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).