Updated: Jul 11
“Trauma is a psychic wound . . .”
When I ran across this phrase—trauma is a psychic wound—in an academic article titled "The Physic Space of Trauma," something suddenly made sense for me. The word psychic caused me to feel how deeply personal and vacuous is the space of trauma. How very unseen by the public eye. Like the center of a tornado, it funnels in on itself and lets nothing go until, spontaneously, an internal object is flung forward, into the outer atmosphere. A screaming, a howl, a paranoid whisper, vivid imaginations . .. something.
As aware as I am that my whole life has not consisted of a trauma story, the last 5-7 years have felt consumed by it. I started writing through trauma as soon as the flashbacks of childhood sexual assault began to produce all sorts of confusing reactions in my mind and my body. There were body memories, night terrors, episodes of voicelessness, dreams of not being able to scream, dreams of falling into a void, hours of heavy sobs that sweat through every pour of my body until I had soaked through the bed sheets I was lying on. There was a hyper-awareness of my surroundings. Vigilance. Dissociation. Depression. That general sense of both entrapment and detachment in body and in my surroundings. Grief. Loads and loads of grief.
And then there was the 15 years of marriage to a violent—mostly psychologically violent—spouse that I needed to process and unravel, the majority of those memories severely and involuntarily repressed to keep my psyche from suffering a deluge of horrifying reality. These memories surfaced in flashes and waves asking to be sifted, sorted, and symbolized as well—even demanding I do so when I had not an ounce of energy to invest in the process.
In this way, with this demand breathing down my neck, I became a poet. The drive to create something organized and perhaps even beautiful out of those chaotic impulses often overtook my need to eat or sleep or vacuum my floors, tidy my countertops, make my bed, and guarantee a paycheck. I wrote and wrote and wrote through an MA and MFA and into the present moment.
Though it feels like a century has passed, I was completing my MA less than a decade ago, in my mid-thirties, struggling through the early stages of my development as a poet and my traumas. At that time, I had not read Gregory Orr’s theories in Poetry as Survival espousing the role poetry often plays in the assault victim’s healing process, but I was conforming to these theories, recognizing that my psychological and emotional survival depended on the survival of something that transcended the self. That transcendent something became the poem—an object outside of my body that could be shared with others. In Orr’s words, the survival enacted through a poem is not complete until it reaches a “larger social audience,” thereby having the power to “save” those who “enter deeply into (it)”; it occurs “when sympathetic identification of reader with writer takes place” (84).
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of sitting among sexual assault survivors, listening to them share their testimonies and read their own poetry drafted without any education on craft or a dedication to the art outside of their immediate expression. I have been stunned by the emotional range and quality of work some of them present. And even more amazed that nearly all of these survivors write poems to express their angst and pain. Not stories, not music, not dance—poetry.
But why should I be surprised? As a painter, musician, and multi-genre writer, I also chose poetry to guide my healing process. Something about the poem in particular moors the psyche, while also opening it up. Orr suggests that “(w)hen we are at an existential or psychological edge, the instability of subjectivity is potentially as dangerous as the chaos of a minor earthquake, and the rectangle shape of the page with its poem can be as reassuring as the doorframe in which we seek shelter,” (52). In other words, the frame of the poem itself provides a sense of stability. This can be seen in other books of poetry addressing childhood sexual assault such as Afaa Weaver’s book of poems The Government of Nature and Pascal Petit’s Faverie, both poets deferring to a block rectangular format on the page as well as first-person narrative, a decision that Orr believes is also dictated by survivalist needs. By finish, these poems magnificently transform—through great attention to detail and lush language—a horrifying reality into a glorious work of art that both destabilizes and then re-stabilizes the emotions. For me, they did indeed function as psychological and emotional shelter.
Likewise, my own work to date also reflects an obsession with first-person narrative. While my stylistic choices vary immensely, and my poetry testifies to a broad emotional range, I have remained dedicated to the voice of the singular I in my poems. I think this choice is influenced by my need to survive very personal traumas, as well as by the poets I have read, or at least gravitated toward, throughout my two graduate programs such as Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Kim Addonizio, Beth Bachmann, Tarfiah Fazzula, and Ada Limon as well as Weaver and Petit. Those years, in my graduate programs, were full of freedom and play. There were no restrictions put on my writing or my obsession with my own personal narrative. The lack of management during this period of my life facilitated incredible exploration and growth, a deep sense of safety and community and, most importantly, a curated ownership of my story . .. one that has forged three chapbooks thus far and my first full-length book of poems Slaughter the One Bird.
In Trauma & Recovery, a book that expertly reviews the dynamics of trauma due to long-term exposure to abuse (among other things), Judith Herman testifies to the empowering nature of unmanaged recovery. “The first principle of recovery," she says, “is the empowerment of the survivor. She must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery. Others may offer advice, support, assistance, affection, and care, but not cure,” (133). How right she is. And how grateful I am to have been born with what my father often, exasperated, deemed “a strong will.” I’ve been adamant about telling my own difficult history my own way, even when that meant titling each poem in a chapbook “my pedophile .. .”.
Slaughter, my first full book, is a compression of my trauma history from the bodily assault against my 8-year-old body by a babysitter to the 15 years I spent with an intensely psychologically abusive spouse. After divorce, I was forced to reckon with these traumas all at once, and until I read Judith Herman’s conceptualization of domestic violence as domestic captivity, I didn’t really have a solid framework for explaining the intensity of those 15 years that I spent cut off from family, friends, and other social interactions that would have increased my autonomy while raising two kids and having (literally) no assets or money of my own. Likewise, my bodily experience, reliving the childhood assault, was another form of physiological captivity. Captivity is the word that best names my experience. And captivity is what Slaughter is all about. Not only domestic and bodily, but also religious captivity in a world that aided my abuser in keeping me disempowered. In speaking of captivity, Herman writes, “. .. repeated trauma occurs only when the victim is a prisoner, unable to flee, and under the control of the perpetrator . . .. In domestic captivity, physical barriers to escape are rare. In most homes, even the most oppressive, there are no bars on the windows, no barbed wire fences. . .. The barriers to escape are generally invisible. They are nonetheless extremely powerful,” (74). Such was my life. Such was my life with my children.
And, since no one could see the bars or barriers—only the outer presentation of our lives that was wholesome and well-curated—it was, and is still, so difficult for others in my world to fully grasp the horror story I was living at the time.
Since the days, of my MA and MFA, there has been several interruptions to my process as, like the tornado, I have felt unhinged and raw trying to navigate homelessness, career, and new social contexts. Like a babe fresh from the womb, I left the safe incubation of those academic poetry communities where many of the poems in Slaughter were first nurtured and drafted, and stumbled out into a world of stigma and all the imposed identities and restrictions that come with that. People, meaning well I’m sure, but clearly not aware of the dynamics of domestic captivity or in tune with the needs of a trauma survivor—or simply ashamed of their own stories of trauma—questioned, interrogated, probed, and even accused me of various motives for writing through a traumatic history, heaping a new brand of abuse on the wound still festering from past abuses.
However, I was not a willing victim of abuse; and, likewise, I am not a willing victim of stigmas or silencing. Fully aware that most, if not all, of the people who have passed through my life mean well, I persist in telling my story exactly as I feel the terror happened. Evil exacted against mind and body produces (as should be expected) a slew of confusions and chaotic energies. While I know a book like this or any other will never reduce the amount of violence experienced in the world, I do hope that it will help make audiences more tender and gentler with those who suffer from its effects. I hope that we will become more willing and capable of nurturing the heartbroken and sitting with their grief, welcoming the captive without imposition, and learning from those who have been wizened by hardship and pain. Often, throughout my journey to recover what I can from my past, I have felt that I had also been gifted knowledge and language to articulate—for myself and others—what domestic captivity looks like. No, feels like.
A few months ago, when I was looking over the first proofs of this book from my publisher, trepidation set in. I recall that my legs were shaking during one of my editorial sweeps of the manuscript. People I don’t know have been reading my work—my history—for quite some time; but now a whole book. I suppose every writer who writes from a place of exposure and damage carries a fear of how others will react. American society [and perhaps global society] exhibits incredible discomfort in the presence of the sort of vulnerability my book expresses. There is something deep inside each of us that longs to be unconquerable. It’s shameful to admit that we are often powerless and helpless in the wake of evil deeds. The woman in these poems feels no way out of her captivity or her traumatized body—and this, I think, is closer to real life than most of us are willing to admit.
Nevertheless, I am out of those circumstances and bodily experiences . . . mostly. I still have my dark obliterating days when it seems past abuses will never leave my mind. But, with progressive intensity—or maybe I should say “calm”—I have begun to know a grounding, the tangible world overtaking my senses more than the abstract swirling in my head. This, my friends, is most empowering: to know that I have, by degrees, overcome, and am, by degrees, taming my torment. More words, more poems, more books, as well as friendships and communities (and my strong will!) carry me forward into retellings and new ways of being.
With that, and without trepidation, I invite you to enter the captivity and pre-order Slaughter the One Bird from Sundress Publications right here:
Priest opens herself to her readers like a surgeon, driving heartache and heartbreak home as though her poems were scrawled by a pen clenched in an angry fist. Slaughter the One Bird is brave, beautiful, irreverent, and incredibly relevant, its narrator travailing a landscape of domesticity gone sour, the scars of childhood, and all the secrets that make us who we are.
Holly Day, author of In This Place, She is Her Own
Purchase my debut full-length collection of poetry, Slaughter the One Bird, from Sundress Publications at the $9.99 pre-order price for a limited time.