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This month’s In Verse is about something very important to me, and very close to my heart. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I am a survivor of sexual assault, and while I have written about it a lot in poems and essays, I won’t go into the details here.
When I was going through therapy in the months and years after the assault, I craved poetry that would help me understand what had happened to me. I wanted someone to tell me what to do, how to behave, how to recover. No healing journey is that simple or universal. My own was messy and often fraught with retraumatization.
I did find solace in poetry though, as I do with almost everything I’ve ever been through. If you are in the months or days or years after an assault and looking for something to help you process how you feel, I hope these poets help you. Whether you’re ready to heal or just want to hear someone else’s story, these poets are experts at examining grief, loss, and recovery.
I hope you find what you need here
The Renunciations by Donika Kelly
What I wanted: a practice that reassured
that what was cracked could be mended
If you are a survivor of abuse, this collection might be one you pick up and put down a lot. In the early days of my healing, someone recommended I read “The Body Keeps The Score,” and because of the intensity of the stories in that book, it took me over a year to read. I read The Renunciations in about a day and a half. I was stunned but also very hungry for these poems. They spoke to things that had never been uttered in me, even silently.
The above quote comes from a poem near the end of the book: “A dead thing that, in dying, feeds the living.” For me, the quote speaks to how after surviving an assault all you want is to know that one day you’ll be okay, that the feeling that you are ruined will subside. That you’ll eventually come back to yourself.
My favorite poem in the collection comes last: “The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings.” The lines
The home I’ve been making inside myself started
with a razing, a brush clearing, the thorn and nettle,
the blackberry bush falling under the bush hog.
speak to the way that survivors often have to “clean house” in the process of healing. You have to get into the thicket of yourself, pull weeds, and get your skin snagged on thorns. It’s a bloody and taxing process, but you do come out on the other side of it.
It’s hard for me to talk about this book without crying. I didn’t make it through it without shedding a few tears. I used to think that was a show of weakness but I’ve come to let tears mean a sort of cleansing for me now. If you find yourself crying while reading this book I hope you can let the tears flow too.
Build Yourself A Boat by Camonghne Felix
am I allowed to disrespect the form.
I first listened to this as an audiobook after listening to an episode of VS with Camonghne Felix talking about this book. I fell in love instantly. I immediately bought a physical copy of the book so I could hold it in my hands and read it. Once I got a physical copy I read it again and again. I often taught it in workshops with teens who were interested in poetry. This book, and the above poem “Mirror Talk” spoke to the power of speaking, of telling the truth.
In “Contouring the Flattening” the speaker states:
but I keep my sob stories to myself. I keep my
smile white and my fists closed. I let survival be
And those words screamed at me. There is definitely a push to silence survivors when we try to talk about our stories. When we speak up, it’s for attention or money. No one wants to believe us because a world in which there are no rapists is a safe world. It allows people that deny assaults to either 1. not interrogate their own sexual experiences where they may have caused harm and 2. blame the victim and position themselves as strong enough to not be assaulted. This is especially true for Black women who are raped and abused at staggering rates and not believed or silenced when they try to speak up.
While the speaker in these poems struggles with divulging their trauma to the reader, they do allow us a glimpse into the ways they have been hurt. It is an incredibly vulnerable act, and a gracious one. To let someone else hold your pain or see their own similar pain reflected is an act of love. For the self and for the reader.
Hot with the Bad Things by Lucia LoTempio
Listen: if nothing goes to plan, imagine it as bad as possible
From what I as a reader can tell, this book is centered around two events. One is the murder of a woman by her ex-boyfriend in the speaker’s college town. The second is the speaker’s own assault. These two events or often bent or blurred together.
In one of the poems, the speaker asks:
If telling a story is the mark of victory, what does that make me? Maybe power
is like language— hard to nail down and relentless; smiling at a man who is
waving to someone behind you.
For me, this question makes me think that sometimes telling our stories isn’t this big, triumphant thing. Sometimes it is a sore, a painful thing still. I know the first time I wrote about being raped and it got published, it felt like I had let the world in on this incredibly traumatic thing, and for what reason? I knew I had to get it out of me, but why?
This book is just bursting with great language, To write a poem is to manipulate language into something else, usually pretty, even if the subject is ugly. What I like about these poems is that the beauty isn’t what is compelling you to read the poems. It’s the story, the parallel drawn between two women and their lives, not dissimilar.
Reading these poems helped me feel permission for my anger. I felt like I was allowed to have the rage I felt in my body. I was scared of rage, I thought it meant doing harm. Poetry chiefly gives both the speaker and the reader permission to feel in whatever way they see fit. If it is hard to decipher or doesn’t make sense right off.
If you do get your hands on this book, allow it to give you permission as well.
Wound From the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse
Forgive me. I cannot find the poem in all of this
Many of these poems deal with the violence forced on trans and disabled people. The stories range from street harassment to sexual assault. These poems are sound, strong, not heavy. I often feel that describing poems as heavy makes them sound like a burden to the reader, which they are not.
In one of the earlier poems in the book “Phlebotomy as Told by the Blood,” we get this rich imagery and language:
Maybe I too am read for all the slaughter carried within me, bastard child of water, lake swelled with rotting fish.
Red is obviously a color very much associated with anger, so for me, this line in particular reads as being colored with rage at the trauma the speaker has been made to endure. There are other poems in the book that reflect this reading to me. Like I said earlier, feeling rage and anger can be scary, but the speaker in these poems seems to carry it well.
These poems also deal with familial abuse, which is a subject that is very tender for me. I crave reading poems like these because they help me to see that I’m not the only person that has been hurt or abused by a parent. It is of course very common, but people don’t talk about it publicly out of fear of “shaming” the parent or parents who did the abusing. There is an impulse to protect the family that I understand all too well.
These poems are sharp and unflinching, they carry a history of abuse that often is not talked about, especially for trans and disabled people. When you live in a body that is not considered the norm, so much of outside people’s fears and insecurities are projected onto you, and often violently. Trans people should not be made to carry this violence delicately, and that’s what I like about these poems, they refuse that notion.
My Heart But Not My Heart by Stephanie Cawley
the end of grief is [ ]. This is my question.
This book isn’t about abuse like the others. It instead deals with the grief around losing a parent. The reason I chose it is because of how it talks about and examines grief. It is very similar to the way I felt about my assault, a kind of loss in its own right.
In the book, the speaker writes:
IIs this what I feel like. Is this my central image, that of an absence flanked
by two feather appendages, two useless mechanisms for flying kept
groundward by the loss of a heart, the musculature of the abdomen, the
shiny beak and eyes.
This meditation comes after the speaker finds the wings of a bird with no body between them. I was struck specifically by “the loss of a heart” because for me, being assaulted was very much about a betrayal. It was always by someone I trusted to not hurt me. I tried to deny what happened to me but the loss still lingered. I had been robbed as something that I couldn’t name or feel or touch any longer.
The image of the wings lingers for me as a reader. To be robbed of flight by forces unknown speaks to the experience of abuse. You are always mourning the self you could have been had you not known the brunt of someone else’s sorrow and rage.
That’s why grief is so poignant, it doesn’t just let you go. It can subside or feel assuaged at some points but it never lets you go. I think this book perfectly illustrates this relationship.
I really like how this book handles grief, and I hope you can connect to it as well.