I was specifically looking forward to reviewing a copy of Cathy Eisenhower’s newest book of poetry, Distance Decay, because it addresses the traumatic effects of sexual assault and violence on victims. Eisenhower is a therapist in Washington D.C. who undoubtedly has extensive experience providing therapeutic counseling to survivors of rape, molestation, physical abuse, and various other violating acts. As a survivor myself, I anticipated poetry that would evoke a sense of what it feels like to struggle with negative self-talk, victim blaming, memory fragmentation, disassociation, and depression; however, while Eisenhower is certainly engaging these personal conflicts, as a survivor, I feel unnecessarily alienated from her text.
In other words, I cannot enter the experience of the survivors she has presented through poems that seem to obfuscate their humanity rather than simply demonstrating the disorientation of what is, in fact, still more human than not. Eisenhower creates miles of distance between the reader and the personas on these pages, and I am still grappling with whether or not that distance is intentional given the manuscripts title.
Many of the poems deal with rape survivors, and within these poems Eisenhower uses the word “rape” repetitively. This is done, perhaps, to draw attention to the intrusive nature of rape. For instance:
Were you to mean when saying rape instead of race.
the white describing nun and her fake rape assailant.
2-ton black man faking out the bodega with pussy orange sections
and phantom bread decimated by thoughts you broadcast about the
The skid of a freckle retina.
This is half of an untitled poem that uses the word “rape” directly as do most of the poems in the first section of this book—poems that are also untitled. The book is actually 120 pages of mostly untitled poems with four section breaks: distance decay, genogram, personality theory, and welcome back. There is a point to which a good portion of the book feels like a badly constructed run-on sentence with the word “rape” used so many times and at such random intervals that it is emptied of any power to shock or destabilize the reader.
It’s a valid perspective that, when writing about rape, or any other violating act, the text should be destabilizing enough to provoke empathy and anger since these emotions, in turn, should provoke humanitarian action. For instance, Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” is an excellent example of a poem that reuses the word “rape” to communicate the audacity of victim blaming as well as the gamut of emotional somersaults a victim experiences as they try to unravel how and why they were violated. Like Eisenhower, Lockwood writes in the persona of the victim, but unlike Eisenhower, Lockwood uses the redundancy of “rape joke” at the beginning of each stanza to effectively assault the reader and provide a consistent punch that generates a feeling of helplessness. This is what a poem on rape should do—put the reader in the victim’s shoes. Eisenhower’s random use of the word “rape,” at intervals that do not mimic assault or draw the reader into the victim’s experience, leave me feeling disconnected from the individuals represented in the poetry. As a survivor myself, this is almost insulting.
“Even the full development of my personality is not enough,” says the speaker in the section titled personality theory. The speaker continues, “[t]his full development must feel bad knowing my personality is not attractive bodybuilding. Do you think my personality is not fit for a relationship?” I wonder whether a survivor really wants to be splashed across the page as a mess of disoriented mechanisms? This particular poem may have gained some ground as a poem on personality fragmentation had it been couched in a manuscript in which each persona was explored holistically and the reader was introduced to whole human beings, not mere mechanics. Once again, however, Eisenhower overuses a single word, “personality,” and makes it seem as though the persona is actually mocking him or herself with lines such as “[m]y personality is not split, but fake, not equal, but reflective, not famous, but so super okay” and “[n]ote that my personality is also not tied up with my vagina. You have seen an example of my friend-making process throughout this essay.”
Maybe readers are supposed to find humor in these lines—but it’s difficult. The book is fraught with schizophrenia disorder, paranoia, split personality, etc. obviously caused by assault and abuse, and when considering the flesh and blood reality these pages present, I cannot and do not want to encourage humor or laughter. Rather, I want the writing to educate, encouraging compassion through empathy. I want assault victims to feel comforted by the rhetoric, not ruthlessly exposed with all of their wiring hanging out.
Perhaps a little redemption can be gained from the poem on page 96 in the final section of the book that begins:
more coffee to
practice observing the inside of this and that
when I make you feel something because I
don’t want to feel it
when I feel you are making something because I
can’t seem to make it
when you see something in my seeming to see
something about you that is leaking into the space
of your vibrations
the highest care is any type of touch
The ironic use of the word “touch” in this case is useful and the preceding lines do play off of this irony well. But in a book full of disconnected and overly wordy lines and stanzas like:
It was like a face that traveled from home to welcome—not burnt but
burning, in question marks, oppressed
by melodrama of cauterization
I don’t want to wash the filthy white floor
the sudden anonymous prefatory pain
a sudden anonymous trivial pain
array all the objects out of use to line their burning with pieces of this,
forcing the treetop bird silhouette to voicemail
it hardly makes up for the lack of human identity in the poetry. Disconnection may be the point; it is, after all, decay understood from a distance. But that distance is too clinical. And it scares me. Why? Because this is not what I want in a therapist: someone who is so removed from my humanity that he or she deprives me of it on the published page.
“Hi Cathy, you are my friend,” says the speaker in one of the few titled poems “identified patient.” “i don’t not like your experience,” she continues, “just not as / a document.” I agree. I don’t like the document. I don’t like feeling documented in this way. I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t imagine any survivor would. And this makes it hard for me to recommend this entirely free-verse book of poems to anyone, though I have a sincere desire to support a fellow poet and suggest it to at least one audience. As a sexual assault and domestic violence survivor, others may not share my bias; another therapist, for instance, might find this work valuable as they step into Eisenhower’s shoes.
Still, I feel that art and literature should introduce the average individual, having no experience with these issues from either the therapist or survivor point of view, to a more holistic portrayal of those who seek therapy for sexual trauma or other traumatic events. Books such as Jehanne Dubrow’s Arranged Marriage and Tarfia Fazzulah’s Seam communicate trauma in ways that highlight the humanity of individuals who are dealing with personality disorders, memory fragmentation, and victim blaming. A good writer should cause his or her reader to feel what the survivor feels, clearly connecting the reader to their humanity that has survived despite the emotional and psychological trauma that rises to the surface. Cathy Eisenhower’s poems only reveal this messily re-wired surface—the poems don’t go deep enough. They’re just not human enough.