poets and Writers magazine has a searchable database as well: http://www.pw.org/literary_magazines. You can stalk your favorite journals online. A while back, on the Facebook page for the Portland Review, they asked for submissions of book reviews. If you start off by submitting something the editor has asked for, you’re likely starting a relationship with that person, and will have an easier time submitting other prose later.
H&W: Contests. Are they worth it?
Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Know the judge and cater your work to her aesthetic. That said, I haven’t won a contest since 1988—the limerick competition at the Hardwick Fair.
Timothy Otte: Yes. I’ve never won any, but I’m sure they’re worth it. The editors who judge or are preliminary readers for contests are the same editors who accept regular, non-contest submissions.
Andrew Watt: Not really. Limit yourself to a couple of contests each year. Only submit if the contest-holder is a publication/organization that you really or appeals to you. Don’t get distracted by those cash prizes. If you’re a writer of cynical short fiction that embodies your atheist perspective, don’t torture yourself by trying to write a Christian-themed story for a contest that might win you $20,000. Don’t do it.
G. Xavier Rollibard: I’ve never seen the point of entering contests. On the other side of that coin, I’m a big fan of submitting to calls for anthology. Anthologies can be a great way to find an audience, and to get your work published in a book. For example, do a web search on “call for anthology [your personal favorite theme].”
Ethan Rutherford: If you are willing to part with the entry fee, then yes, sure, why not? Contests are how a lot of these small, wonderful journals—journals that are taking interesting chances on emerging writers, publishing stories that take aesthetic risks, etc.—make the money required to simply meet the cost of printing and mailing their issues (and paying their contributors, which is always a good and appreciated thing). One of the things that used to happen to me, though, is that when I paid an entry fee, and didn’t win, I would feel like I’d been cheated. Of course I hadn’t been cheated, but that’s the way it felt. Many journals, though, have entry fees that not only buy you into the contest, but include a subscription—so even if you don’t win, you support a literary journal, and get to read that journal for a year. Contests certainly aren’t the only way to get published, but there’s nothing wrong with paying an entry fee for a specific contest (usually judged by a guest editor). What you want to look out for, and avoid, are the journals that charge an upfront “reading” fee—if you want them to read it at all, you have to pay them to consider it for publication. That’s a terrible practice, don’t fall for that. So if you are paying entry fees, just make sure it’s attached to a specific contest, and you’ll be fine.
H&W: Do you have any advice on how to protect your ego in the quest for publication?
Ethan Rutherford: Haha. No. Just understand that people will say no, and the earlier you can get used to the idea that not everyone is going to respond to what you are trying to do, the happier you’ll be, and the less it will sting as the rejections come in. Rejection is just part of putting yourself out there, and taking that risk. Just make sure you don’t internalize the rejection. Think about it like fishing. All you’re looking for is one bite—that one reader at a journal or a magazine or at a publishing house who really understands and responds to the work you are doing in a way that makes sense. Lots of fish swim by without a nibble, you can see them, they’re right there, why won’t they bite? Well, that’s a question that has no real answer. Just be patient, get used to hearing no, and hold out for that yes.
Timothy Otte: I find it helpful to remember that editors aren’t callous people who take pleasure in rejecting writers. They want every submission to be exactly what they’re looking for, but they can’t accept everything. Rejection isn’t personal. Rejections blow and editors know that (they’re usually writers too, so they see the other side of things). It’s ok to feel kind of shitty when you get rejected, but the best course of action is to take another look at the poems you submitted, revise them again, and try submitting them elsewhere. My “favorite” rejection story is that of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress. It was rejected over 50 times before it finally got accepted. Frreal—50 damn times. Look it up! Also, read this beautiful post by Jeff Shotts, editor at Graywolf Press: https://www.graywolfpress.org/blogs/craft-jeff-shotts-art-rejection. It makes me feel better every time I get rejected.
Andrew Watt: Be proud of yourself for having taken a piece of writing as far as you could. Then flush your ego and prepare for a tidal wave of rejection and drastic revision suggestions. Be okay with this. Most of it will be to your benefit.
G. Xavier Robillard: In a way you need to develop separate personalities. You need to move from the frail, introspective writer, who has created and shaped a lovely thing, to the circus barker looking to get this .PDF off your hands.The business persona understands that submission is the tedious, enervating part of the thing, like doing laundry, and that you’re another part of the publishing ecosystem. Submissions are a yardstick you can use to judge how you are creatively progressing: if I submit ten pieces a year, that’s ten pieces about which I am am satisfied, ten pieces that acknowledge that I’ve grown as a writer, whether or not they are accepted.In my other life, I work at a small technology startup. We have 5 salespeople, and they’re doing the same thing as any writer: pitching a product, over and over. Even if they’re great, they fail 95% of the time. That’s not a real number, I just made that up. Point is, sales is overwhelmingly about failing to sell. It’s served as a good reminder that you need to be able to see your own work, once it’s been edited and revised, that the selling part is simply moving product.And I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed the schadenfreude of watching some precious literary journal, who’s rejected me in the past, close up shop. It’s petty and evil but we have to get our pleasure somewhere.
Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Have faith in the work and not the process. Don’t stop working. Don’t get sad. There’s a lot of horrible poetry being published. Know that and proceed as scheduled.