Higher Than the Four Walls: Domestic Space and Women’s Struggle in Oriya Folksongs

Shailen Mishra, SRPR Blog Editor & Series Contributor

Shailen’s series “Space in Culture” explores the motif of space in the works of Indian poets and poetry.

The modern and urban habitation treats the domestic space like a flatland. There is no strict code of where what should be done. If at all there was such a code at one point, those boundaries are increasingly getting blurred. We eat on our bed. We sleep on the couch in the living room. We take our reading to the toilet. Homework gets done upon the dining table. It looks like we’re enjoying bleeding the utility of one room to another. But the compartmentalization of the domestic space can be highly restrictive and codified. Where and how such restrictions exist are pointed questions, because these restrictions often have an inherent component of circumscribing women’s freedom and movements.

My maternal grandmother, Chandramani Devi, was not allowed to step to the front porch of her own house in the daylight. That’s the social code she had to follow as a married woman who belonged to a respectable household. She was allowed to venture out only on the day of festivities. But even then her errand would be limited to a temple, her face would have to be covered, and she would have to be accompanied by other neighborhood women or her children. When her husband was not in the house, the front door remained locked or uninvitingly ajar. If anyone knocked on the door, then one of her six children would answer the call and act as emissaries, carrying messages back and forth. Under no circumstance, the visitor is allowed to catch a glimpse of Chandramani. That would be scandalous of such proportions that the entire neighborhood would be rocked and gossipy mouths won’t stop chattering. The only way my grandmother circumvented these restrictions and communed with the outside world is through a chink in the doorway. When a marriage procession, political rally, or funeral would pass by, she satiated her curiosity like a spy eavesdropping through a keyhole.

We’re talking of 1950s here and of a pilgrim city called Puri in eastern India. My grandmother’s situation was not an exception. Rather, it was the norm for married women of that time. My grandfather was not abusive or harsh; he was a gentle character instead. He just preferred to follow the society’s code faithfully. Moreover, I am not sure how much my grandmother would have approved of my grandfather’s progressiveness had he decided to lift the spatial restriction upon her.

Another level of arduousness to this whole regressive system came from where and with whom you lived. Chandramani was living in a city at that time and all by herself with her husband and children. Having in-laws in the house, which was highly common back then, would have exacerbated the matter with constant nagging and criticism and even more stringent restrictions of where and how she could move in the house. Secondly, change the urban setting to a rural one, a stricter regimen of mores and propriety would besiege you. Chandramani passed through such a phase earlier in her marital life. Between the age of fifteen (the age she got married) and thirty, she lived with her mother-in-law in a village. During that period my grandfather lived in the city and visited her once a week. Without her husband around, most of young Chandramani’s time was spent raising her children, cohabiting with her brother/sister-in-laws, and most importantly, managing her mother-in-law. From her standpoint, the word “mother-in-law” must have seemed bitterly ironic: less a “mother,” more a “law.” The relationship that my grandmother had with her in-law was not a horror story, which was not so uncommon in those days with young brides getting abused, harassed, neglected, and even killed at the hands of their husband’s family. Chandramani got away with occasional wrapping on the knuckles or wringing of her cheeks. But the fear of upsetting or offending her in-law was constant.

There was one particular ordeal that traumatized my grandmother more than anything else. There was no indoor toilet system at her in-law’s house. Not even a pit latrine. All the excretion business had to be done in open air, either in the field or behind the bush. Chandramani was a city girl. She had the luxury of growing up in a house with a toilet in it. But the rural lifestyle denied her any such convenience or privacy. And even worse was the fact that she had to conclude her sanitational routine before the daybreak so that no villager or neighbor would see her. Under such circumstance, any bowel movement in the daytime must have felt like a witch’s curse. I have heard tales, embarrassing tales, mind you, of how women relieved themselves of nature’s call at the “curfew” hour. Heaven forbid if you’re hit by a bout of diarrhea. I am not going to get into details here. But it suffices to say that hearing stories of women managing toilet emergencies made me realize why sanitation standard was so unfairly stacked against women at that time. It’s not like India has fully ridden itself of the open-air toilet practice for large section of its population. In many cases, people don’t build and use toilets out of cost-saving mindset, obstinate habits, and/or outright insensibility. Women suffer the most in this outdoorsy practice at the expense to their safety and dignity. Men, on the other hand, who have the decision-making power and who find it convenient to relieve themselves in open, would rather build a fortress of restrictions around women to “protect” them than the four walls of a latrine.

What we have here is patriarchy hacking an easy way out of its self-devised conundrum: women cannot be exposed to the outside world; if they must then let it be in the veil of darkness. The above restrictions surrounding the toilet practice and living room usage are examples of how a patriarchal society circumscribes women’s spatial freedom, and designates the conditions for moving within that restricted space. My grandmother’s personal accounts are a window to the experiences of brides and wives of her generation. Imagine being barely fifteen or less and being shipped off to a strange land to be a wife, to be a suitable daughter-in-law, and soon to be a mother. Movement to the outside world forever restricted, forever monitored. Only times you’re allowed to experience the outdoor was through bits and pieces, through the depth of night, through the door crack, or through the second-hand accounts. Indeed, a patriarchy of its own kind, of its own times, and with its own set of peculiarities, trauma, and violence.

There’s a folksong titled “When Will I, Mother, Visit Home” that comes from my grandmother’s hometown, which recounts the sad tale of a new bride, struggling to find her place at her husband’s home. I don’t know if my grandmother knew this song. But this folksong captures the anxiety and homesickness of a young bride, who faces hostility and harassment at the hands of her husband’s family. I first encountered this song in the Oriya (or Odia in contemporary parlance) folksong collection compiled by the prolific Oriya writer and poet Kunjabihari Das. In the preface to the collection, Das mentions this particular song movingly, while pointing out that this song’s theme is part of a broader trend in Oriya folksongs. He writes: “The sad tales of in-law’s house are the lifeblood of most Oriya folksongs. They overflow with the pitiful tears of the bride. Is there a reader whose eyes are not moistened by that torrent?” Indeed, the collection has several songs that speak of young bride’s struggle. There’s no personal testimony here; no written account; no individual stories that bear the name of the sufferer. All we have is these folksongs that have outlived the victims and that bear the imprint of a common struggle, a shared reality, and a fused history.

The folksong “When Will I, Mother, Visit Home” in its original Oriya script is shared below (if the script is not displayed by your browser then click here for the pdf file):

କେଉଁଦିନ ଲୋ ବୋଉ ଘରକୁ ଯିବି

ପହିଲି ପାଳି ଲୋ ବୋଉ ଦେଲୁ ପଠେଇ
ସାଂଗରେ ଯାଇଥିଲେ ସାନ କକେଇ ।
ଅଧ ଲୋ ବାଟଯାଏ ମୋ ପିତା ଗଲେ
ବିଦାୟ ହୁଅ ବୋଲି ମୋତେ କହିଲେ ।
ଧୈର୍ଯ୍ଯ ଲୋ ଫେଡି ତାଂକୁ କହିଲି ମୁହିଁ
ସୁଆରି ଆଗେ ଦେବ ଦୁହାଳ ଗାଈ ।
ଝିଣ୍ଟି ଲୋ କିଣ୍ଟି ମୋ ନଣନ୍ଦ ଥିଲେ
ହାଣ୍ଡି ଲୋ ଶାଳ କଣେ ବସାଇ ଦେଲେ ।
ଯେଦିନୁ ହାଣ୍ଡି ଗୋଟା ଦେଲି ଫୁଟାଇ
ସେଦିନୁ ହାଣ୍ଡିଶାଳୁ ଦେଲେ ଉଠାଇ ।
ଧାନ କୁଟଇ ବୋଉ ପାଣି ଆଣଇ
ଗୁହାଳ ଗୋବର ବୋଉ ମୁହିଁ ପୋଛଇ ।
ଗୁହାଳ କଣେ ବୋଉ ପତ୍ର ପକାନ୍ତି
ଭାତ କଂସିଏ ବୋଉ ବାଢି ଦିଅନ୍ତି ।
ଲୁଣ ନ ଥାଇ ବୋଉ ତୁଣ ନ ଥାଇ
ଗୋବର ଗନ୍ଧରେ ବୋଉ ଖାଇ ନ ପାରଇ ।
ଶୋଇଲା ବେଳକୁ ବୋଉ ଯୋଉଁ ହଟହଟା
ଦୁଆର କିଳିଣ ବୋଉ ମାରନ୍ତି ଗୋଇଠା ।
ଯେଉଁ ହଟହଟା ବୋଉ ମୋଡିଲା ବେଳେ
ପେଲି ଦେଲେ ପଡିଯାଏ ପହଣ୍ଡ ତଳେ ।
ପହଣ୍ଡକ ତଳେ ବସି କାନ୍ଦୁ ଥାଏଁ ମୁହିଁ
ଦାଣ୍ଡବାଡିକି ଚାହିଁଲେ ବୋଉ ମୋର କେହି ନାହିଁ ।
କେଉଁଦିନ ଲୋ ବୋଉ ଘରକୁ ଯିବି?
ହାଣ୍ଡିଶାଳ କଣେ ବସି ସବୁ କହିବି ।

My translation:

When Will I, Mother, Visit Home

You sent me off in the small hours, Mother
Accompanying me was the uncle junior.
My father went till half the way
Farewell to you, he said.
Shedding my patience I voiced this plea
The cow haling the carriage to be milky.
Sharp as bramble was my sister-in-law
She sat me by the kitchen stove.
The day that I broke the pot
From the kitchen was I shoved off.
I pound the grain, Mother, and haul the water
I too clear the cattle manure.
By the cowshed corner, Mother, is my dinner seat
A bowl of rice they serve me for meal.
No salt or dish to go with it
In the stench of dung I can’t eat.
At the bedtime, Mother, so much uproar
I get kicking behind shut door.
During the rubdown they give me hell
I fall down when shoved off the bed.
Sitting on the floor I moan
In the whole house none to call my own.
When will I, Mother, visit home?
Will tell you all by the kitchen stove.

The song begins with the image of the bridal send off. Considering the era, the narrator has most likely not seen her husband yet or the house and the village that she is about to call “home” for the rest of her life. In such a context, no wonder the bridal send off, the parting scene between the mother and daughter, becomes an emotionally eviscerating affair. The young bride is reminded over and over by her mother, aunts, older sisters, and girlfriends that a girl’s fate is to bid farewell to her family. She has to embrace her new home. She has to make the most of it. After all, (so the saying goes) the girl child is always another one’s daughter.

The narrator is not naive. In a subtle way, she registers protest against her father, his lukewarm response, as he accompanies her in the farewell ride only halfway as if trying to fulfill a mere formality. As she gets to her husband’s house, the narrator’s ordeal begins right away. Her skills as a cook are put to test. There is no room for mistake here. So breaking of the clay pot becomes a grave offense, an excuse to cast her off as inept and demean her status in the house. As the song progresses, the space within the house becomes a dominant dimension through which the intensity of the narrator’s agony is registered. Space and emotion inflect one another, and in this reciprocity what illuminates is that the domestic space is not just a designated limit to the women’s autonomy but within it lies a spatial hierarchy, echoing the gradation of marginality.

If we take our narrator to be a typical case of her generation, then she’s most likely not educated. Psychologically conditioned to be a wife and a mother, her sense of self-worth comes from these two identities. In her twin role as a caretaker, to be able to cook is of elevated importance and an intimate way to win approval. So within the domestic space, the kitchen (the ability to manage it) becomes the epicenter of a woman’s agency. The mother-in-law exercises her dominance by granting and limiting access to the kitchen. After all, she was a young and novice daughter-in-law once. When the narrator is barred from the kitchen, her hardship manifolds. She’s relegated to do menial work like pounding grain, fetching water, and cleaning manure, which are reserved for servants. Further, to stigmatize her and underscore her diminished status in the house, she’s assigned a spot by the “cowshed corner” to eat. The punishment thus delivered through the spatial dimension conveys the hierarchical division of space within the household and how it can be instrumental toward spelling marginality and exercising power. For the narrator, her psychological isolation is most pointedly conveyed when she observes: “In the whole house none to call my own.” Her new “home” becomes a nominal entity, bereft of familial empathy and consideration. Not even her husband is a source of comfort here, a character conspicuously missing from the song. The distinction between the narrator’s parental house and her husband’s house is steadfastly upheld in the song. The designation of “home” always applies to the former. So the narrator’s homesickness, her desire to be relieved of her struggle is registered in the final two lines of the song: “When will I, Mother, visit home? / Will tell you all by the kitchen stove.”

The repetition of the title of the song in the penultimate line is a touching plea because of the uncertainty that looms over the question. The narrator’s chance to visit her parental house will be determined by her in-laws and husband, a possibility that may or may not come to fruition any time soon. The last line, though, connotes an intimate space at the narrator’s parent’s house, where she and her mother would have chatted, laughed, quarreled, and shed tears. This memoried corner in the kitchen is now an abode of refuge. There the narrator looks forward to unburdening her sorrow and she’s assured of finding an empathizing ear.

The kitchen’s multiple symbolic import is noteworthy here. On one hand, kitchen is a site of contestation: power is exercised by granting or denying access to it, and moreover, a woman’s self-worth is determined in relation to the kitchen. On the other hand, kitchen can also be a site of learning, bonding, commiseration, and solace. This dichotomous contrast is actually two sides of the same coin, since the mother who bonds with her daughter at the kitchen is capable  of being a different person in her role as a mother-in-law. Nevertheless, the song underscores that the kitchen, a space synonymous with feminity, is simultaneously a symbol of patriarchal restriction and a site of woman’s agency. Further, the domestic space surrounding the kitchen is laden with hierarchical status. This is definitely true even today in the rural Indian culture. And we see this sentiment echoed through the humiliations that the narrator suffers when she is made to eat by the cowshed.

Brutality against brides, confinement of women to the domestic space, restriction of their movements, and curtailing of women’s agency are not archaic norms that belonged to Chandramani’s era. Rather, they are still active and ruthlessly enforced in many parts of India today. If at all women’s marginal conditions become news then it is often under tragic circumstances; otherwise, their stories will remain unknown and unvoiced. In lieu of their silence, what we have is these folksongs, an extant example of their struggle, a cadence of resilience.

Shailen Mishra's Author Pic

Shailen Mishra is a book hopper, story whore, poetry pariah, novelist, three times failed guitar learner, and an aspiring didgeridoo player. He holds a Ph.D. from Illinois State University and an MFA from North Carolina State University. In his spare time, he edits SRPR’s blog and manages its website.


A Few Thoughts on Language, Trauma and “And the Rat Laughed”

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.

“The writer… decomposes the world into the most basic concepts,
But presents them the other way around.
You’ll sense it — the innards pouring out.”
– Nava Semel, And the Rat Laughed (p. 95)

This line appears at the beginning of a series of poems in Nava Semel’s And the Rat Laughed, a hybrid-novel that shapes the story of a five year-old Jewish girl whose parents send her into hiding to escape the Holocaust concentration camps. The girl remains unnamed throughout the novel, referred to as the “little-girl-who-once-was,” “A Little Holocaust,” even simply “Girl.”

The people who take her in, an anti-Semitic farming family seeking financial gain, lock Girl away in a potato cellar, “the pit,” where a rat becomes Girl’s steadfast companion. Over the course of the year that she’s hidden there, the family’s teenage son, Stefan, repeatedly rapes the little-girl-who-once-was.

The novel’s hybrid-form shapes Girl’s story across 150 achronological years, spanning from 1944 – 2099, and five different genres. Through story, legend, poems, diary entries and science fiction, And the Rat Laughed enacts trauma’s rearrangement of time, its scattering of narrative.

What’s particularly unique about Semel’s fictionalized Holocaust historiography is its sustained meditation on the relationship between trauma and language, and more specifically, on the relationship between what happened and telling what happened.

What happened to A Little Holocaust and telling what happened to her resist one another. Poetry makes room for us to, quite literally, read between the lines. Trauma’s un-tellability and its must-tellability converge, creating a new totality of experience.

Take, for example, the text’s poems “Why?” and “How Many?”:

Why potatoes? How many potatoes?
Because. This many.
Why lice? How many lice?
Because. This many.
Why darkness? How much darkness?
Because. This much.
And why the Stefan? And how much the Stefan?
(Pg. 101) (Pg. 101)

The subterranean innards lead us to the unanswerable “why” and “how” of the Stefan as the lines of these poems decompose the extraneous. Potatoes, lice and darkness can be explained: “Because” or “This much.” Stefan is left unanswered. The page becomes again blank, here at the poem’s end where we perhaps most what to know “why” and “how many times” he raped her.

The sequencing of images in these poems shapes Girl’s experience of rape as a kind of violent excavation, a festering-up of the earth’s innards. The potatoes, lice and  darkness mark where rape begins, ends and will begin all over again. What more do we need to be told of “what happened” to understand what did?

A few pages later, the poem “Lullaby” alludes to an answer as to why rape happened to her:

Once upon a time
There was a little Jewish girl
And she had
Little Jewish hands
And little Jewish eyes
And a little Jewish mouth
And a little Jewish body
And a big hole
(Pg. 110)

“Lullaby” renders each part of Girl’s body Jewish, thereby an object, a receptacle—“a big hole,” a vagina. This is not a lullaby that rocks the body to sleep, but into complacency. This lullaby is preparing the body for rape.

Time itself becomes flesh, feet—the part of the body that enables Stefan to come and go at will. Time becomes the anticipation of the perpetrator, the aftermath of his visits, their certainty of happening again—anything but naming directly what happened, rape.

The Stefan comes down
The Stefan goes up
Yesterday is what came before
Tomorrow is what comes next
Down goes the Stefan
Up goes the Stefan
That’s how time marches on
(Pg. 112)

Traumatic experience is often theorized as atemporal and preverbal, beyond the scope of a coherent, chronological narrative of what happened. What I appreciate in Semel’s poems, however, is their attempt to reverse this premise—to represent trauma as not so much atemporal but intratemporal, between the layers of “past,” “present” and “future.” Their attempt to represent trauma as not so much preverbal but intraverbal, literally between the lines. Among poet, language and paper, experience is remapped from bodies that endure rape to a world of bystanders who must remember, must witness “the innards pouring out.”

Emily Johnston's 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).


The Dancing Banana: Technological Obsolescence as Extinction Event

Adrienne Dodt, Series Contributor

Adrienne’s series “Digital Landscapes” is about navigating hypertext.

I first encountered Jena Osman’s The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist in a New Media class in college around 2003. I returned to TPTAABDZO (hosted on gtrlabs.org) again in 2008-2009 because I wanted to include it in my master’s thesis (though I eventually didn’t), and I took rather extensive notes on it.

Some time later, though I couldn’t say exactly how much later, I was interested in reading TPTAABDZO again. However, when I attempted to access it, I was instead confronted with a dancing banana. It smiled as it moonwalked across the page and shook its little banana rump, as though mocking me.

I tried gtrlabs.org’s home page, and, again, there was that damned banana.

The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist was a digital text in the shape of the periodic table of elements, and each element was a poem. One could read individual poems, combine elements/poems, and subject them to any (or all) of five different processes (“Dissolve,” “Stir,” “Heat,” “Dilute,” and “Centrifuge”) to see text “reactions.” Each of these processes had a “Solution” (that is, what the process did to the text), and, in her descriptions of the processes, some of them had an “Ideal Solution” as well as a “Current Solution.” Even in this very finished stage of the text, there was still this built-in assumption that, given improving technology, she would eventually be able to enact these “Ideal Solutions.”

In 2011, an updated (and the current) version of The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist appeared at jenaosman.com. The text, as far as I can tell, hasn’t changed. The processes, however, are different, including a new process, “Evaporate.” Some of these processes now enact older “Ideal Solutions,” and others are simply different with no relation to a stated “Ideal Solution.” In this way, Osman’s text evolved and attained more desirable traits in the face of threat to its environment.

In researching (a.k.a. “Googling”) The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist, I found an even earlier version from 1997 on SUNY Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center. It is a sort of proto- TPTAABDZO: there is an uninteractive image of the periodic table of elements, then text and element boxes. There are a few links which lead to more poems, but the majority of the text is on the main page. It is a lot less hypertextual than today’s version, and there are no processes. It is almost unrecognizable as  TPTAABDZO‘s ancestor.

Last summer, I went to see Stephanie Strickland read at Woodland Pattern Bookstore in Milwaukee. She had a new book out: V: WaveTercets/Losing L’una. Or rather, the new book was an update of her 2002 book, V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una. Both versions of the book have two parts that one can access by flipping the book over to read one part then the other. The third part of the book, V, is a digital component to the book, again in both cases. At the reading, I casually picked up the new version and asked Strickland what the difference between WaveTercets and WaveSon.nets was. I was expecting there to be a textual difference. I was surprised when she answered, “Shockwave.” V had been endangered because of the gradual obsoletion of Shockwave. In the updated version of V, it appears as an iPad app. The printed books are only different in one aspect: the sonnets are now cut into tercets instead. The materiality of the written text was altered in order to re-present the overall work in a contemporary digital environment.

Both The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist and V have survived because their authors were able to re-home them. Many other works have not been so fortunate.

Digital technology is, as they say, “rapidly evolving.” A machine can become obsolete in only a few years. Little by little, programs stop updating for an older machine until one day, the machine simply cannot run these programs. The machine becomes a wasteland, still mechanically sound but unable to produce. Websites and software, too, must be consistently maintained and updated in order to avoid obsolescence.

Hardware and software are the environment, and the works themselves are the flora and fauna. Digital literature must adapt (and must be adaptable) in order to survive in a constantly renewable, constantly evolving landscape on the internet. Digital poems must constantly adapt or die, but then there’s the added problem that the new adaptation may itself prove to be incompatible in the future.

Lori Emerson, in her blog post “The Archeological Media Lab as Locavore Thinking Device,” argues that the best way to preserve digital literature is to preserve obsolete machines. Lori Emerson founded the Media Archaeological Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2009, which preserves obsolete technology such as game consoles, electric word processors, and circuit boards. She writes that it’s difficult to preserve “the material specificity” of e-lit that was created in now-obsolete machines and programs.

She believes the solution is to use original hardware/software to run older e-lit as it was originally intended. She argues that while archival projects such as the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) and Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice (ELMCIP) preserve older digital texts by translating them into more modern programs as simulations, making them accessible to current computers, the texts are expressed differently because they’re in different forms.

Emerson writes, “In terms of the literature created on these platforms from the past, I would say that a work such as First Screening by bpNichol—created in 1983-1984 using an Apple IIe and the Apple BASIC programming language—is exemplary in that it, like most other early works of e-lit, cannot be understood if we view it only via a media translation.” She goes on to describe First Screening, that one had to physically insert a floppy disk and type command lines, something completely foreign to modern computers. Because this text roamed a different land, much like the dinosaurs, it is ill-suited to contemporary environments.

While the Media Archaeological Lab functions as a sort of museum, sites like the ELO and ELMCIP function as Jurassic Park, minus the rampant predation. Fitter versions of extinct texts are brought to life in contemporary digital environments. Although they are not the original dinosaurs, and their coloring may be slightly off, it is a way to make these megafauna of e-lit history accessible to a wider audience. That is immensely important because what survives depends on human interest. If we restrict these texts to their original, obsolete machines, they will become extinct because eventually, there will be no one familiar enough with the texts to want to preserve them.

In “Acid-Free Bits: Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature,” Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin advocate for the preservation of digital texts. They first give four different methods of preservation, including Emerson’s, and the pros and cons for each. (Maintaining obsolete machines, they point out, is “a costly and difficult option.”) While Montfort and Wardrip-Fruin are more open to different methods and different preferences (including the idea that digital lit should go extinct, that it’s an ephemeral medium), they do recommend best practices for keeping various species of digital text thriving. This involves keeping the source code for future re-creation, saving it on many different storage options in case one becomes obsolete, making many copies and making it copyable for others, keeping it open and non-proprietary, and creating programs that are as universal as possible across different operating systems. Essentially, develop programs with less specific environmental needs, store the DNA, propagate widely, and create zoos.

Montfort and Wardrip-Fruin end their essay by promoting The Electronic Literature Organization’s project X-Lit (part of the larger ELO PAD initiative), which serves to give authors the tools for making preservable digital text. In the sequel to this article, “Born-Again Bits,” by Montfort, Wardrip-Fruin, and several others, the authors outline the ELO’s PAD project (Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination), and they include a more detailed description of the X-Lit project. Another goal of the PAD initiative is to migrate older hypertextual works to suitable contemporary environments through the use of emulators and interpreters. They argue that “migrating” the works into different programs is the way to preserve them, not keep them on the “life support” of old, eroding programs. A text in a dying environment, if it does not migrate, will die unless artificially preserved, and the authors believe it is much better to give a text a new environment rather than expend futile effort in maintaining it within its original environment.

They also contend that the work is not defined by its platform/environment, but that instead, “Complex digital works are a kind of swarm behavior. Individual files, formats, scripts, software environments, and so on, may perish, but suitable replacements may be found that allow the living relationship that is the swarm to continue.” Thus, the digital text is not an individual organism, or a relation between organism and context, but on the text as an entire species. In this way, the overall function of the work matters more than its constituent parts.

I don’t believe that this is truly an either/or proposition. We can have both the originals and the new media translations, and in having both, we can even better preserve both the interest in the texts and the ways in which they were originally intended.

The internet is a curious place where anything can be at once ineradicably permanent and instantly ephemeral. Websites are washed away like sand on a beach. Old platforms become obsolete, rendering digital literature unreadable or inaccessible. On the other hand, the internet is obstinately stained with scandal. Retracted articles that are reposted, screenshots that capture misdeeds, and stolen nude photographs can be pulled up as so many weeds that only grow anew somewhere else. The landscape, then, is cultivated by human interest.

In our digital environment, we are not only losing our art. We are losing our history. Future archaeologists will have little to go on if we do not preserve our digital culture even as it progresses. We obsessively catalog and classify our lives on social media and blogs. We can also do this with our digital texts. If we don’t, the future will only know us by our dancing bananas.


  1. In paragraphs 7-8, I incorrectly titled the online portions of V:WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una and V:WaveTercets/Losing L’una. V is actually the overall title of all the texts while Vniverse is the title of the two online portions of V.
  2. According to a soon-to-be published chapter of a book by Stephanie Strickland, “The Death and Re-Distribution of V” (which she helpfully emailed me), Shockwave wasn’t solely responsible for endangering V. It was also  V:WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una going out of print and the Shockwave Vniverse and Errand Upon Which We Came (an earlier digital version of part of Losing L’una) not longer being accessible through The Iowa Review Web and the Cauldron and Net website, respectively. However, both  Errand Upon Which We Came and  the Shockwave Vniverse are still accessible through Stephanie Strickland’s website: www.stephaniestrickland.com. That is, the previous iterations have been preserved, so the evolutionary steps of this text co-exist today.

Adrienne Dodt's Author PicAdrienne Dodt is a poet and essayist. Adrienne’s work can be found in The Body Electric anthology and Fact-SimileApothecaryCon/Crescent, and Monkey Puzzle magazines. Ze is a member of The Next Objectivists poetry collective in Chicago. Ze was the Poetry Editor for Bombay Ginmagazine in 2008-2009, and ze edited the Next Objectivists’ chapbook Collective Unconsciousnesses in 2011. Adrienne currently teaches English at City Colleges of Chicago.


SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series 2015

We hope to see you at SRPR’s annual reading event—Thurs, April 16 (7pm) at Ewing Cultural Center in Bloomington, IL. Readings by Emma Bolden (Winner, 2014 Editors’ Prize Contest), Ewa Chrusciel and Jonah Mixon-Webster. Join us for poetry, community and libations/refreshments! Donations welcome. Free & open to the public.


SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series 2015

The Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR), published through the Illinois State University Publications Unit, announces its annual reading event. The SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series will take place on Thursday, April 16th, 7pm, at the historic Ewing Manor in Bloomington. Named for SRPR’s long-time editor and benefactor, Lucia Getsi, the series is co-sponsored by WGLT’s Poetry Radio, ISU’s Creative Writing Program, and ISU’s Department of English. The event features readings by award-winning SRPR poets, followed by a reception with wine and appetizers. This year’s featured poets include Jonah Mixon-Webster, Emma Bolden (Winner, 2014 SRPR Editors’ Prize Contest) and Ewa Chrusciel. Save the date, spread the word, and bring a friend! Free and open to the public. Donations welcome, but not required. For more information about this event or accommodations, contact SRPR at contact@srpr.org.

  • 6

The Poem as Locus: Walking Through Donald Justice’s “Memory of a Porch”

Angela Narciso Torres, Series Contributor

Angela’s series attempts to explore through her own writing process and that of the other poets the ancient Roman construct of the “genius loci,” a guardian spirit that enlivens a place, igniting and inspiring the creative imagination.

The poet James Galvin has said that the poetry of place is really “a poetry of self-annihilation.” He writes: “the poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it…The poet replaces self with situation, turning himself, as it were, inside out, so that the center of ‘knowing who you are’ becomes the circumference of uncertainty. The poem as locus mirrors this dynamic, since it is a measured place, possibly with stanzas which has an infinite capacity to contain everything outside it, including the poet.”

If the poem itself is a locus, then it follows from Galvin’s logic that a poet replaces self with poem, losing himself in it in order to find herself. In no other poem is this more apparent for me than in Donald Justice’s “Memory of a Porch,” in which he uses the economy of the stanza (from the Italian word meaning “room”), to affix a childhood memory onto a permanent world. While I would not consider Justice primarily a poet of place in the way James Wright, for instance, has been known for, Justice’s poems are often reminiscent of his childhood Miami. Known for his use of formal elements and of reinventing traditional forms, reading his poems often feels, to me, like visiting rooms from one’s past, at once familiar and strange.

Memory of a Porch

                                 Miami, 1942
What I remember
Is how the wind chime
Commenced to stir
As she spoke of her childhood,
As though the simple
Death of a pet cat,
Buried with flowers,
Had brought to the porch
A rumor of storms
Dying out over
Some dark Atlantic. 
At least I heard
The thing begin–
A thin, skeletal music–
And in the deep silence
Below all memory
The sighing of ferns
Half asleep in their boxes.

“Memory of a Porch” consists of five concise stanzas that alternate between quatrains and tercets. If stanzas are likened to the rooms of a house, then Justice’s first stanza is clearly the entry point, inviting the reader into a personal memory, the memory of, well–a porch. The porch, as we know, is the most public area of a house. An exterior room, it faces the street, inviting neighbors to stop by without feeling as though they have imposed.

As the poem progresses, the speaker invites us on a journey into the most interior of spaces, where deep memory and feeling reside. The first stanza reveals a memory embedded within a memory–the sound of wind chimes coinciding with the memory of a “she” who remains unnamed (one imagines an older relative—aunt, mother, or grandmother—speaking to a child).  The stability of four lines establishes a sense of being grounded, as if to say, “This happened” with the authority and weight of narrative history. The two-beat lines reinforce this certainty, yet the stanza ends with a comma, like a door held open for the reader to proceed to the interior.
This takes us to the second stanza, where the actual memory is recounted, though couched in a conditional clause. The stanza is a tercet, which some have deemed an unstable unit because it lacks the evenly balanced support of a couplet or quatrain.  Here, the function of the tercet, to my mind, is two-fold. First, it reflects the fragile nature of memory; its mutability over time. The memory, a seemingly innocuous childhood event, (the “Death of a pet cat/ buried with flowers”) breaks the two-beat pattern to emphasize the dramatic moment central to the poem. The second function of the uneven tercet is to roll the action forward to the next stanza, heightening tension by increasing the reader’s desire for the predicate of the “as-though” clause.  In a poem where only the subtlest action occurs, this becomes an important source of movement.
The predicate comes in a quatrain, returning to the stability of four two-beat lines. We are back at the porch, but now a darker emotion is introduced: “a rumor of storms/dying out over/ some dark Atlantic.” The gravity of those images stand in contrast with the simple childhood memory preceding it, amplified by the unevenness in stanza length. The heaviness of the metaphor suggests how memory can stir up emotional storms by the sheer act of remembering.  Did the child notice this metaphorical storm in the woman’s face as she recounted the death of her cat?  Does the rumor of storms represent the child’s feeling upon hearing the story, or the adult-child’s, as he recalls the moment? We cannot know this, but can feel certain that the speaker attributes the stirred up chimes to memory’s power to charge the atmosphere with deep emotion.
The third stanza closes with a period, grounding the moment further. The white space that follows is an immense silence, like the lull after a storm. The sense of quiet that Justice achieves with the use of white space can be most appreciated here.  Much happens in this space: reconsideration, followed by a return to the original memory, embodied in the sound of chimes from the first stanza. Here, the speaker qualifies what he remembers. “At least I heard/The thing begin—/a thin skeletal music—”.  Again, the unstable tercet. The speaker defers to memory as reflected by the halting phrases. The use of Dickinsonian long dashes contributes to the sense of trying to recover something lost. In this case, it is a “thin, skeletal music”—fragile as memory.
The white space that follows allows a pause, as one straining to listen. That silence is repaid by an even deeper silence in the last stanza.  “And in the deep silence/ Below all memory/ The sighing of ferns/ Half asleep in their boxes.”  Here we see a solid return to the two-beat line.  The stanza reveals what happens at a level “below all memory,” going to a deeper, darker interiority than the speaker’s own memory of the porch or the woman’s childhood memory.  The use of personification (“The sighing of ferns / Half asleep in their boxes”) rouses a deep, ineffable sense of melancholy and longing.  But more than that, it speaks of how memory transforms our perception of the world, as well as our inner lives, in that instant of remembering.
By using this structure of alternating stanza-shapes, Justice mimics how memories come back to us in waves, waxing and waning like the phases of the moon. What he has fashioned in this poem then is a container for memory, otherwise fleeting and evanescent. That he ends the poem in the box-like quatrain with the image of plant-boxes is no accident. The act of writing this poem, with its deliberate, alternating structure, creates a locus—a holding environment—affixing memory, and thus, the self, onto the glittering, hard objects of a permanent world.

Works Cited

Galvin, James. “The Poetry of Place: James Wright’s, ‘The Secret of Light. ’” http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetry-place-james-wrights-secret-light

Justice, Donald. “Memory of a Porch.” Collected Poems. New York: Knopf. 2004.

Angela Torres's Author PicAngela Narciso Torres‘s first book of poetry, Blood Orange, won the Willow Books Literature Award for Poetry. Recent work appears in Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, and Cream City Review. A graduate of Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Angela has received fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, Ragdale Foundation, and Midwest Writing Center. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila, she currently resides in Chicago, where she teaches poetry workshops and serves as a senior poetry editor for RHINO.



Fragmenting Language, An SRPR Found Poem

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.

Comprised of lines from poems in the 39.1 Summer 2014 issue by Chloe Anne Campbell, Bill Edmondson, Clayton Eshleman, Shawn Fawson, John Goodhue, Emily Grelle, Emily Hockaday, Jennifer Schomburg Kanke, Katharyn Howd Machan, T.J. Sandella, and Rachel Jamison Webster (SRPR Illinois Poet).

Inspired by connections I discovered across poems in SRPR 39.1—particularly in terms of imagery, color and sound—I composed this found poem about the traumatic intensity of childbirth. Having never actually given birth myself, I do not know this intensity personally. However, themes of violence and childbirth co-emerged organically as I read the current issue. So I selected, arranged and adapted lines to reflect that co-emergence. As traumatic events (such as childbirth) can produce dissociation, fragmenting memory as well as the language needed for describing the trauma, I tried to capture that dissociative state by presenting partial images that then, quite literally, bleed into the other images around them. This strategy effectively obscures the details of the actual traumatic event (childbirth) and focuses attention instead on the emotional, physiological experience of the traumatic event.

Through the silent snarls of thick blood,
Fertile flesh pitted with bullets that bloom red,
She hears the soft earth harden, shrink, stifle all pulsing.
Fear widens the space around her.
Night folds back into its bruise—
Every color epileptic dark,
A box filled with thousands of years
That burn and burn until the world begins
To gain a hue again, like an old wound.
The corn rises up, the tomatoes redden.
Her birth hole, a tangle of dream thoughts,
Spends eight hours screaming you out of her body.
A circle of twelve dead birds,
Broken bodies, silhouettes,
Strips of light trying to get where they need to be.
Tell no one this is your life.

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).


April 2014 SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series Event

All recordings done by Brian Hedgepath, © 2014

Photos by Kirstin Hotelling Zona

IMG_5650Coming to us from New York City, Jesse Nissim (SRPR Editors’ Prize Contest 2013 Winner) is author of four poetry chapbooks. Jesse kicked off SRPR’s Lucia Getsi Reading Series Event on April 10, 2014. Listen to this recording of her reading, which includes “Fire” (Nissim’s contest-winning poem) as well as poems from her full-length collection, Day Cracks between the Bones of a Foot (Furniture Press Books), that deal with her experience of being injured as a dancer—of trying to get inside the body: “Diagram for the Dream of Flight,” the collection’s title poem and “Finale.” Jesse also reads from her more recent collection, Nesting Instincts. These untitled poems are inspired by the economic crisis, ideas of housing and shelter, and represent Jesse’s work with found texts and collage. Her reading concludes with a new poem, “By the Time I Arrived, I Was A Bird.”



IMG_5713Chicagoan author of four books of poetry, Jason Bredle (SRPR 38.2 Illinois Feature Poet) was a featured poet at SRPR’s Lucia Getsi Reading Series Event on April 10, 2014. Listen (and laugh along!) to this recording of Jason’s humorous reading, which includes “What to Expect,” Doctor Bronson,” “Yellow,” “Dairy of a Werewolf,” “Beating A Dead Horse,” “Stalker,” “Carnival” and “Roman Candle,” among others.






IMG_5658Author of me and Nina (Alice James Books) and Ph.D Candidate at the University of Missouri Columbia, Monica A. Hand (SRPR 38.2 Contributor) was a featured poet at SRPR’s Lucia Getsi Reading Series Event on April 10, 2014. Listen to Monica’s captivating reading of “Eunice Waymon” and “Black is Beautiful” from me and Nina, as well as some of Monica’s newer work, including “Along the Mississippi,” “Postman,” “The Big House,” “Of No Return,” “Freedom Bondage,” “Director’s Rule,” “Migrants Die As Burning Boat Capsizes” and “Peacock.” Monica says of reading new work publicly, “I don’t think I really hear the poem until I’ve heard it coming back from you.”



IMG_5685Chicagoan editor, poet and librarian, Jacob Saenz (SRPR 38.2 Contributor) was a featured poet at SRPR’s Lucia Getsi Reading Series Event on April 10, 2014. Listen to this recording of Jacob’s reading, which includes some of his newest work: “In the Time of the Bachelor,” “The Bachelor Makes Dinner,” “The Bachelor Gets Ready to Attend A Wedding,” “Holding Court,” “After the Game,” “The Woman I Love,” “Forged,” “This Never Happened,” “Traviesos” and “Doing Your Dead Father’s Dishes.”



  • 11

Glasswater [sic]: an interview with Jacob Bennett

Toby Altman, Series Contributor

Toby’s series “Bodies in Space” is about sustained thinking of the physicality of the body and its relation to poetry. Here, critical essay fractures, moves like poetry.

Jacob Bennett’s new chapbook from Furniture Press Books, Wysihicken [sic], takes its name from a misspelling. If you look at a map of Philadelphia, you’ll find Wissahickon, an astonishing state park which runs through the city’s Northwest neighborhoods. If such a pastoral landscape seems improbable in the heart of Philadelphia, workshop of the world, Bennett’s chapbook demonstrates how the natural is already the political: implicated in violent acts of naming and appropriation, which turn Wysihicken into Wissahickon.

Bennett conducts an archaeology of the park: examining, in tightly constructed poems, its human and natural history. He documents how the poem’s Arcadian setting serves “as microcosom or repository of the foundations of the United States of America. Appropriation and dominion, naming as claiming, domination and change – these are American themes and the themes of this poem.” The park becomes a “petrified directory” for reading, reproducing, and critiquing the cycles of colonial violence which have made and shaped the ‘natural.’ I interviewed Jacob about his chapbook, its politics and its aesthetics, over the month of June, while he prepared for his wedding.

Toby Altman: I’d like to begin by talking about the tradition of romantic landscape writing. Wordsworth, for instance, famously composed while walking, and the rhythm of the footfall insistently frames his poems. We might say that romantic landscape poems rely on the poet’s body—a centripetal presence which organizes the natural. Your poem too begins with the poet’s rhythmic movement through the landscape: “I began composing the first sections of this poem in my head while riding my bike through Wissahickon Creek park in Philadelphia’s northwest quadrant,” you write. But your poem itself effaces this presence; the word ‘I’ is ostentatiously absent from the poem. Talk about your relation to the tradition of landscape poetry: if your poem breaks from that tradition, what is at stake politically and aesthetically in the breaks?

Jacob Bennett: While I had Bishop (“Florida”) and Olson (“Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [Withheld]”) in mind, and not Wordsworth, the connection to that tradition is there. It’s gratifying that you notice the friction between what I was very consciously thinking of as a lyrical tradition of R/romantic landscape writing, on one hand, and the total absence of an ‘I’ in my own poem. It’s an artifice, to be sure, the erasure of my Self as a central filter for sensory input. Because, of course, it IS me walking, splashing, riding, reading, touching, smelling. There were, in early drafts, some ‘I’ references, but at some point I (ahem) decided that, in order to compose something that was bigger than me or my subjective experience of a very beautiful landscape, and my third-hand reader’s experience of a very brutal history, that there should be no center or axis, at least not in the form of a “me as center of everything,” around which the poem might revolve. As far as the lines, which are sometimes short, sometimes long – I’m thinking of your comment about Wordsworth’s peripatetic rhythm – I guess the poem is a specimen of concrete poem, as I was trying to match the lines of the rocks, and the water, and the trails, along which I traveled.

TA: I’m interested in what you say about the shapes of the poem. It seems like the poem is not merely descriptive of a landscape, but also mimetic of it. I wonder if this is true of the poem’s language as well as its shape. The language of the poem is at once austere and heteroglot, impacting geological, industrial and lyric vocabularies. In the Author’s Note, you write, “I realized…there is no way to pin down a place by naming it or telling its story. After all, even bedrock fractures and loses its place.” Talk about the relation that this poem establishes between language and place. Is the groundlessness of place also the groundlessness of language? How do you accommodate one to the other? (I particularly want to hear about the neologisms, like ‘millspins’ and ‘glasswater,’ which are so much a part of the distinctive fabric of this poem).

JB: Yes, I think that’s right, that place and language are, if not groundless, then definitely ungrounded or unstable over time, even if the shifts are unnoticed or so slow as to take ages. The first time I read the ‘misspelled’ name of the Wissahickon that is the poem’s title, it was attended by an editor’s notation indicating the ‘found’ nature of the spelling: [sic]. The sound of the combination—Wysihicken [sic]—echoed in my head for a while before I realized that was the title. And then I realized that the alternate spelling was a perfect carrier of the idea of slippage, as in the sliding of continents over and under each other, and also of the arbitrary nature of spelling and labeling. Sure, today there are geometric shapes on a map that represent the creek, the creek’s protected parkland, the creek’s watershed, but those shapes, and the names applied, have changed and will change. What’s in a name? Well, Wissahickon is a suburban refuge for urban citizens. Wysihicken [sic] is a conglomerate of Dutch colonists, and Lenape tribes, and German Rosicrucian doomsdayers, with tongues that make sounds unfamiliar to, alien to, the English of my own tongue. And I wanted to capture that, the way a spelling can change something so familiar, both in the eye and maybe even in the ear. And, since you mention the neologisms and other diction choices, I should say that I strove for the occasional ‘clumped-up’ compound word, which I saw as mimetic, too, of the clumping of various materials in the forest. I wanted, too, with ‘glasswater,’ to express the very specific look of the still, flat, mirrored surface of the creek on a windless day, but the way it juxtaposed with ‘Ganshewehanna’ (‘noisy water’), the Lenape name for the Dutch-named Schuylkill, was also very attractive to me. So I used a trick I learned from my study of German, and from Truman Capote (‘summeryellow’ he wrote, somewhere, I swear), compounding a new word. Amelia Bentley suggested I get rid of ‘simmering,’ and I agreed. But before striking the word, I looked up the etymology, and discovered that in addition to our received idea of ‘slowly boiling,’ the word has older meanings related to ‘cement.’ That the word holds both these meanings, simultaneously, of movement and stasis, meant that it had to stay. As for the shapes of the poem, there is definitely a mimetic quality to the look of the poem on the page, and that was important to me from early on—I was interested in there being another layer or facet to the language, something that might come through in the layout. Cristophe – as you know, publisher for Furniture Press – made a really great suggestion that I try for something more organic, less ergonomic and clean, than the blocky original layout. So I changed the measurement of the ‘tab’ key, seven hundredths of an inch, rather than half an inch, in order to achieve something more sinuous, less rigid.

TA: We’ve been talking about the ‘groundlessness’ of language and place in your poem. You refuse to treat this as a metaphysical condition; instead, you document the colonial and industrial violence that turns Wysihicken into Wissahickon. I’d like you to talk about the poem’s political strategies: does its mimetic commitment preclude taking a political stance on the violence it documents? Or is mimesis itself urgently political?

JB: I want to go in all the directions in order to answer that! I’ll start by saying that, while I do try to anchor my ‘groundless’ language in the literal as much as possible—historical accounts, geological data—I am very much interested in the metaphysical questions ‘what might be?’ and ‘what might be the nature of that Might Be-ing?’ I am just as likely to think of myself as a staunch materialist as a believer in things unseen. To go ‘way out there,’ and to fuse those parts of my mind, it may be useful to quote NASA: “everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments…adds up to less than 5%” of the universe. Ontologically, we’ve got a lot of work to do to “order” the universe, what is likely an impossible goal. It is, though, comforting to the materialist in me to revel in the work of Linnaeus; naming things and categorizing them lends a sense of order, and control, to what is the riot of existence, and I do find great pleasure in naming that red bird with the peaked head feathers, black face feathers, and blood-orange beak: “cardinal.” But, of course, this aspect of mimesis, names as representations, is abjectly political. Look at the ongoing ‘Redskins’ situation. And mimesis as mimicry, too, is political. Look at recent uproar surrounding texts by Jeff Nagy or Josef Kaplan, among others who create or channel personae to some artistic end.  I suppose mimesis is inherently political, if not urgently so, so even if I try to limit or preclude a political stance, I will inevitably fail. Even abstention is a stance, after all. But I think I’ve taken a stance in Wysihicken [sic], at least against violence. Not very courageous, admittedly. I am no panglossian, hopeful for an end of the kind of ethnic violence that occurs in the poem, or and end to a hierarchical view of culture or the attendant colonialism that allows for the violence in the first instance, but I believe in the ‘truth’ of the idea that “butchers and their wives / fatten upon the smell of fog” (where fog is ignorance, distraction, and obfuscation), and I am eager to keep in mind the idea that Earthly paradise is just as appropriate a setting for human atrocity as any other locale. I’m thinking now of Williams’ notion that one might access universal ‘truth’ via “contact” with the locality of one’s actual experience, so while I don’t fool myself or anyone else into thinking that a poem, or a news report, or a trending hashtag, will necessarily repair or prevent atrocity, the acknowledgement of such is important to me. That’s why I love Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs. It is an acknowledgment, down to the molecular level, of such violence. Even if only to say, metaphysically, “this is why we can’t have nice things.” I suppose my overall stance is that affiliation, communion around commonality (wherein tradition or ritual is a kind of mimesis), is good for building a sense of attachment or community, but taken to extremes it becomes divisive and inevitably violent. That’s where a love of cataloging, of that vestigial hierarchy of Linnaeus’, can run into an ethical morass.

TA: I’d like you to talk about how this chapbook fits into your broader projects. It seems, in its mimetic detail and its formal austerity, quite different from some of your other work—I’m thinking for instance of the poems you read at the Penn Book Center in March 2013, which were prose-y, carnivalesque, detailed, lush, and very political. Do those poems share the same politics of mimesis? Or is your politics strategic, responsive to the form and subject of your poems? Better, what’s next?

JB: Oh, yeah, the prose poems (from a manuscript titled seeking blank slate: postcards out of eudaimonia) are a different thing altogether! One of the major differences between eudaimonia and Wysihicken, which I wrote in that order, is that, while political, the ‘postcard poems’ are also very, very personal. I began that series of poems after a particularly difficult breakup, which left me alone in a new city without friends or a network of support, ruing and jealous and self-flagellating. I think, for the first time, I really started to address my own undesirable qualities (the rue and jealousy and self-flagellation, among others) and to write about them, learn from them, maybe rewire my emotional register and behavior a little. And that led to a larger investigation of privilege, my own, as white, male, cis, straight, blonde over blue…I mean, go down the list of American ‘leaders,’ especially early on, and you’ll see some of the biggest bullies and tantrum-throwers, and I was trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t that guy. You know, that I wasn’t Jefferson or Washington, spouting one politically benevolent ideology and doing quite the opposite in the day-to-day. That’s an extreme example, but, I think it makes a point. So, it’s a text that addresses issues both personal and political, and leans, I guess, not toward resignation but maybe reconciliation, with some outbursts along the way. Getting right with the political identity I’ve got, and making sure what I believe and do are in alignment, and trying to adjust as necessary. I was very interested in getting myself into those poems, and—to address the question of broader projects or approach—since I have anxiety about repeating myself, I usually strive for formal and stylistic and tonal shifts between one manuscript and another. Hence the austerity, the mimetic concrete-ness, the “I”-less-ness of Wysihicken. I bet someone could do it, but I can’t even think about writing that poem as first-person lyric! As for next, I’m working more on establishing a practice and facility with translation, specifically of Petr Bezruč, a Czech poet who wrote his major work in just a handful of years at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. There are other original works I’ve got going, but they’re still somewhat nebulous or ill-formed, as ideas and also in many instances as poems. But they are, for the most part, short-ish, kind of like Wysihicken segments, but a lot snarkier. As a way of closing, I’d like to thank you—so much!—for such great, probing questions. Thanks, Toby!!

Toby Altman's Author PhotoToby Altman is a conceptual poet. His poems have appeared. He is the author of and the recipient of. He currently lives in, where he works as and serves on the editorial board for. For more of his, please visit his and follow him on.

  • 31

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).