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.
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.