Animal Rescue

My position as liaison between the open-admissions city animal shelter and almost four hundred rescue partners skews mostly toward crisis management. An injured gannet arrives, stunned and unable to fly. A shedding python someone tried to mail to California, a neonate squirrel drinking Pedialyte from a syringe, a red dog with matted fur and a mammary tumor—my department rushes them to rehabbers or twenty-four-hour vet hospitals.

I do not think about poetry during my day job, unless coaxing moms away from their two-day-old kittens long enough to gently place the whole family in a crate counts as building a poem. I only write on my days off, in slices between laundry and the long walks I take to process the worst of what I’ve seen during the week. I struggled last year when it became impossible for writing to be my whole world, or even a large part of it. I thought in terms of survival and the next therapy session, the minutes when my ideation quieted as I led a dainty pit mix through the rain.

But reconnecting with animals, my first love, has driven me back to poetry. Caring about the survival of others helps me (most days) to see the value of my own.  

I wanted to share a few drafts from #NaPoWriMo that touch on those feelings:

Draft 1:

I watched a vet tech caress a swan down their neck, down the wing pulled tightly against his body. I watched a man caress a swan with a beak too cracked for panic. I tell him you make me that swan, cut my panic with tenderness. My co-worker sends an email titled “11 Rats, can you help?” with a photo of white rodents arranged in a loose braid of a nausea. Imagine they climb my shoulders, pepper my movements with their lozenge eyes. I’m so unlike the Black Swan I saw last Halloween, cloaked in enough tulle to choke a bigot politely. My rats will make me that polite, crown my body with their tails in the air.

Draft 2 (Radical Revision):

I watch a vet tech caress a swan down their neck, down the wing pulled tightly against his body.

I watch my friend hold a python   as close as she can to her chest, his shed flaking on her gloves.

The only children I love  stray far from what I could make: pinkie squirrels with dark nails,

small lizards in a cricket frenzy. I watch the accolades pile up  when a straight friend posts 

ultrasound pictures. Her fetus somersaults away from the camera.  My own uterus contracts,

the pain elegant and ribbed,  like the ribbon crack in that swan’s beak that made eating impossible.

Draft 3:

The further I get I am a gulper eel, I hope, a mouth like the black box in Are You Afraid of the Dark? I open this mouth and you fall inside. The further I get I am the Black Lodge, a row of tiles that kiss muddy feet, a thick curtain grazing your neck. I speak rewinding cassette, I speak marine snow as my eel body ribbons between water zones. It is effortless to be such a horror, and your clues dissolve like shrimp in my stomach acid, like a face blurred by a net of ink.

The Rise of Genderqueer is available for purchase directly from Brain Mill Press and from print and ebook vendors everywhere.
The Rise of Genderqueer is available for purchase directly from Brain Mill Press and from print and ebook vendors everywhere.

Tender and brutal, luminous and dark, raucous and gutting, Hanks’s poems are so alive that you can almost hear their heartbeat.—Foglifter

A truly incomparable collection, The Rise of Genderqueer constructs a voice with unmitigated and authentic yearning. Its poems soak ink into page from margin to margin, pressing into the reader’s assumptions about gender unmercifully. These poems demand, carry authentic wisdom, deliver keen argument, and disarm with sly wit. Wren Hanks challenges the status quo as neatly as a flower slid into the barrel of a rifle. These are utterly convincing prose forms studded with rhetoric he’s deftly remastered and sampled from our culture and conversations right now.

I’ll never be denatured, // I am nature,” Hanks’s poems insist, as the reader bears witness to a bigger world, light flooding into every corner, revealing what has always been true, vigorous, and expansive.

“We are witnessing the birth of an extraordinary voice in these poems.”
—Roy G. Guzmán

The Ghost Incites a Genderqueer Pledge of Allegiance

Wren Hanks

Deny girl and the blood galaxies trailing it; there is a ghost in me who loves each egg, who won’t let me throw up when I’m seasick from my period.

There is a ghost in me riffing on fertility & chocolate almonds. We grow organs in pig ribs, ghost. Surely swelling and blossoming are not the same.

Swelling’s for an injured brain, a uterus drunk on the repetition of cells. I place my hand on my bound chest, pledge allegiance to the rashes and the scales, the fold and petal.

It’s a mess inside me, ghost.

Wren Hanks is the author of The Rise of Genderqueer, a 2018 selection for Brain Mill Press’s Mineral Point Poetry Series and a finalist for Gold Line Press’s chapbook contest. A 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Fellow, his poetry has been a finalist for Indiana Review‘s 1/2 K Prize and anthologized in Best New Poets. His recent work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Waxwing, Foglifter, and elsewhere. He is also the author of Prophet Fever (Hyacinth Girl Press), an Elgin Award finalist. He lives in Brooklyn, where he works as a liaison for Animal Care Center of NY’s New Hope program, a proactive community initiative that finds homes for pets (and wildlife) in need. He lives in Brooklyn and tweets @suitofscales.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.

Meatcage

The sunlight seeps soft through the womblike redness of my closed eyelids as I ease into consciousness.

Can I actually feel the crackling dislocations from my elbows to my fingertips, or is it simply familiarity, the recognition that the slabs of meat at the ends of my arms must somehow still belong to me, even if I can’t control them right now? I blink languorously, eyelids plinking together. How can I be more tired waking up than I was before I fell asleep?

I say the names of the bones to myself in a chanted catechism as I will myself to sit up. Lunate, scaphoid, triquetral. My tongue tap dances along the backs of my teeth and I wriggle against the pillow without using my hands. Capitate, pisiform, hamate. Once steady, I interlace my fingers, stabilize my left hand with my right, then pull and twist simultaneously. The movement is rote memory. Lightning bolt bright explosions implode within my hand every single goddamn time. There is a machine-gun chatter of bone against bone and I don’t realize I’m grinding my jaw and holding my breath with the hurt until I have to unclench and inhale. The sound of re-location echoes in my room — all of Oakland must be able hear it — before I switch, bracing right hand against left this time. I pull, twist, and my nerves scream in protest as the blood flows back into my hand. Each pale finger bursts into bright crimson bloom, tributaries abruptly flooded with color and the feeling that inevitably follows. There is an electric tingle like brushing wet skin against a light socket as I pop my thumbs back into place, then encircle my wrists and watch my ulna and radius forcibly realign. My elbows follow suit obediently, eventually, and I am grateful they don’t require more coaxing.

There is an electric tingle like brushing wet skin against a light socket as I pop my thumbs back into place, then encircle my wrists and watch my ulna and radius forcibly realign.

Breathe.

Once my hands are back together, I plant them on the sheets and twist my torso. Each vertebrae jumps back into place, an answering cacophony to the call of my hands. It feels like stacking books on a shelf until their spines are carefully aligned with the edge.

Eventually, slowly, surely, I sit up fully. I slip my fingertips beneath my scapula and crunch my ribs back in place. I roll my head in tiny circles until my neck no longer creaks. My ankles pop like bubble wrap and if there weren’t two screws in my left foot, anchoring my toes in place, they might add rifle-shot cracks to the discordant symphony of my skeleton. I swing my legs over the edge of the bed and shuffle into my slippers.

I keep the pain pills in the second drawer on the left-hand side of the bathroom sink, through the bedroom door and down the hall on the right. If they sat on my bedside table, right there beside me, within easy reach (once my hands were realigned), I might never make it off the mattress. The rattle of round pills against child-proof plastic is sweet harmony, a chorus of angels whispering against the seashell curve of my ear. They fall into the palm of my hand, sweet manna from heaven, and dissolve bitterly, beautifully beneath my tongue.

One of my earliest memories is as a toddler in the hospital, and the razorblade burn as they snaked a catheter up into me to help empty my bladder.

The pain of that urinary tract infection looks like bright, white, focused light and the weight of my Mama holding me as I screamed. The hospital is not an uncommon setting for my childhood memories, because there are so many other surgeries: a broken collarbone, stitches striped up my forehead in a scar that makes me self-conscious as a teenager, eye surgery after being declared legally blind. Scars remain in the places where my memory has evaporated like pools of rubbing alcohol. I am too young to have so many injuries, and the doctors label my mother negligent while the nurses cluck their tongues when she brings me in yet again. She is not a reckless parent; I am simply sick and undiagnosed. I will remain that way for decades.

Scars remain in the places where my memory has evaporated like pools of rubbing alcohol.

I grow older, and the hospitals are replaced by memories of rooms full of fellow elementary school students lined up in neat rows as we stood, backs against the walls, to be tested for scoliosis. I knew that my bones were curved, sinuous and slippery, because the doctors had already told us. I welcomed the escape from the tedium of our regular classroom routine and thought little more of a test that told me nothing new. It didn’t hurt yet — not more than anything else I’d been through, anyways — so I didn’t have to worry.

I grow older still, and my middle school years are defined by the hissing suck of the refrigerator’s rubber seal as I slip the protective plastic case containing the glass vial of human growth hormone and its syringe inside the artificial chill. Sleepovers meant an inescapable conversation with someone’s mom to explain why I was bringing needles over to spend the night. Sometimes I would sneak into the bathroom to inject the drug into my stomach or my hips; sometimes my friends watched the process, rapt and only slightly disgusted. The endocrinologist asked me questions about my absent period that made me squirm. His queries made me compare myself to friends who had already begun puberty, as if the flat line of my chest and tiny stature weren’t already stark reminder of how far behind my body lagged. Eventually, I refused to see him again, missing out on adding inches to my stature as the hormonal help ended.

In high school, I arch my back against the hard metal of the chair attached to the desks, feeling the deep ache in the curve of my spine. Some days I’d skip homeroom and drive my emerald minivan across the bridge until I found an expansive parking lot where I could sleep in the backseat without being noticed. Cool breezes fluttered in from the cracked back windows but none of it made the hurt go away. When I talk to a doctor about feeling so low, I don’t mention the pain — no one has connected any of the points into a cohesive constellation yet. He points out the pin on my lapel, a round button proclaiming my love of The Cure, and asks me if I take a lot of MDMA, listening to a band like that. I laugh in his face and never come back.

When I talk to a doctor about feeling so low, I don’t mention the pain — no one has connected any of the points into a cohesive constellation yet.

In college, the shame of calling out of work yet again burns bright. I wonder if the heavy plastic trays of food I hoist onto my shoulders were the reason why my whole body sometimes protested so vehemently I couldn’t even get out of bed. I feverishly save my tips, cycling through every brand of mattress topper available, but none seem to help. I email my professors to tell them I am unable to move from my pillows, much less sit up straight behind the wheel of a car, which means there’s no way I can drive to campus for class. Sometimes I drag myself to the doctor and beg for any kind of answer. Instead, they recommend I see a chiropractor and write me a note that excuses me from class.

After college, as a bonafide adult, I revisit my childhood spent in the emergency room. One night, I check myself in after two weeks of hitching gasps on dislocated ribs. I beg the intake nurse to help me slide them back into place, long enough so I can take a deep breath. Breathing feels like sucking oxygen through a blocked straw. Instead, two nurses and a doctor corner me. They proffer pamphlets that explain the link between narcotics and addiction; they encourage me to get myself clean. I tell them I don’t want narcotics, but they’re convinced they have me figured out. On the way out, one finally touches me and exclaims in surprise when he feels my rib cage shift. I sob painfully in the car as I drive home.

The diagnoses that came first were the ones that are always applied to young humans with uteruses who complain of inexplicable pain.

My medical record fills with words like conversion disorder, and hysteria, and hypochondria. Someone as young as me shouldn’t — realistically couldn’t — possibly hurt this much. The doctors can’t see my pain, which means they can’t measure it, either; obviously it must not actually exist at all. A primary care doctor finally refers me to a neurologist so he can wash his hands clean of me, and this doctor grants me the gift of a word that seems to fit: hypermobility. He shrugs, tells me there’s nothing else he can do for me. He doesn’t realize the benediction he has offered in the form of a diagnosis.

Someone as young as me shouldn’t — realistically couldn’t — possibly hurt this much. The doctors can’t see my pain, which means they can’t measure it, either; obviously it must not actually exist at all.

The salt of my tears cut channels through the foundation I patted on my cheeks to cover up the deep, dark half-moons of exhaustion beneath my eyes. I frantically search for more information in my ear, scrolling with one subluxed finger through pages describing collagen disorders. I see myself reflected in the words, each sentence strung together like pearls I could drape around myself to describe the mystery of my hurt. It is like that perfect, tiny moment of ecstasy when a word you couldn’t think of for days finally pops into your head unbidden. My heartbeat rings out like a hammer against steel, my bones reinforced with the titanium resolution of an almost-answer. I am suddenly dogged enough to fight harder, brighter, bolder for that which I now know to be true about myself and about my body. I am not quite there, but I am close.

I see myself reflected in the words, each sentence strung together like pearls I could drape around myself to describe the mystery of my hurt.

I am twenty-six years old and sitting in the bright primary colors of the pediatric ward in a hospital basement with no reception when a young geneticist with olive skin approaches. He wears a crisp white coat and I am distracted by the flickering sparkle of a tiny diamond in his earlobe as he diagnoses me, finally and conclusively, with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), a collagen disorder that can cause severe implications across the entire body and every system therein. He gives me a reason for my UTIs as a toddler, my eye surgery, the broken bones and random joint dislocations, the pituitary growth hormone deficiency, the unrelenting pain.

Along with the diagnosis comes the reality of my existence, combined with a slew of co-morbidities: dysautonomia, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, facet joint disease, endometriosis, fibroids, dysphagia. There is a fatal flaw in my DNA and no cure for any of it; there is barely medical recognition, much less functional literature approaching a fix. The hEDS comes with an inescapable promise of more surgeries, and unavoidable complications from those surgeries, too. My jaw dislocates and stays out for 16 weeks before I am wheeled into the cool brightness of an operating room. My big toe dislocates and is eventually forced back into place with two screws. We ablate my nerves with radiofrequencies to try and deaden the sensation of pain and inject lidocaine into my muscles to try and prevent their uncontrollable spasms.

There is a fatal flaw in my DNA and no cure for any of it; there is barely medical recognition, much less functional literature approaching a fix.

A golf-ball sized cyst encroaches onto my right ovary and a fibroid invades my fallopian tube. A surgeon removes my reproductive organs, accidentally perforating the thin and friable tissue of my damaged uterus during the procedure. Every time a surgeon operates on my body, I ask them to take pictures of the places inside me that are broken. I clutch the images of my snarled insides to my heart as if they were pages ripped from a holy book. After years of being told it was all in my head, concrete proof of my pain’s existence is precious and perfect and makes me cry.

I become someone who is hyper-aware of my existence as a human with a body in constant rebellion. My body may be myself, but it is not my own.

My diagnosis is new when a well-meaning, nondisabled friend tells me that I’m going to “think myself into a wheelchair” if I keep talking about eventually needing one, and I can’t stop imagining her face as I look my doctor in the eye and tell him I’m not leaving his office until he refers me to a specialist to be fitted for one.

I’ve been asking to see a specialist now for months, unable to visit art museums or see concerts without my hips and knees and ankles dislocating, or my eyes blurring with the grainy darkness of near-syncope. Even the stout wooden handle of my cane, adopted as near-permanent after foot surgery, cannot keep me upright. He tells me that he is concerned I will become “too reliant” on the wheelchair, but he finally stops arguing when he sees the resolute set of my jaw that day.

Six months later, I am gripping the handrims of my new wheelchair. My cheeks already hurt from the uncontrollable grin spread across my face, but I cannot stop smiling. Even in the small space of the specialist’s office, I zip from corner to corner and back again, learning to maneuver my body in its new vehicle. I gave up long distance running long ago, after finally accepting that my ankles would never stop dislocating with each slamming step on concrete or treadmill, but have craved the endorphin rush of a runner’s high ever since. The speed and sure agility of my wheelchair provide the surety of that high.

Even in the small space of the specialist’s office, I zip from corner to corner and back again, learning to maneuver my body in its new vehicle.

The inaccessibility of the world serves as a sobering reminder of my limitations, however. It is not moving through the world on wheels that slows me down; I am faster, spry and more lithesome perched in my seat than I have been for years on my feet. No, it is the world itself. It is the sidewalks without curb cuts, the doors without automatic openers, the bathroom stalls too small to fit my chair inside, the entrances with stairs and the ramps around back (if they exist at all). I go to the store and can’t navigate between the too-small aisles; I go to the movies and dislocate my neck in the accessible seating (after asking nondisabled people to move); I go to restaurants and stare at the wood of the bar as my friends tower on high-top tables above me.

I see the same inaccessibility reflected in the ableism of the sneering faces of people who tell me that requesting accessibility is asking for extra privileges, who illegally park in accessible spots and curse at me when I ask them to move, who laugh in my face and tell me my life isn’t worth living because I am diseased, disabled, and therefore somehow lesser, despite brokering a tentative peace with my unpredictable existence.

After the bitter, blissful pill melts beneath my tongue, my entire body is suffused with a gentle tamping down of the loud static screaming of nerves on fire and bones dislocated from the mere act of dreaming.

I step into the shower and turn away from the water, letting it run down my back until the bee sting prickling from my winged scapula dulls to a quiet roar.

I towel off, careful to dry my scarred left foot with only a featherlight patting of the towel, turning my face in the mirror to see the red scar that climbs up my jaw and into my hairline. So much of my body feels alien to me, like the swathes of skin that remain perpetually numb post-surgery, or a foot so painful that even a sheet resting on it is unbearable agony. My body, my diagnosis, means I am an intrepid adventurer exploring an undiscovered planet, with little warnings as to what local flora and fauna might hurt me — or how, but I am learning.

My body, my diagnosis, means I am an intrepid adventurer exploring an undiscovered planet, with little warnings as to what local flora and fauna might hurt me — or how, but I am learning.

I wing my eyeliner out from my eyes and darken my blonde eyelashes with mascara. I outline my lips in vibrant crimson, carefully tracing the jagged contours of my upper lip and the u-shaped curve swipe of my lower. I work carefully until I am fiercely plumed in war paint and warning signs, because makeup is one of the few ways I know to seize control of my mercurial meatcage. I pull on clothes and despite the siren-song calling of my bed, begging for my return, I head out into the world prepared to fight: the pain from my body; against a world demanding my erasure for the sin of not fitting in; and for accessibility, deserved, promised, but not yet guaranteed. I slip an extra pain pill into my purse and face the world, where every act of my existence becomes an act of resistance by simple virtue of being in my meatcage.

top photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels

You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.

Detached

People often talk about out-of-body experiences, usually during a dramatic scene on television or in a movie where someone is presumed dead but sees their life from the outside and fights to return.

I think this is a required scene for every season of Grey’s Anatomy, since someone on the brink of death gasps, choking in air, to symbolize the struggle it took for them to come back from the edge.

I’ve never experienced that. What I’ve processed is an inner-body experience. I understand both circumstances are the result of trauma, but one puts the victim on the outside, watching their person from above, whereas my inner turmoil is my body no longer recognizing myself. I’m internally and, perhaps, irreparably detached.

Were it not for the pain and the scars and the memory of stark white operating and exam rooms where I was told to just breathe, I’d believe all of this happened to someone else.

For the past three and a half years and seventy doctor appointments, I have undressed for an audience that poked, prodded, and studied me. The flesh on my chest has been cut into, pectoral muscles separated from my chest wall—and later, reattached—and tissue scraped from clavicle to midway down my ribs, implants placed inside, removed, then replaced, fat moved from my thighs and abdomen to my lean and delicate chest, and the same cuts stitched closed four times. My abdomen has been scanned and surveyed thirty times to watch follicles grow in my ovaries, monitor a spot on my uterus, and leave doctors in a state of confusion when my small intestine decided to choke itself one day. I’ve been strapped to a chair-like operating table and flipped to a forty-five-degree angle so a doctor could delicately insert a needle to extract nineteen of my eggs that were then frozen and sent a hundred miles away for safe-keeping.

Were it not for the pain and the scars and the memory of stark white operating and exam rooms where I was told to just breathe, I’d believe all of this happened to someone else. It couldn’t have been my body that survived each of these visits where I laid myself bare. Mine would have never survived this.

Growing up, the rules of my house were conservative. Not in the political sense but in the way we treated and displayed our bodies. As a teen in the aughts, low-riding jeans were bought in secret but were too revealing for me to feel confident wearing them. My bikini bottoms were what stores called “full-coverage” and slinky, low cut tops were a pipe-dream. School was no different; each day I wrapped a knee-length plaid skirt around my waist, pulling it low enough so only a sliver of my thigh and kneecaps could be seen once I slid into my dark-tone knee socks. My high-cut V-neck sweater allowed my neck just enough space to feel unrestricted but hung off my shoulders like a shroud of secrecy. You could not tell the size or shape of anything underneath.

Even if the rules permitted otherwise, I felt uncomfortable putting my body on display. I chose to lay myself bare in other ways.

Even if the rules permitted otherwise, I felt uncomfortable putting my body on display. I chose to lay myself bare in other ways. I was talkative—outspoken, and even noisy. I deliberately sat in the front row of classes so I could see my teachers react to my challenges. I tested my parents’ patience by tip-toeing through the front door at six in the morning because the sunrises on the beach were too good to miss, but so was the sand I tracked in behind me. But the teenage boys I was galivanting with never copped a feel under my shirt and attempts to unhook my bra were futile.

I was not prude, though. I was careful—selective of the parts I allowed people to see, in fear they would tarnish, rather than admire, it. It—I—was delicate; I thought in only revealing small parts of this body I carried that I could protect it from hurt.

I was careful—selective of the parts I allowed people to see, in fear they would tarnish, rather than admire, it. It—I—was delicate; I thought in only revealing small parts of this body I carried that I could protect it from hurt.

And then I learned the body I spent twenty-seven years protecting had been damaged since its conception. Inside, my DNA was flawed; I had a BRCA1 genetic mutation. What began as a blood test lead to me uncomfortably changing into countless seersucker robes, left open, so doctors and nurses could scan and swab my insides. Suddenly no amount of clothing could protect me from damage.

Since learning this mutation I inherited increased my risk of breast, ovarian, pancreatic, and skin cancer, I’ve underwent five surgeries to remove and reconstruct my breasts. Every six months, a woman named Antonina, who is gentle and kind, inserts a probe that scans my uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. After she is done, I dress and then undress in a separate exam room, where a nurse-practitioner who has become a key part of my survival manually checks for abnormalities Antonina’s thorough scans might have missed. These women are looking for the start of ovarian cancer, often called a silent killer.

One minute of my life—the moment I learned my body was already damaged—changed how I show myself to the world. This new requirement—the discomfort of disrobing for perfect (but credentialed) strangers—forever altered my connection to my body, as well as what it’s capable of.

I had to let go the modesty I once clung to, removing my shroud and both the fear and reverence I carried underneath it.

Slowly chipping away at each doctor’s appointment and surgery was the body I knew as a thing of beauty, one that I revered, coddled, and protected, and transformed into an object of utility, a random piece of biology, a science experiment. I had to let go the modesty I once clung to, removing my shroud and both the fear and reverence I carried underneath it.

As I’ve peeled off the layers I’ve accumulated over the years, I’ve realized that our bodies carry more than they’re meant to, and I’ve been adding to that burden. Once I saw what my body can do, what it can recover from, the poking and prodding and nakedness unshackled me from the constraints I placed on myself.

Once I saw what my body can do, what it can recover from, the poking and prodding and nakedness unshackled me from the constraints I placed on myself.

For twenty-seven years, I coddled my body and underestimated its ability to endure, but the past three and a half years have taught me to give it freedom to pull me through raw, naked despair. But in this process, my body detached from my mind. I see the body I am attached to, but I’ve yet to make a connection to my new understanding of it. It remains foreign because it’s strength was something I never let it—or had to—put on display. When the nerves in my chest were severed during my mastectomy, my relationship to my body was severed as well. But nerves regenerate, slowly and not always along the same path. Perhaps the link between my mind and body I lost years ago will also grow anew.

top photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels

You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.

Forming out of the Void

At eight years old, I sat in church while the pastor informed the congregation that a wife’s body did not belong to her, that marriage meant that her husband owned her sexuality.

I doubt this was the first time I had heard this sermon, but it juts out in my memory. I sat stiffly in the pew, every inch of my skin hurting. It isn’t fair, I couldn’t say. I don’t want that, were forbidden words. The future I was being offered was the present: my body belonged to men now, and it would belong to men in the future.

I was raised to love a God that asked me for everything. My life, my body, my wants, my desires, my goals, my dreams, everything a person could possibly call theirs, God wanted all. The language of my Evangelical faith was, Less of me, more of Jesus, and, Not my will, but God’s. You surrendered to God, you died to self, you released all control and let God define you. And it was God that said that I would grow up to marry a man and give my body to my husband.

I was raised to love a God that asked me for everything. My life, my body, my wants, my desires, my goals, my dreams, everything a person could possibly call theirs, God wanted all.

There was no raging against this. As much as it hurt, as sick as I felt listening to those words, it was a sickness akin to grief: an acknowledgement, a resignation. This was the truth, commanded by God himself, and no small child had any power to change it.

I could only relinquish myself. This was the one line in the sand: obey God or rebel. One led to contentment, happiness, fulfillment. The other pain, destruction, and hell. All that was required of me as a child, the only thing I needed to learn was how to obey better. Obey the Lord. Obey my parents. Obey authority. And one day, my future husband. There was nothing else.

The sexual abuse took my body before I understood I had one. It was part of my formation of consciousness, how I categorized the world. What houses looked like houses where children were being hurt? What men looked like men who loved their daughters too much? Why did so many girls look like they deserved to be spared when I certainly didn’t? I made these assessments with the casualness of familiarity. By the time my parents were separated, and it was my second oldest brother leading me off to the bedroom, I had no sense that I could say no. It simply was. I’d trained myself into empty boredom. Bodies tune out consistent stimulus. I dissolved into nothing.

I had no sense that I could say no. It simply was. I’d trained myself into empty boredom. Bodies tune out consistent stimulus. I dissolved into nothing.

I was handcrafted by God to be a girl. It was my mother’s prayer. In the terror of an abusive husband and the chaos of two sons, she wanted the innocence of a girl, the quiet calm of a daughter, whole and set apart from the trauma of abuse. So God created me for her. I was an infant so beautifully still, so sweetly quiet, my mother could forget she was holding me in her arms. An answer to prayer.

But I was also girl; my mother put on me the predilections of what she saw as feminine traits. My emotions were suspect, held up to scrutiny to determine whether they were true or had hidden motivations. Spoiled, prone to dramatics, feigning illness and weakness. A cunning child, willingly provoking her brother to violence for the sheer delight of getting him in trouble. My anger was an intentional cruelty I inflicted on my family, my tears manipulative attempts to avoid punishment. When my mother reflected on my childhood, it was with the assurance of her parenting skills; I was bad, but she had made me better. I was lazy, rebellious, manipulative, and she taught me obedience.

I was not a teenager, my mother pointed out with pride. Teenager meant self-exploration, independence, rebellion—all things that contradicted the relinquishing of self. The only lesson on defying that God taught was how wrong it was to defy God. So why not skip all that? Why not jump ahead to the right conclusion and avoid the misery?

For once my mother was proud of me. I received praise from her when I scorned my childhood self and called her a spoiled brat. Who else but someone who loved truth, whose thinking wasn’t clouded with self-interest, would be willing to acknowledge how wicked they had once been? I was wise now, someone who cared about logic before emotion. I disconnected so deeply from any felt experience that I insisted to myself that I was not hungry if I had just eaten, I was not tired if I’d slept through the night; these were facts. The body—the flesh, as our Christian faith called it, in all its carnality, only wanted to trick us, and I was not going to be tricked.

I disconnected so deeply from any felt experience that I insisted to myself that I was not hungry if I had just eaten, I was not tired if I’d slept through the night.

I had to rearrange my feelings to match what I was supposed to feel. The only trauma I was allowed was “a girl without her father,” and everything I experienced was assigned to it. Any other problem was merely physical. I was inexplicably sick a lot: headaches, stomachaches, allergies, and a chronic case of PMS my mother insisted could plague me all month long.

It is easy to feel afraid and call it being cold. Sadness simply becomes exhaustion. The wish for death a Christian’s desire to go home to heaven. It’s not that I was entirely unaware that begging God to kill me had no spiritual motivation. But when I slipped up, when I admitted to myself what I really felt, I had to go back to the process of making my emotions line up correctly.

I was a girl. I wanted a boyfriend. There was no question. It was easy to be this way, to logically reverse emotions. What did I feel toward boys? Attraction. What was attraction? What I felt toward boys. There was no conscious effort on my part, no confusion or doubts. It didn’t matter that I hated these things. They were so. They were determined by God and I had no fight in me.

It is easy to feel afraid and call it being cold. Sadness simply becomes exhaustion. The wish for death a Christian’s desire to go home to heaven.

I was solidly an adult before I could finally tell others about the sexual abuse. I worried that my mother was right; I was manipulative. Because to talk about the abuse was to intentionally recall the trauma, to bring to mind the kinds of chronic pains our bodies let us forget about. I didn’t have to do this, so didn’t it, by definition, mean I was playing the victim? It felt less like I was tearing down the walls to find the fresh, real, spontaneous self underneath. I was making myself climb back into my body and teaching myself how to map those feelings into emotional expressions.

Abuse survivors are often handed a narrative that says: there is no such thing as the complete destruction of the human soul. No matter who hurts you, no matter how broken you might be, you can’t help who you are, the reality of you. There is always a before to get back to, a version of yourself that exists untraumatized that you merely need to find. If any part of you is still affected by the trauma, then you have not arrived at your real self.

What did I feel toward boys? Attraction. What was attraction? What I felt toward boys… It didn’t matter that I hated these things. They were so.

What of me was unaffected by the abuse? What self existed prior to it? No one cared if the trauma was what caused me to say, I am straight, I am a girl. No one asked me if I should separate myself into pieces to determine their uninfluenced truth.

I couldn’t tell you who I was, only what I wanted. When I said, I’m attracted to women, it’s because the idea sounded so good. I wanted to be; it was the first time I imagined love as good. Was that the abuse talking? Someone who runs into the arms of women to avoid their trauma with men?

When I said, I am non-binary, I did so because it felt right. It meant I could conceive of my body as a home, something I could change and transform into a livable space. Does it make too much traumatic sense, the chronically dissociated survivor, calling themselves non-binary? What proof can I offer anyone that this is my unchangeable soul?

When I said, I am non-binary, I did so because it felt right. It meant I could conceive of my body as a home, something I could change and transform into a livable space.

None. But I’m more inside my skin than I ever was before. I have dimension, solidity, a sharper sense of my skin. What more is there to owning your body other than finding what makes it easier to live in? I’d accepted for so long narratives that said that easier was cheating, that healing meant forcing yourself into what made you miserable or afraid because it was good for you, that who you are was somehow different than who you want to be. And yet I cannot deny how much easier it is for me to look in the mirror now and say, I am me.

I looked at God and said, I am mine. I take back everything. No more surrender, no more less of me, no more resignation to who I’m supposed to be, whether I like it or not. Obedience taught me how to surrender myself and rebellion is my refusal. There is nothing more rebellious than the word no. No, I did not deserve the abuse, no, I am not my mother’s daughter, no, I will not marry a man, no, I belong to me.

It is incremental. I spent so long comfortable with being uncomfortable, so used to contorting myself into obedience. But I am teaching myself to resist, shaping myself so that my body feels distinctly separate from others. I am no longer without form and void. I called myself into existence. And it was good.

top photo by Zac Frith on Pexels

You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.

Any Woman You Know

You are sitting in your friend’s car and you both look exhausted.

You have just left an event where women are telling stories about their sexual assaults. You left that event in the gentrified neighborhood that you no longer recognize, and you are in Rogers Park, another neighborhood where gentrification is being claimed in block-sized bites, but tonight, you and your friend Nikki are staring at the dashboard of this parked car as if it is a small universe. Both of you are grieving and venting.

As a friend, I do not feel comfortable telling her story, but I will tell mine and what her advice was to me.

At this point, I am visiting Chicago during spring break and quietly visiting old North Side haunts—The Green Mill, Rogers Park around my alma mater, Wicker Park, and walking around Belmont. It is 2014. I am ABD, an official Ph.D. candidate, and the dissertation is almost done. I am planning to teach and write.

As I’m walking solo in these somewhat familiar streets since I moved out East ten years ago, I miss this place as a woman who is single again and does not want to support someone else’s career. I am weeping because I am tired of being called angry, crazy, and people assuming that I am intimidating. I feel myself literally curling and drooping because I am home. I find myself looking at so many projects and people that I had touched, and I still feel that struggle for recognition, or at least some affection and a better salary.

I miss this place as a woman who is single again and does not want to support someone else’s career. I am weeping because I am tired of being called angry, crazy…

The longer I talk to Nikki, the more I finally feel compelled to blurt it out. I’m tired of helping these men who move on to someone else. It’s as if they needed what my friend Lauren called “emotional training wheels” until they were done with me. I completed most of the application for the first fellowship one boyfriend got. I typed another’s first manuscript so he could get it to the publisher. Yet another expected me to clean up behind him and never paid a bill on time while he was writing about another woman. I wrote free press releases and updated the press contacts list of the musician with whom I was briefly involved. I just keep telling Nikki never again.

What she suggested was simple. Write it. Write about how angry you are. Write about how unfair it is, and how you’d like them to feel, even if it’s violent. Even if no one ever sees it. You need to do this. As someone who grew up in a house with an abusive father, avoiding my own anger has been tantamount to saying I will be different, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s been more about being “nice” and “professional,” and the ideas of sincerity and loyalty are very different from what they were in the small town where I grew up.

Write it. Write about how angry you are. Write about how unfair it is, and how you’d like them to feel, even if it’s violent. Even if no one ever sees it. You need to do this.

I thought people said thank you, and if you had someone’s back that they had yours.

I thought people would stop asking me about whether or not one of my partners had “helped me write” something, even if I had more publications and degrees than them. I thought people would not be allowed to act like women are dispensable (because there are always more coming), especially when I know I am a human being with unique talents and inherent value. So, yes, I was angry, but instead of yelling, screaming, neck rolling, eye-popping, or even throwing a blow or vandalizing something, I was finally weeping because I have been trying to be strong and never cry and break down in public. Successful people do not do that. That’s what a nervous breakdown looks like, but the reality is such tears are a release of grief and pain.

You see a book that professes to be about the history of women as writers that is written by a woman, but Nina Simone is mentioned in one sentence.

Another woman of color is mentioned in a list of contemporary writers at the end. You ask yourself, was the Combahee River Collective fighting for such slights? You want to throw the book across the room.

How do I begin to talk about how I cursed out loud at the television when I heard women discussing how the pay gap between men and women is not so significant.

I wanted to tell them that my ex-husband and last boyfriend both made more money than me and only had bachelor’s degrees. I want to tell her that even though my husband promised me that we’d have children, I now have none. Unless I find a job post-Ph.D., I will not meet the financial requirements to adopt, much less pay for artificial insemination or freezing my eggs.

I am angry that I cannot make this decision now without someone else being able to withhold a bodily fluid. I am angry that people have insisted that I burned bridges when they stopped speaking to me. I am angry that divorce apparently means that there is some unwritten protocol that makes women (and some men) like me pariahs among people who knew her before the relationship that culminated in a divorce. I have had other divorced friends literally say, “It’s as if people think divorce is contagious and run away.” I am angry that a promise that I only planned to make once was broken casually, like I don’t want to play anymore. I am angry that people have insisted and suggested everything I need to change in order to find someone. You should smile more. You should dye your hair. You should lose weight. You should try online dating. You should do a personals ad. Can’t you be nicer? Can’t you cook more? Can’t you exercise? Have you dated outside your race? The only thing I have been told NOT to do is try Craigslist, and I have no desire to do that.

I find myself counting moments when men are kind without wanting something in return.

I think of a friend in college who told me that she was raped by a crush, I look at writing by young women where they describe what people have said girls cannot do, the names that they get called if they try to be attractive or express themselves, or the stories about abusers of all sorts—boyfriends, parents, strangers, and so-called friends.

I understand women who cannot move on like nothing happened. Things have happened and continue to happen, whether they were inflicted on my mother or men in my own life. I find myself counting moments when men are kind without wanting something in return. There are too many times when I have considered myself “lucky” that I was never penetrated without my consent or concern for my comfort. “Lucky” that I have not been frequently cajoled into doing something more than I might want to do. “Lucky” that I was only slapped once and pinned to a bed by a college boyfriend that I lived with, and “lucky” that I was never sexually abused. “Lucky” that a thirteen-year-old boy was only able to halfway cram his hand down my pants before I fought him off at age seven.

No one physically hurt me, and so people say it is not a crisis.

As I meet more women with more intensely violent experiences, I imagine that post-traumatic stress disorder is like someone slapping you so hard that your ear keeps ringing. Then again, I kept waking up with nightmares of my own after the divorce, where I was being shaken, laughed at, and pointed at in dreams that left me in tears. No one physically hurt me, and so people say it is not a crisis.

I have found myself turning off Game of Thrones and CSI: SVU where rape is common fodder for the plot line when other women are in the house. Usually, there are not other men in my house, but I know that they may be harboring their own secrets and pain. I am angry for my friends when I change the channel because their stories have been dramatized on a superficial level. I wonder who else is watching, and if they laugh at these scenes. I want justice and healing for each victim I know, but I am also afraid to hear them shaking.

I am angry for my friends when I change the channel because their stories have been dramatized on a superficial level. I wonder who else is watching, and if they laugh at these scenes.

I am watching Kelis’s video for her 1999 single “Caught Out There” since it is one of the pop music representations of anger that stands out in my memory.

This is the video that Nas claims made him want to know his future wife. I want to know why no one asked if he should have reconsidered, but I know that a woman who asserts herself is attractive, even when people do not want to admit that.

When Kelis’s orange and hot-pink corkscrew curls pop into the frame, her face beneath the profusion of curls talks directly to the viewer as she watches doctors desperately attempting to resuscitate a man who is probably her boyfriend. One would think she would look sad or worried, but instead she says:

“Yo, this song, yo, this song is for all the women out there that have been lied to by their men. I know y’all have been lied to over and over again. This song is for you.

Maybe you didn’t break the way you shoulda broke, but I break, you know what I’m sayin? This is how it goes, yo. Damn…”

She offers physical cues of beating this man. While she sings the first verse, his still body lays on the floor, presumably unconscious, as she burns a love letter. She is asking what she is supposed to do when he doesn’t come home. She screams directly into the frame and throws records, books, couch cushions, chairs all over the apartment. “I hate you so much right now” is punctuated with her repeatedly growling arrrrrrrggggghhhh. The next scene shows Kelis in a bathtub looking at Polaroid photos in which her boyfriend is with different women in role-playing outfits in different clubs. Who has not felt like doing some of the things Kelis does in this video when a lover randomly leaves cues of infidelity?

In the next scene with Kelis, her role is a woman in a dank cell in a dark leather straitjacket. The next scene cuts to her with her hair in braids while she’s wearing pink and sitting on the therapist’s couch, and the bruised boyfriend sits in a chair behind her and takes notes. The scene doesn’t shift until she gets up and starts pushing him. Even though Kelis is toying with the idea that an angry woman has mental problems, she is still angry and pushing away this role of a passive analysand where someone who will never be a black woman attempts to fix her.

She is still angry and pushing away this role of a passive analysand where someone who will never be a black woman attempts to fix her.

Gradually, as the video begins to wrap up, women of different races, ethnicities, and ages are marching out of their houses and into the streets with Kelis leading them. They are carrying signs that say “NO!” and “No More Lies!” Some of the women look like mothers and grandmothers, much older, and some of them in church clothes or bathrobes and hair rollers. It makes me think of the older women I know who have told me that times are different now. We do not have to tolerate that same horrible behavior of infidelity, dismissing and omitting women from discussions and benefits in the larger world, and all sorts of abuse. Then again, I keep thinking that women do not have to enact those same behaviors either, which is why I’ve avoided being angry or acting out the fantasies detailed in Jazmin Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows” or the sadly still relevant imagined violence against police brutality in Audre Lorde’s poem “Power.”

As the accumulated scenes conclude, I realize that the only way I am physically attacking anyone is if they physically attack me. I know I am avoiding beating anyone or vandalizing their property, because I’d just leave. But not everyone leaves, and I understand why they do not, and I understand the anger that does not dismantle male privilege and only temporarily allows one woman to vent about her individual situation. Then, I am reminded of Chris Rock saying he would never hit a woman, but he would shake the shit out of her. It might have been funny, but maybe a man should laugh after someone shakes him.

I have to wonder, what would that anger look like if it was not stereotyped or rendered in creative works?

What if we do not vilify black women as verbally emasculating, sexually available, childishly vindictive, or a stereotypical militant? What if an angry black woman does not have her fist in the air like the horrible 2008 New Yorker parody of Michelle Obama with an afro, a bullet belt, combat boots, and an AK-47 strapped to her back? What if the “angry woman” is silent? What will she look like if she is not crying? That “angry woman” might look like any woman you know.

top photo by nappy on Pexels

“What if we took all this anger born of righteous love and aimed it?”

—Ijeoma Olou, “We women can be anything. But can we be angry?” Medium.com

ANGER showcases essays and poetry featuring well-aimed anger from femme writers, writers of color, LGBTQIA+ writers, First Nations writers, and disabled writers.

Anger

Open October 5-19, 2018

“We are constantly being told not to be angry. As a black woman especially, I hear it from all corners. To be angry is to give in to stereotypes of the shrill feminist, the mad black woman. To be angry is to trade intellect for emotion. To be angry is to be irrational and violent. To be angry is to be like them. To be angry is to lose. But none of that is true. I am angry because I love. I am angry because what I love is being harmed. I know why my people matter, why the environment matters, why human rights matter, why justice matters. And I know that this all deserves love. I know that it deserves protection. And I know who is fighting to deny it what it deserves. I know that when that which we love is being harmed — to not be angry would be unconscionable. […]

What if we took that anger beyond the internet? What if we took it into the streets more than once every two years? Into our boycotts? Into our strikes? Into the voting booth? What if we took that anger to our city council meetings? What if we took it to their campaign events and press conferences? What if we took it to our school boards and our workplaces? What if we took all this anger born of righteous love and aimed it?”

—Ijeoma Olou, “We women can be anything. But can we be angry?” Medium.com

We are seeking essays and poetry on the theme of ANGER for Voices, Brain Mill Press’s digital magazine platform.

Don’t pull punches.

Essay pitches will be reviewed and responded to within 24 hours by Brain Mill Press staff.

This call is for femme writers, writers of color, LGBTQIA+ writers, First Nations writers, and disabled writers.

If your pitch is selected, you will be given a mutually-agreed period of time to write your essay. You will receive editorial feedback on your submitted piece, a negotiable contract granting Brain Mill Press the limited right to reproduce your piece on Voices, and payment at industry-standard rates upon publication. You will retain all other rights to your work.

Contact Brain Mill Press at inquiries@brainmillpress.com with questions.

top photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash