A few weeks back when we were reviewing some revision essays, a few teachers remarked on the issue of poetry as therapy for those poets who weren’t keen to do the work of revision, as if this was the cut-off between professionals and therapy-seekers. The topic came up again as I was finishing Richard’s Gray’s history on American poetry. Gray's second-to-last section was entirely about the act of writing poetry after trauma, specifically the collective trauma of the 9/11 attacks and the kind of group therapy that occurred when hundreds of poems found themselves tacked up all over New York City and every living poet of note took a turn at trying to speak about the 9/11 tragedy in verse.
These poems holistically challenge the ideas that “politics kills poetry” (Tim Scannell) or that therapy has no place in poetry.
Gray says the 9/11 poems are a mark of witness, a mark of despair or rage from a single voice in an effort to join a collective experience of sense making. Gray talks about the tropes of these poems: falling, ‘the’ moment of a disaster, the moment just before, the helplessness of words, the unsayable, transfiguration of the ordinary, nostalgia for innocence, and a community’s sharded fall into the depths of psychic harm. These poems also call in question the lines between private and public spaces and explore tools we have as humans to map the loss, the very particular coordinates of loss, and also trauma’s heavy burdens of impotence and exhaustion.
Gray explores a large group of 9/11 poems in an attempt to determine which ones are shallow and cliched and which ones are meaningful in order to understand how we can find meaning from trauma and strategies for writing about it.
To me, the 9/11 poems seem to operate like other trauma poems of our time (school shootings, for example) or like trauma poems from our past (most war poems).
Surviving Home by Katerina Canyon is a book about a set of personal traumas, which in many ways makes it a hard book to review. It is first and foremost an exercise in listening more than reviewing. The scenarios are pretty harsh and their ramifications are felt everywhere throughout the book. Which, as a second point, makes it hard to know which poems are “succeeding,” especially when reviewing the book from a very different life experience.
I feel you have to read a book of trauma in two ways at once: listening in the Brene Brown sense, a kind of human-to-human sense, and also reading with an ear to craft and execution. But even that is not easy.
Reading from a craft perspective, I want to say Canyon's simple poems were more impactful than the more complicated poems, and yet the complexities in those poems were an important representation of any confusing and entangled experience.
The first poem, “Involuntary Endurance,” is a good introduction to what you’re going to get. In fact, the hardest poems seem front-loaded in the book: “I Wish I Could Tell You This Has a Happy Ending,” “I Felt My Brother’s Wrists,” and “My Pain Is Sculpted into Art for You to Consume.”
Her titles are particularly good.
She explores deep wounds, like in “Thoracic Biology” where she says, “most times when I sleep, I dream of/my hands, clutched tight around something/I cannot see, and I cannot let go.”
Her poems are mostly conversational and she works with sensory feelers into the terrain of her Los Angeles past like in the poem “My Life Map” or poems about her mother: “Small Bear to Great Bear” and “An Afterthought of a Netflix Show” (with an uncanny appearance by Carol Burnett).
But there are also some experimental pieces, like “The Tyger, Interrupted” with literal interruptions into the William Blake poem, “The Tyger.”
There are some faint light beams of hope here too, some short reprieves for both Canyon and her readers: “Aunt May” which references Z.Z. Hill’s song “Down Home Blues" and “The New Hope” where “I kick the crust between my soles,/This is where I will find a picket fence/Painted white like dandelions.”
Which brings us to another point about experimental poetry and poets who express disdain for the political act of witness or explorations of trauma: the choice to go fully experimental or dismissive is an opportunity provided a privileged writer. Poetry of witness and therapy are less valuable to people who don’t need it. You don’t value the picket fence when you don’t need to; you can have it or not have it. I can have it or not have it and so this poem challenges me to understand what the symbol means to Canyon. What symbolizes a fantastical cliche to me takes on an out-of-reach realism for someone who has no easy path to the symbol and cannot take it for granted. So poetry like this challenges the very idea of cliches themselves. Symbols are cultural and relative.
Which leads us right into her poem “Authority Questions” with the lines “would it have been different/if I were white, and if I had blue eyes/and I lived on a ranch with 500 head of cattle? Would the doctor have still called me a liar?”
It gets worse from there.
The traumas here are racism, physical abuse, (being locked in the closet “All Day Long” with her autistic brother), drug trauma, (“Trifling with Heroin” which opens with “She learned to cut lines at eight”), “The Consideration of the Black Bear” where she says about her father, “I was raised to be/the perfect fault--/to take the blame/to allow you to be King.”
Even a poem called “Blessings” seem mostly ominous. There are quite a few meditations on god and godlessness, a school shooting poem, (“A Petition for Unrecognized Children”), a few Trump poems, poems about Sojourner Truth and Harvey Weinstein.
And this probably speaks to my GenX love for kind of new structures but my favorite poem in the collection was the “I Left Out ‘Bells and Whistles’ Written with a Little Help for Websters Dictionary,” a dictionary poem about (ominous) words and phrases born the same year Canyon was born, (which I'm guessing from the tool below was 1968). This makes me think we should all consider the words born with us and what vibrations, legacies and ramifications their ideas had on the world (similar to all the ramifications of our beliefs and actions); and isn't exploring ourselves and our words, and exploring ourselves in words the whole point of writing poems really.
Use this tool to help you search for your own birth words: https://www.merriam-webster.com/time-traveler/