Writing Threat and Trauma: Poetic Witnessing to Social Injustice and Crisis

By | 15 September 2022

Krauth’s ‘We suck each other in’ is successful at capturing the tension of the threat of trauma while avoiding the pitfalls of Mordue’s poem by steering clear of gendered, generalised statements and homing in on the relational minutiae of daily domesticity:

I suspect my partner’s touch.
Did you wash when you came in? Use the sanitizer?
We have jobs to come home from.
I think, Where did you go today? Who did you handle?
I don’t say it.
I wipe the handles of supermarket trolleys. I wonder if anyone touched the can of English
beans I find way back on the display shelf. I look to discover the manufacture date of the
German sausage I want to buy, and the Japanese nori, and the Vietnamese fish sauce, and the
Chinese noodles.
She buys a guitar, for the stay-at-home period.
In the shop she handles possibilities on sale. She picks up several instruments. Instruments of
disaster, I think.
I have my surgical mask on. The salesman offers her lessons. On the internet. (73)

This excerpt demonstrates the way collective threat and trauma pervades private spaces and relationships. Form here is key. The poem is comprised of episodic vignettes, a collection of moments that create a couple’s narrative of navigating new rituals, suspicions, fears, and arrangements. PTSD-like symptoms, such as high anxiety and hyper-vigilance, are palpable. Questions born of fear dominate, and the dinkus serve to represent the way threat and trauma interrupt flow, fracturing experience and making sustained intimacy near impossible.

Some literary responses address culpable humanity directly, calling for account and redemption. Ali Whitelock’s ‘in the event of a lack of oxygen’ is such a poem:

now go to the mountains / yes, go / facetime will not suffice /
tell them you are sorry / return with no selfies––this is not the
time / now go to the rivers / listen to them / let them tell you
their stories / do not interrupt with your lies about your
recycling / like you are not guilty of slipping glass jars

& clean cardboard into the wrong bin / now get down on
your knees & beg their forgiveness / do not worry their
banks are no longer muddy your levis will stay dry /
understand in the event of a lack of oxygen no yellow
masks will drop from the sky / remove your stilettos /
leave all your personal belongings behind / tip toe 

past earth’s bed / leave a note under her pillow / apologise
profusely / tell her you’d drunk too much / that you weren’t
in your right mind / that you didn’t realise just how much
you’d loved her till she was gone /

This poem was published online on February 1, 2020. The timing suggests it was written during Black Summer. Fascinatingly, the poem works just as well as a testimony to the public health and social injustice roots of the pandemic, since the lungs are notoriously the organ typically hardest hit by COVID-19. This poem does nuanced work in terms of witnessing to threat and trauma. The excerpt features a present tense directive until the turn to the past tense in the last two lines when the reader is projected into the post-traumatised, post-apocalyptic future. This projecting forward in time to a point when it is too late for anything but reflection on the past, regret, and acts of contrition is a speculative and affective appeal to break through the dissociation Woodbury laments.

Another interesting aspect of this poem is its mission to lure readers offline and into the wilderness that we are now paradoxically disconnected from and dangerously encroaching on – to the point of our own peril and the rapid demise of many lifeforms. In their stylistics analysis of E E Cummings who famously decapitalised his poetry and subverted the conventions of grammar, Xin Li and Mengchen Shi employ the Russian Formalism/Prague School concept of ‘foregrounding,’ which emerged from the visual arts. Li and Shi introduce linguistic foregrounding as a deviation from the socially accepted norm, a device that focuses poetic language against the ‘common background of language accepted by conventions’ (29). The linguistic deviation they concentrate on is graphological deviation (line breaks, the typographical stanza, the shape of a text, capitalisation and decapitalisation, and punctuation). Decapitalisation and the use of the forward slash are notable foregrounding devices in the Whitelock poem. The decapitalisation technique seems to underscore humanity’s relative smallness in relation to the majesty of the natural world and a planet troubled by our damaging impact. The repeated forward slashes operate as a form of punctuation within the poetic line, emphasising critical moments, which, combined with the rhythmic effects and affects produced by enjambement, yields a pathos that invites the reader to reflect on their participation in the making of these crises.

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