Diana Arterian presents a force of nature in her debut, full-length poetry collection Playing Monster :: Seiche. Formed after its namesake, seiche, the book plows ahead, a standing wave, a constant, nonbreaking push forward. Throughout the pages, Arterian writes with insight and honesty while weaving together the story of her family’s abuse at the hands of her father, and a period of her mother’s life in which strange men suddenly appeared with the sole goal of threatening her.
Arterian slowly fleshes out both stories, jumping back and forth between the two, using words from her own family members in poems, some of them reading like mini-interviews, and incorporating her mother’s own journal entries written during hard months of 1986. These journal entries are glimpses of light that Arterian graciously tosses to us, glimpses of light in her mother’s life when everything else was dark. While these entries are only little sentences, tiny snapshots of bright points in her day, which are centered around her children, it’s enough to give us a quick breath of air, a moment of relief from the barrage of details about abuse and intimidation.
Abuse and intimidation are put under the lens as the collection jerks us back and forth between memories of childhood abuse and the long-lasting effects each sibling experiences because of it, and the frightening experiences her mother goes through in her new home. Arterian is unflinching in her truths, reflecting on the burden of being the “favorite” child of an abusive parent; the burden of carried blame, her sister Suzannah accusing her grown siblings in “years later my sister says,” “You all just stood there”; the burden of being a functional adult after the fact, conditioned to expect violence from men and shrinking in fear around the sound of them fighting. None of these seems to be Arterian working through these traumas for the first time, though. Each poem reads like it was written by a seasoned poet, by someone who’s had time to think about and carefully articulate her thoughts, an approach that never makes the reader feel alienated or lost.
Then as an adult, Arterian learns her mother has been facing threats of violence from strange men and has been quietly dealing with it mostly on her own. The siblings compare notes, unpeeling the layers their mother tries to keep hidden. These poems read with as much urgency as a thriller novel or movie might. Mysterious men are appearing with threats of violence, a strange man in camouflage stalks the woods outside her house, anonymous letters attempting to defile her name are sent to neighbors after a controversy at her job, and yet her mother stands silent and unflinching in the middle of it all, only revealing information when her children drag it from her. In an interview by Vi Khi Nao in 3:AM Magazine, Arterian speaks of her mother: “I think the fact that someone as intelligent, thoughtful, and fierce as herself was trapped in a disastrous and dangerous situation is telling. It illustrates how vulnerable anyone can be to abuse and violence.” At a time when we seem to be reminded of this by the news almost daily, Arterian’s family’s struggle feels so palpable and relatable.
This thread is never given a perfect wrap-up for readers, like we’d expect from the fictional, thriller novel version. Arterian plays with different results instead, ranging from things quietly going back to normal, to horrific images of imagined—yet very, very possible—violence. I could believe each “ending” as truth. I finished reading Playing Monster :: Seiche, went to bed, and woke to read the news of the Golden State Killer’s arrest. While still reeling from the details and my own memories Arterian’s collection dredged up, I was faced with the news that a previously faceless monster, free for years, was captured. This news gives dozens of women peace from their own prowler and felt like the wrap-up I’d been wanting from Arterian. It felt like a continuation of the wave her collection set in motion, the collection an insistent reminder of the violence that lurks among us.
An undercurrent of “interludes” streams through the collection, brief found poems from news reports of deaths occurring in or around Onondaga Lake, a lake near her mother’s house. Like the journal entries from Arterian’s mother, these give us a moment of respite, but are expertly tied back in during one of Arterian’s rewritings of her mother’s story:
I dredge up the bodies
all the bone clusters
[ . . . ]
Take them to the house
Shove them upright
into the ground
[ . . . ]
I build a knobby fence with them
This makes it
Suddenly the death and violence surrounding the lake becomes a possible shield against more violence, an interesting and impressive conclusion to the thread of interludes.
Diana Arterian writes with earnestness and heartfelt honesty as she persistently shouts her truths throughout Playing Monster :: Seiche, the collection an unbreaking look into a family’s past, an unflinching examination of violence and the waves that ripple out from it.