A Rape Poetics of Emplacement

Emily Ronay Johnston, SRPR Managing Editor

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

As a rape survivor, I often wonder about the value of writing about rape in a culture both saturated in and compulsively avoidant of representations of rape. Who benefits? Does the writer? Do others? And if so, how? We often think of writing, particularly writing about traumatic experiences like rape, as an individual (albeit political) act of breaking silence, of telling one’s story. But approaching writing about rape through a poetics of emplacement might help us understand such writing as a public and social act of situating ourselves “in and through language, the earth, and each other; in and through our histories and our blind spots; in and through our protests and complicities” (“About SRPR”). So in this blog entry, I will explore how the language of survivors (and perpetrators) bolsters my own act of telling, just as I hope that my acts of telling will bolster the voices of other survivors.

The fear of recognition, of identifying myself as a rape survivor, often inhibits the production of language about rape in any form whether written, spoken, thought, or heard. Language, ironically, brings me face-to-face with moments where language (a verbal or bodily “No!”) has failed. Language reinvents the wheel with each violation, endowing it with its own particular details, smells, timings, and dynamics. At the same time, language gathers those violations under one inevitable word: rape. Language conveys the heavy surrender to another’s twisted pleasures, the utter abandonment of one for another, the belief that force forces one to choose, to render her body a possession of one doomed love / connection / alliance / institutional dependence after another.

Many millions endure rape on a daily basis: curious teenagers; battered wives; wrong-place / wrong-time inmates; children; slaves; trafficked adolescent girls; sex workers; church members; prisoners of war; military active-duty, members, personnel. So where do the words go when they’re not heard, not asked for, ignored, used against, bludgeoned out? Who listens to the “please don’t do this,” the whispered “fuck you,” or the throat choking on semen? Where is the linguistic revenge? If not now, when do we speak?

In each others’ stories, we hear our own anguish, anger, and terror at the darkening rooms or the lightening spaces, the next morning: the tousled beds, the cold linoleum floors, the gutters where this happens. We revisit the raw skin, stubbed-out cigarettes, twisted condoms, spots of blood. Language throws us back there, at the same time as our healing bodies sit in the same light that once ruined us forever and has, somehow, kept us alive.

Once, I had a dream: A bleacher full of faceless women, blurred out by rape and battery. Faceless, they had no mouths to speak, but their stories were alive inside them as they turned, in unison, to face me walking toward them, to join them.

Together, our faces returned as we heard each other say what happened. “Darkness, a pit, potatoes, and the War was over.”[1] “I remember feeling sick, an overwhelming sense of guilt.” “His bars were made of metal. I can’t break free.” The water was still running in the bathroom sink. He said I didn’t turn it off when I got up to pee in the middle of the night. The steady “shhhhhhh” of the running faucet as he pushed himself into my asshole, barely awake after the fight the night before. “Was he going to kill me? Had he already done it?” “The sweet birds sing for you. Good morning, blackness. Good afternoon, stillness. Goodnight, silence.” “Enter, the earthen ground is rough.” “How much more can I cry? First love– his hands so sure. I wish I could believe it was just a dream. I want to go back, back before. I just need him to listen.”[2] Poetry emplaces you into me, me into you. Language shows how rape displaces responsibility onto the violated, away from the violator. He is heading off to work, another party; to fathering, partnering, counseling, preaching, trafficking, warring, defending his country.

What is the language of perpetrators? Survivor poetry attempts to slough off the burden of guilt, anger, “if only.” The yellow stars, the ghettos, cattle cars. “She put out signals,” so many say. “I forced myself on her in her own bed. I remember she was crying, a flashback from her father raping her. My hormones were going insane. I asked her to finish me off.” “I don’t remember what happened, I never asked her. I didn’t want to know. But I know I got off.” “You like it in the ass, don’t ya,” he said after he finished, lifting a dirty towel from the floor and wiping himself off. “I was horny. I ignored her. I did it. An erect dick has no conscience.” “Most girls don’t really understand how guys are. Women have to be careful. We never talk about what happened.” “Enthusiastic consent!” “Well she never said no. I could see how she froze up with fear, but it wasn’t rape. She keeps saying she’s fine, but I went and partied with the other girls instead.” “She was 16 with huge tits. I just had to touch her. I knew I could never be with her.” Language of denial, language of selfishness, language of power and control. “The bizarre intimacy with the man who raped me. No place anymore. They just don’t give a fuck. They get off on knowing.”[3]


[1] From Nava Semel’s And the Rat Laughed (pg. 61).

[2] These quoted passages have been lifted / adapted from survivor testimonies on Escaping Hades: A Rape and Sexual Abuse Survivor’s Site at http://www.pandys.org/escapinghades/index2.html.

[3] These quoted passages have been lifted / adapted from perpetrator testimonies in “The ‘Reddit Rape Thread’: Insights Into the Minds of Perpetrators” by stavvers and can be found at http://stavvers.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/the-reddit-rape-thread-insights-into-the-minds-of-perpetrators/.

Emily Ronay Johnston's Author PicEmily is from Boston, San Francisco, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Central Illinois. Holding a Ph.D. in English Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, her work emerges at the intersections of writing studies, social justice pedagogy, trauma theory, film theory, and narrativity. In particular, she researches and publishes on students’ literacy learning in relation to issues of sexualized trauma. She has taught courses in academic writing, public writing, creative writing, gender studies, literature and film, and English as a Second Language. Emily is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Writing Pedagogy at The University of Delaware, and Managing Editor of Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR).


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