Archive as much as you like [something will always be left out]
A Review by C. Kubasta
Certain kinds of difficult-to-quantify experiences are either discounted, disbelieved, or shrunken down to a ridiculous and facile system of measurement.
Those who suffer from chronic pain are asked to rate their pain on a scale from one to ten – as if sense and feeling aren’t the height of subjectivity, as if the body isn’t our own individual organ of touch, non-transferable. When trauma (especially medical) is layered with the experiences of women, traditional methods of knowing, understanding, and naming become even more complex. So Jane Lewty invokes Dora early in her prize-winning collection from the Cleveland State Poetry Center In One Form To Find Another: “The damage and fatigue left by Freud. // How it hits, the depth, the effect of it.”
What follows in the collection’s five sections (no table of contents) is a cacophony of prose-poems, experimental forms, interruptions, fragmentary narratives, excerpts, and lyrics, most loosely grouped under titles that identify them as Case Studies, with the name of a symptom, syndrome, disease, phobia, or diagnosis. The effect is chaotic: “word-strings that occlude meaning.” Except they don’t, quite. Lines and images swim up, unrelenting in their clarity. In “Case Study #4: Heart Arrythmia” the speaker asks the reader to consider “a future device for individual use. A sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name. ‘Memex’ will do.” Lewty’s book is this Memex – a compilation of quotations (from other authors, theorists, historians), medical terms and definitions, snapshots and memories of the self, willful mis-rememberings of the self. It’s a catalog of a speaker – a woman in a certain place and time.
If you eavesdrop on poets often enough, you’ll hear talk about two distinct kinds of poetry: poetry that is accessible and personal, or poetry that is experimental and cerebral. I don’t understand this dichotomy. It speaks more to our desires than our reality – and what a strange desire, really. As if our lived reality is linear, easy to follow; as if our lives don’t diverge or skip ragged from one idea to another. Yes, a casual reader of poetry may open Lewty’s book and find it a bit intimidating; the titles and epigraphs take pleasure in their disjointedness. Some of the poems revel in the jarring lines, the abruptness from one stanza to another, the disappearance of situation, speaker, stanza altogether. But for readers who wish a little more coherence, there are poems here too. Turn to “Case Study #19: Disequilibrium”: it could be an essay. The speaker talks about her wrestling with memory, her memories, what she “cannot bear to assemble again.” She writes, “Over time there’ll be a different me, a different other.” Turn to “Case Study #34: Sepsis.” Maybe the speaker is writing a letter to herself. Maybe she is writing a letter to that other self – that beloved, best friend, sister, other half who knows her best. Maybe she is writing a letter to herself who she wishes existed somewhere as her beloved, best friend, sister, other half. (How many of us have wished someone like that existed?). The poem is unbearably dear, unbearably personal. She tells her intimate-other, “You’re a weakened slight return, a worn want.” Even as she writes, she recounts “The then-King of Egypt said no not letters, they’ll create forgetfulness. / . . . The recorded sensual is dead, a construct.” That these poems both quantify and resist that construct is their charm.
The book explores different aspects of the body, of memory, of suffering, and sexuality. It is as if the speaker is looking for herself through a series of mediations: googling symptoms, reverse-searching images. Section Four confounds me; there, the images may be lifted from porn sites, re-cast and re-narrated. Some images may be projected from the speaker’s mind (actual memory, not found) onto a screen, re-edited, but in darker corners of the Internet – not consensual, not about pleasure at all. So many lines caught me up and stopped me short – many that referenced the speaker, a constructed self, and the work of writing that self:
“A lucid sentence is a demonstrable fact / but it’s so long ago.”
“The poem didn’t sound the way I wanted it to. It was a residue of an experience, not the essence.”
“I felt myself erode, like stucco. I couldn’t find a language to name what took place. What took its place.”
“We’re backstage of something normal, this page of everyone else”
(Forgive me for giving you fragments, but they’re beautiful – they don’t need structures for their beauty to be evident. At the top of one poem, I wrote “Jesus – brutal.”)
Rather than doctors asking patients to rate their pain on a scale of one to ten, maybe they should ask for a poem. Pain is bodily, personal and sensual – it lives in the matter of our skin. Maybe we could follow Lewty’s lead and quote from her poem “Case Study #17: Fibromyalgia”:
In what you have sentenced, the hand has an eluded edge. It locks but you can’t see how.
In what you have sentenced, the jaw has a new basis. It can’t say I.
The voice a shy bolt, though incomplete. Senseless wordsindream.
Lips of shoulder. Fleeting, malleable, the lower body organs are hung all adrift.
The same poem contains the image of “the throat a hollow-out space where a faucet should be.” These poems speak like a faucet, a throat, a hollow-out space. As poems should.
Portaging celebrates new writing from the Midwest with a particular focus on experimental and hybrid work from small presses.
C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.
I read recently about a man who was a faithful member of his church. He was involved with the youth group and hosted summer activities at his farm. And he sexually molested many children and youth.
When the civil authorities finally exposed him as a child predator, the leadership of the church made a plan to discipline and restore him to the community. This man was asked to confess his sins at a members-only meeting of the church. After his confession, the pastor urged everyone to stand “as a sign that you have forgiven him.” And people stood.
Imagine being a teenager, sitting in the pew at your church, looking at the man who has raped you. Then imagine your pastor, your family, your friends, your Sunday School teachers, your choir director . . . imagine everyone who is part of your most important community standing in support of that man.
This is a particular—and very real—situation, but the presence of sexual abuse in the church is not unique, nor is the church’s poor handling of such abuse. Many churches are taking more precautions in an attempt to prevent sexual abuse in the congregation: requiring windows into children’s classrooms, not allowing adults to be alone with children, running background checks on church volunteers who want to work with children and youth.
All of these actions are important. Practical, commonsense measures should be put in place to minimize the abuse that happens within our faith communities. But in addition to implementing protection policies, Christians have a lot of theological work to do as well.
I imagine that the pastor who asked the congregation to forgive the sexual predator was considering Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:21–22. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone in the church who has sinned against him. Seven times? Jesus tells him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Still, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words just a few verses earlier: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Yes, the Bible teaches forgiveness. It also proclaims judgment—particularly against those who harm the most vulnerable. When we insist on public forgiveness rituals for sexual predators, we get it wrong on at least two levels.
First, people who are not directly victims of the abuse presume to offer forgiveness on behalf of those who were abused. It is not the pastor’s or the congregation’s place to grant forgiveness for the violations done to the most vulnerable in their midst. It is the sole right of victims to grant or withhold forgiveness for themselves; to set the terms by which forgiveness will—or will not—be extended to perpetrators. When pastors and others in the church who were not directly victimized offer forgiveness to abusers, they take even more power away from victims who likely already feel powerless.
We also get forgiveness wrong because it is too often a simplistic substitute for healthy accountability. The church uses “forgiveness” to ensure silence on the subject so that people in the church don’t have to feel bad or uncomfortable. It is a way to allow the abuser to remain part of the congregation because he’s probably a really nice guy—when he’s not raping children—and he possibly gives substantial money to the church as well. This type of forgiveness is significantly easier than true accountability, and it can seem best for the institution in the short run.
In the long run, however, forced forgiveness is deeply damaging for victims and entire communities. Studies show that most people who sexually abuse children are repeat offenders with multiple victims. No matter how sorry an abuser seems, if he is allowed continued access to children and youth, odds are he will abuse again. And again.
On Sexual Shaming
In 2011, according to reporting by 20/20, New Hampshire pastor Chuck Phelps discovered that a member of his congregation had raped and impregnated a teenager. Pastor Phelps’s response to this discovery was to force the teen to stand in front of the congregation and confess her sins.
Too often in the church world, people are taught that sex is shameful. Sex is only mentioned in terms of sin. The message received, especially by children, is that sex is dirty and yucky (unless you are married and trying to make babies).
Without clear teachings about healthy sexuality, children and youth often view their bodies as potentially dangerous sexual objects. So if they are touched in a sexual way, they can feel confused and deeply ashamed. The people they should be able to turn to in such a situation—their pastor, Sunday School teachers, parents—are likely the people who have taught them this shame.
In some cases, if a young person gets up the courage to report, an adult can help them through their confusion and shame. But too often, when sexual abuse is reported, the situation looks like that reported by 20/20: the victim gets blamed for their sexual sin. Too many churches refuse to do the hard work of exploring issues of consent and power, the work of understanding grooming and manipulation. They fall back on the simple rule: sex between people who are not married to each other is bad; therefore, anyone who engages in sex with someone to whom they are not married is bad—even if the sexual encounter is a result of grooming, coercion, or outright sexual assault.
There are many problems with this simplistic rule for sex. (I commend to you the book Good Christian Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan.) But in the context of sexual abuse, the primary problem is that the victim is considered just as sinful as the perpetrator. After all, they both “had sex.” And so, in addition to suffering through the abuse itself, victims then face being shamed within their church communities.
Several years ago, a student in my Feminist Theology class shared that her mom had stayed in an abusive relationship for years because their pastor told her she should. That it was God’s will for her to suffer, like Jesus suffered on the cross. That such suffering made her holy.
Sacrifice is a significant aspect of Christian theology, being linked to Jesus’ command to take up our cross and follow him. And the idea that we, at times, must make sacrifices is not a bad—or even an inherently Christian—teaching in its basic content. We sacrifice money for flood victims; time for the local little league team; canned peas for the local food pantry. Maybe we even sacrifice an advancement in our careers for the sake of our family, or the convenience of a car for the sake of the environment. Sacrifice for others can be a good and blessed thing.
But this theological requirement of self-sacrifice is also dangerous, and sometimes lethal, for abuse victims. The call to sacrifice paired with the story of the crucifixion can easily turn into a glorification of suffering. Victims are told that if they want to be Christlike they will submit to their abusers—or at least submit to the will of the church leadership by not reporting abuse to outsiders.
Abuse victims within the church are counseled to sacrifice their pursuit of justice, their own personal comfort and safety, for the sake of the church’s image. The pastors who counsel this may well be concerned with the image of their individual congregation, but the prospect is presented more dramatically to the victim: “If you tell outsiders that someone in the church has abused you, it will make Jesus look bad. You will become a stumbling block that prevents nonbelievers from finding salvation.”
People within the church—and particularly women within the church—are too often told that following in the footsteps of Jesus means letting people crucify them.
Toward a Theology of Accountability and Empowerment
The church cannot prevent every instance of sexual abuse—within or outside of religious institutions. But it can do a better job of empowering victims and holding perpetrators accountable. The stories told in church matter. And the way they are told matters. Victims of sexual abuse can be either further victimized or moved toward healing depending on how the church talks about forgiveness and sex and self-sacrifice.
Jesus’ crucifixion—the central story of the Christian faith—is not a simple story of self-sacrifice. It is a story about how political, economic, and religious leaders tried to silence a voice and a movement that threatened their tightly clutched power and precariously balanced systems. If we believe in the resurrection, it becomes a story about how those powers fail—and about how we can be part of bringing them down.
Nicola Yoon's "Everything, Everything" Is Everything
As a teen, I had a soft spot for contemporary YA romance. I especially enjoyed the romance in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares.
I liked these books because the female characters showed me that even if you had personal issues, you could still find love. However, at some point, I found myself asking, “Why can’t black girls have a YA romance?”
Carmen Lowell, a half Puerto Rican character from the Traveling Pants series, was one of the few women of color I read in YA romance. I enjoyed reading about her because she was caring toward her family and friends and pursued a romantic relationship despite her confidence issues. However, by the end of the final book, Sisterhood Everlasting, she is the only one not in a relationship. Although she is very satisfied with her life, it bothered me that she couldn’t be married or dating someone when she is the only lead of color.
In addition to being one of the few women of color in YA romance, Carmen Lowell was the only female character of color I read who had happy romances. Other books like Sharon M. Draper’s Romiette and Julio and Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly had black female romantic leads, but their relationships also involved social issues. Both Romiette and Julio and If You Come Softly dealt with the racism that came with being in interracial relationships. While I was impressed by both authors’ takes on this important issue, part of me also wanted a book with a romance free of social tension.
Last year, I discovered Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything when it became a New York Times bestseller. After doing some research, I discovered that this book not only had black female lead but was also written by a black author. After waiting several months, I borrowed a copy from my local library to read and was totally enamored by the book. If this book were food, it would be cotton candy, filled with fluffy, sugary sweet moments that melted on my heart.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the main character, Madeline Whittler. Even though she is isolated from the world, she isn’t portrayed in a negative light. Instead, she is a quirky young girl who loves books and board games and yearns to experience life more fully. She spoke to my teen self, the me that had a hard time fitting in. In addition, Maddie being African American and Japanese gave me the long awaited representation I wanted as a black and Vietnamese person. As someone who rarely saw biracial characters who were black and Asian, this was very validating.
In addition to enjoying Maddie’s character, I liked that her romance happened gradually. Maddie Whittler can’t touch anyone or go outside the house because she has a rare disease that makes her allergic to everything. As a result, she has to communicate with Olly online and through each other’s windows. (They use mirror writing.) For a time, she is also allowed to have quarantined visits from him as long as they don’t touch each other. This makes the moments when they can interact in person all the more precious.
Out of all my favorite moments between Maddie and Ollie, my favorite is when they kiss for the very first time. At this point, they’ve only touched once before without anyone knowing. Maddie and Ollie’s feelings for each other have grown to the point where they can’t keep it to themselves anymore. They need to touch each other and express their feelings to validate them. The kiss is so beautiful and special, and Maddy savors it.
By the time I had finished the book, I had been thoroughly entertained and even taught a few lessons. The most important lesson is summed up in the quote, “Love is worth everything, everything.” This book shows that whether it is romantic love or familial love, it is worth experiencing and fighting for. It is a simple yet relatable message that makes the book memorable.
In addition to being ecstatic about the book itself, I am also excited for the movie adaptation, which will star Amandla Sternberg and Nick Robinson. When I heard this news, I was so thankful. Black YA leads in films are just as rare as black YA romance leads, and people have been craving this. Last year, Twitter user Mariah started the hashtag #WOCforAlaskaYoung in response to the casting call for the YA film Looking for Alaska. She and many others tweeted that they wanted Alaska to be played by a woman of color. Even John Green, the author of the book being adapted, stated that he supported the campaign.
Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything shows that black girls can have a happy young adult romance. It provides some much-needed representation on the page and tells a beautiful story of love. If the movie is as successful as the book, then hopefully we can get more books and movies with black female leads. Right now, Everything, Everything is everything I always wanted in a YA romance, and that is amazing.
The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.
Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.
It’s 1864. In the U.S. Hall of the House of Representatives, a gathered group of congressmen, weary from the bloody Civil War and despairing their fractured nation, pauses to listen to a twenty-two-year-old Quaker named Anna Elizabeth Dickinson.
Dickinson steps to the podium, demure, clad in a conservative high-collared black dress. The men wait in impatient silence. Someone clears his throat. But then Dickinson raises her gray eyes to the crowd, and she begins to speak, and her voice is like a raised sword in battle, her plea for abolition a resounding heartbeat the tired men need so sorely that they rise in standing ovation at her concluding words.
She was called “America’s Joan of Arc.” The famous radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison had been printing her words since she was fourteen, and the writer Mark Twain praised her: “She talks fast, uses no notes what ever [sic], never hesitates for a word, always gets the right word in the right place, and has the most perfect confidence in herself.”
Thousands flocked to hear her speak against slavery and for the rights of African Americans and women. Dickinson’s passionate intensity—her belief in the rights of all, in the forward progress of our hearts—was what the nation desperately needed.
And I believe—faced with Trump, unconscionable gun violence, police brutality, climate change, decade-long wars, xenophobia and homophobia and racism—our nation needs to hear from Dickinson again. Right now, we need both the living and the dead to remind us that hope is not lost, that our words are powerful, that the people who hear us and read us may be moved to take action in the direction of human rights. But how can someone like Anna Dickinson, who died in 1932, speak to us at all?
She whispers from the historical archive. In the June 27 New Yorkerarticle “The Woman Card,” journalist Jill Lepore reveals the surprisingly feminist origins of the Republican Party, noting, “One of the Party’s most popular and best-paid speakers was Anna Dickinson.” But Lepore offers Dickinson only as a nondescript famous woman who helped lead the nascent Republicans. In that brief historical note, Dickinson’s sword-wielding power of speech remains with her dust. How can I actually resurrect her, now that we need her?
Historical fiction. Breathe air into Dickinson’s lungs again. Paint her story around her; let her speak again; let the fragments of her real correspondence and her speech transcripts be cornerstones of a story with flesh and bone and blood; research costume and event and dialect so that Civil War-era Philadelphia—and its great Quaker orator—nearly exists again. In good historical fiction, we slip into the spirit of a different time and then emerge knowing that if real people once took incredible and brave action like that, we can, too. Good historical fiction slaps us awake: “Go. Now!”
But it’s still not enough. Historical fiction, bound to a certain time and place, has to report, like a responsible journalist. History, whether it’s etched in stone or whispered in shadow, requires a certain telling. There are rules.
Anna Dickinson lives the same life there, on repeat: wildly famous as an abolitionist, then scrambling after the Civil War to cling to that fame. She moved powerful men with her words on abolition, but she could not move her society to approve of her ardent belief in the equality of all, male and female, white and black. She could not convince her society to bless her romantic relationships with women, or her proclivity for wearing pants and climbing every high mountain she could, or her desire to take male roles on the theatrical stage. She raised her sword and shouted for everyone to follow her into battle, but few actually did. When her own sister had her committed to a mental institution in 1891 (when Dickinson was forty-nine), she calmly hired lawyers to prove her sanity, exited the asylum, and then retreated to live in bitter isolation for her last forty years.
As historical fiction, Dickinson’s story is probably better left to a single sentence in a New Yorker article. Maybe that is why no one has written it. The story of a bitter ninety-year-old lesbian dying in obscurity does not inspire us for our own time.
But what if there is a different way to tell stories like Dickinson’s? In these past few years, I’ve been experimenting with hybrid forms, thanks mostly to my reading of authors like Jeanette Winterson, Rebecca Brown, Eleni Sikelianos, Michael Ondaatje, Julio Cortazar. I am primarily an essayist, but my essays sometimes look like poems or short stories or lists. What matters is the story, and the reader and the writer and the character who are transformed by it.
Last summer at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, I heard renowned author Maxine Hong Kingston wonder whether it is possible that the writing we do now, in this time, could help heal the people who came before us. I wonder. Could I, by writing Anna’s story in a bending and crossing of genres and times, help her become the woman she longed to become? Could her life arc not to a mental institution but to what she could never have imagined in 1891? Could she ride into battle with the real Joan of Arc in 1430? Could she emerge in 2016?
What if I stepped out of time, holding Miss Dickinson’s hand?
In the past year and a half, I’ve written over a hundred pages about Anna Dickinson: notes from history books and biographies and Civil War websites, fragments of poems, pieces of essays, imagined moments, letters addressed to her, blank pages with captions for photographs that do not exist. In the early mornings when I write, I’m as likely to work on “the Dickinson stuff” as I am to work on my essays or my monthly column. It’s a book: I know that much. I also know it’s a book others need to read in this chaotic time. But what genre will this book be? In what category will it fit? None. Several. Genre is irrelevant. Anna Dickinson needs to be written back into the now, and I’m the conduit. Like Anna, this book won’t fit into any categories.
This month, I plan to disappear into the Colorado mountains and work on the Anna Dickinson book until I’ve finished a complete draft. I’ve rented a cabin with a view of Mount Lady Washington, the peak the Hayden Survey named after Dickinson when she accompanied them up neighboring Long’s Peak. I’ll hike in the mornings, then work in the afternoons and evenings.
I don’t know where this work will lead me, but I know I want Anna to wake up, like Woolf’s Orlando, and find herself in a new time, with new possibilities for changing our world.
Anna Dickinson was not a man. She could not wear pants or shirts that did not constrict her breath. She could not own property or inherit money or vote in any election. She could not marry a woman she loved.
She was not beautiful. She was not dainty and she was not gentle. Her eyebrows were not fine and her nose was not small. When she stood to speak, her voice was never soft. On her way from climbing Long’s Peak to climbing Pikes Peak, she did not ride inside the train to Colorado Springs, but perched like a goddess on the cattleguard, the wind in her hair.
Anna Dickinson did not love men as lovers and she did not love women as mountain climbing companions. She never slept with a man and she never slept with just one woman. When she wrote love letters to Olive or Susan or Sarah or Lou, she was not shy. She was never satisfied that she had done or seen or heard or loved enough.
Anna Dickinson was not a man. And yet when she spoke against slavery on the Lyceum stage, the newspapers said she was not demure enough to be a woman. When she played Hamlet in New York in 1881, her harshest critic wrote, “We always knew Anna Dickinson was actually a man.”
Once, she wrote to her lover Olive Logan, “Someday, some of us will become so overcome with passion that we will become men, and we will make furious love to our beloved women, and then we shall be married, and live happy forever more.”
Anna. Ms. Dickinson. American Maid of Orleans, bearer of the fleur de lis. I am not a man. I am a woman, and I am your vision.
Anna. If I write your story now, will you hear it one hundred years ago?