Review: Indictus by Natalie Eilbert

Indictus


Indictus
by Natalie Eilbert
Published 2018 by Noemi Press
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-1934819715

By Luiza Flynn-Goodlett

[I hesitate to foreground myself but want to provide a brief disclaimer: As a reader and survivor of sexual violence, those two parts of myself rarely intersect, and when they do, it’s likely due to an author’s harmful blundering instead of their careful engagement. This book is one the few that does the hard work of dwelling in those dark, sticky places, and so, it isn’t something to approach casually or without forethought. I read it over several weeks, putting it down frequently to catch my breath. What Eilbert does in these pages is remarkable, and I wish there was a better word for it than brave, but I did feel her being brave on my behalf, excavating and confronting specific personal violence, and in so doing, showing readers that this confrontation is both possible and necessary. So, fellow survivors, approach this book with all possible care and gentleness toward yourself, but please, do approach—you need it.]

Indictus is breathless, urgent, and unmistakably contemporary. Although, it’s not so much “contemporary” as from the future its speaker calls into being, a time when all things that must be said can be, and we don’t stop others or ourselves from saying them. There’s such intimacy here—a girl telling you something terrible, so unbelievable that it can’t be spoken above a whisper. But, instead, imagine the girl screaming that terrible truth at the top of her lungs, in front of the whole school, and you’ll have a sense of the thrill and unease this book inspires.

The long poem “Man Hole” that comprises the first half of the book frames the speaker’s history of sexual violence, and that of the other women in her life, as a study of holes—what they are; what goes into them; what comes out. As the speaker observes, “True emptiness doesn’t exist on the planet—isn’t that something? Holes / are essayistic then,” and “The beauty of holes is that I cannot enter one without ceasing to / exist in the outside world.” This framing transforms the violence described and its consequences into something primal and mythic. But there are no ancient gods or fates here, just a cultural system of misogynistic oppression that robs sexually violent acts of their specific harm, making them appear to be without cause, and thus, inevitable: “no one speaks of girls’ bodies as anything but accident . . . The van doors slam, the men disappear,” and the gutting sentiment, “They called her fine.”

She also examines how women whose violations are deemed both nonexistent and inescapable continue to limp into the future: “To believe what was done to me is curable / assumes a shape. This assumes / what was done to me is truly done.” Sometimes moving forward involves the all-too-familiar state of repression: “Do I remember when he brought my face to his sheets and demanded / I smell what I made? I do not and I loved it. I pushed a disk over memory / so I could breathe freely over it.” (That made me gasp.) Other times, it’s merely a matter of survival: “Dumb little smart girl / walks with both hands against her thighs. Others cover their asses with books. / Women hurt themselves to turn their wars inward.”

Eilbert excels at representing the cyclical nature of trauma, how survivors live with the paradox of their experiences meaning both nothing and everything, how they’ve changed profoundly and yet outwardly remain the same person: “Years and years went by like this. My childhood was decent. / Years and years went by like this. My childhood was decent. / And yet.”

For me, being seen in lines like the following was like a gulp of air after drowning for decades: “I grew up disappearing into a body. Then several. I want to tell you what happened to me . . . But what should I say?” Beneath the final line of “Man Hole,” I scrawled: “I’m dead.” Looking back at it now, I think I meant that Eilbert took me to the very edge of what I could bear, shredded society’s understandings of sexual trauma and women’s bodies, and assembled something entirely new from the scraps. I wrote “dead,” when what I meant was “reborn.”

The book’s second half, comprises the sections “The Men Fall Away” and “Liquid Waste: A Postscript,” is by no means a reprieve from the intensity of “Man Hole”; however, in “The Men Fall Away,” Eilbert’s speaker turns inward, foregrounding her own emotional terrain instead of those who intruded upon it. In poems like “Genesis,” she reflects:

a man led a girl into a closet and bit down.
Her cat escaped his leg when he left. It isn’t
much of a story. It never became a story at all.

There’s such canniness toward linear narrative and how trauma remakes the brain to subvert that narrative, as in this unbearable section from “In Truth I Wish Him Harm”:

Then the man removes her pants and tells her to watch the television.
It radiates blue light.
…………………………….
The girl develops a paralyzing fear of dark blue storm clouds.
She misses her bus.
Years later she will write with the deep worry it was only the color she saw.
No man.

There are numerous other standouts in “The Men Fall Away,” including “Testament with Water under the Bridge,” “Judges,” which contains the breathtaking line, “How I’ve gnawed the rims of cups. My desire to forget / left me a cast-iron mouth,” and “World’s Tiniest Violin,” with the line “my small wrists that are still so small,” the brutality of which I keep returning to. “Liquid Waste: A Postscript” also has many bright spots, such as, “To forgive, I poured milk in a saucer for a creature that never came.” There’s no clean resolution here, no tidy bow to tie it all up with, just a dogged keeping on.

This is a book that returns the reader’s gaze (whether they’ve suffered sexual violence, perpetrated it, or simply been forged by our misogynistic culture), so it can’t help but be a deeply personal book to encounter. As Eilbert’s speaker states in the final section, “I was born with black eyes / open, meaning I peeled back and stared through vaginal light.” Eilbert doesn’t spare herself or her readers, and I’m so grateful for that. Both timely and timeless, this howl of truth will echo for years to come.

Review: The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette

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The Job of the Wasp
by Colin Winnette
Published 2018 by Soft Skull Press
$16.95 paperback ISBN 978-1593766801

By Noah Sanders

Colin Winnette’s novel The Job of the Wasp is, to some degree a ghost story. It is also a locked-room murder mystery and a gothic horror story all entangled within the dimly lit hallways of a purgatory like orphanage. It’s narrator, an ill-fitted boy—lacking both a name and a past—arrives at his new home, seeking nothing but some form of acceptance, but instead is pulled into a madcap hall of mirrors where no one—the children or the ominously vague staff—are to be trusted. Yet all of this—the hunt for an elusive ghost, the murders (which there are many), the pounding storm and the dank, often dour atmosphere—are a mere smoke screen for a story about the elusive nature of acceptance, what we will do, what we might even give up to feel a part of something bigger. And though Winnette—an able veteran of literary genre writing—handles the snarl of spirits and death with aplomb, the reader’s urge to unravel the relatively superfluous “mystery” distracts from the pulsing heart at the novel’s core.

The orphanage in which Winnette thrusts his nameless narrator is a transitional place, where parentless children and troubled kids are sent to be bettered for reemergence into society. Through awkward conversation and the blandly dire monologues of an anxiety-ridden headmaster, our narrator learns that every so often, when the number of students exceeds the capacity of the space, people start dying. His appearance pushes the number into the red and quite quickly, murder is afoot. Accusations are thrown, but many believe it to be the work of a ghost amongst them, costumed as a student, but killing in secret. The narrator—cold and distant, his every conversation a tool to discover more—discovers a buried body and commits a murder of his own and then, his own life hanging in the grips, must do what he can to discover the culprit.

The Job of the Wasp reads fast and sometimes funny, but there is a sense of longing in the character of the narrator, a perpetual maladroit coming to reckon with his own need of fitting in. The other boys (or are they ghosts) shun him at first, turn against him later and finally turn towards a sort of youthful mob justice once they’ve narrowed their suspicions. “Young boys are barbarians,” the narrator says, and he is the outsider amongst them, navigating this suddenly dangerous world as well as the slings and arrows of teenagers confined to a small space. “Young boys are barbarians,” Winnette writes, and The Job of the Wasp portrays them as such, escalating from teasing to attempted murder at the merest suggestion.

Winnette’s narrator is a fascinating, almost otherworldly perspective on the unfolding events, trying as he might to find allies of any yolk, even as those he gets “close” to continue to turn up dead. If he is surrounded by the erratic energy of young men, he is entirely separate from it as well. If the ghost could be anyone, then our narrator could be as well, and Winnette doesn’t shy from portraying him as askew from the other orphans. At times the reader wonders, “Is this narrator even a child? Is he even human?” “This was the very essence of innocence: a willingness to believe,” the narrator speaks at one point describing his fellow students, his perspective so alien, so above the simpler minded objectives of those around him.

And because of the genre(s), reading The Job of the Wasp, becomes an exercise in trying to figure out what’s true and what’s not, who’s a ghost and who’s not, who at the very least can be trusted. Which is unfortunate, because the journey of the narrator, how his attempt to insinuate himself into an established group for survival blossoms into something bigger, is a smaller, more poignant story smothered beneath the, albeit pitch perfect, atmosphere and mystery Winnette has devised.

This becomes clearest in the end of the book, when questions are answered (kind of) and the villain of the piece (maybe) is finally revealed and the strange world Winnette has crafted becomes even stranger. Because even as Winnette unboxes the mystery, lays all his cards on the table, it is the small shift in the narrator’s mind set the reader is drawn towards. The answers Winnette gives will not satisfy those thirsty for a neatly tied up conclusion. They are vague and as mysterious as everything that’s led up to them, and though this is clearly the author’s intention, it only adds to the distracting nature of the book’s genre elements. Even as the narrator begins to understand his place in the school, and perhaps in the world, one’s mind is drawn away from the emotional revelations and towards deciphering the cryptic explanations being laid on the table. And though Winnette has done a fine job crafting his bizarre, haunting world, in doing so he’s pulled the focus on what really matters: the fascinating interior dissection of his narrator.

Review: The First Church of What’s Happening by Miah Jeffra

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The First Church of What’s Happening
by Miah Jeffra
Published 2017 by Nomadic Press
$10 paperback ISBN 978-0-9981348-9-5

By Noah Sanders

Miah Jeffra’s chapbook, The First Church of What’s Happening, is a deceptively slender volume of lyrical essays. The book, a collection of 10 short, lyrical pieces flits between both form and tone, with Jeffra peeling back the loose skin around his succinct, specific thoughts to expose the connections between what seems like nearly everything. With subject matter ranging from how to seduce a tech bro (“How To Seduce a Tech Bro in 13 Steps”) to Keith Haring (“Make Sure to See The Exit Door”) to an almost granular exploration of the memory of a rape (“Sunset, 1986”), there’s a lot to unpack in The First Church of What’s Happening. Jeffra, for the most part, is up to the task, managing a delicate balance of crass humor, poetic description, and academic insight (the author is a professor at Santa Clara) to untangle a dense knot of memory, perception, and life experience to great effect.

The essay “13 Ways To Seduce a Tech Bro” is, at a surface level, a satire of the emotional “how to” lists made popular by Cosmopolitan and other glossy lifestyle mags. And if you read it straight through, with your thinking hat laid neatly on a shelf, you would chuckle at the dismantling of the typical “tech bro” at his ” after-party bro jobs” or that the “white male donning Warby Parkers” is probably named “Bryan or Brad or Brent or Brock or Chett or Chip.” Jeffra is a skilled humorist and he will make you laugh, but you’ll do so with a lingering edge of discomfort as the author unravels his “tech bro” subject, exploring the politics of protest, gentrification, a boy named Chris Cortina (“His ass filled a pair of shorts like two planets.”) and much more before using the whole form to skewer the shallow representation of glossy mag, emotional “how-to” lists in general. And just when it feels like you’ve ingested too much, like Jeffra’s layers upon layers of meaning have filled you to the point of popping, he ties it all together—the tone, the style, the form—into a heart-breaking expression of universal human emotion.

When Jeffra turns inward and picks apart his own experience is when the book truly takes flight. “Sunset, 1986” recalls, in graphic detail, Jeffra’s rape in the woods around the Virginia home of his youth. The visual experience Jeffra is able to build on the page is both breathtaking and harrowing, each moment zoomed in on microscopically, immersing the reader in the brutality. “Dirt and grainy nature stuck wet inside my lips,” he writes, “and I could feel slobber move inside my mouth.” But as much as this is an essay about being raped, Jeffra uses the moment to investigate the permeance of memory, and how as a grown gay man and a writer, his recollection of the event has smeared, altered, and changed as he’s grappled with its implications. He intrudes upon his own memory like a director commenting on a film, peering at it from different points in time, dragging the reader into the hindsight, the emotional grappling he’s gained as the distance has grown. “And I wish I could admit that I only thought of this man’s pitiful, sorry boyness, awkward with the darkness of adulthood,” he writes, “or that I thought of my boyness, and became afraid then of what I would be, what all men become.” It is a harrowing piece of writing, and the very best in a collection full of strong pieces.

It isn’t that Jeffra ever overextends—his tangents are always interesting, his ability to wind them together strong—but on occasion they become too much to digest fully. As if Jeffra has so much he needs to say in such a short amount space, the essays become overindulgent, a table laden with themes, ideas and descriptions to the point of breaking. Some of this is in part the general concept of reading an essay collection: as soon as you’ve got your teeth fully sunk into one set of Jeffra’s ideas, you jump headlong into another and the effect can be dizzying for good and for bad.

As a whole though, The First Church of What’s Happening threads the needle of humor and pain, truth and perception, circling around and around its subjects before landing quietly on some gasp-worthy bit of thought and writing. And sometimes, sometimes Jeffra’s choice to describe shitting himself as dropping a “stink pickle in my drawers” will just make you laugh, and amongst everything else, it will, as I can only imagine Jeffra intended, it will feel like a breath of fresh air.