(Dis)embodiment and Landscape in Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage, Savannah Sipple’s WWJD and Other Poems, and Rosalie Moffett’s Nervous System
by Julia Bouwsma | Contributing Writer
“We are threatened with suffering from three directions,” writes Sigmund Freud in Civilization and its Discontents. “From our body, which is doomed to decay . . . , from the external world which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless force of destruction, and finally from our relations with other men . . . .” While Freud’s trifold categorization seems potentially simplistic, I found I couldn’t help but think of it as I read Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage (American Poetry Review, 2019), Savannah Sipple’s WWJD and Other Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), and Rosalie Moffett’s Nervous System (HarperCollins, 2019). In these three collections—each of which finds itself writing from the aftermath of trauma—we are shown, vividly, how Freud’s three directions of suffering coalesce and feed upon one another and, in particular, how this tangle of suffering relates to problems of embodiment. These poets ask what it means to live in a damaged and violent landscape. How do our bodies function as a type of hostile landscape in and of themselves—living entities inside which we are trapped without choice and which force us to navigate their decay, to reconcile our attachment or dissociation from them? How does the suffering we experience feed our feelings of isolation and disconnection both from ourselves and from one another? And how can we write ourselves back toward connection?
Each of these three collections engages and attempts to render an ongoing conversation between interior suffering and exterior suffering—between the body and the mind, between the land and the body. Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage and Savannah Sipple’s WWJD and Other Poems both directly address the suffering of the external environment as they bear witness to the cycles of damage that arise when harm is enacted on the landscape in the name of human industry. Vantage, distilled from Bambrick’s experience of working with a primarily male garbage crew along the banks of the heavily-dammed Columbia River, explores the tangle of natural and social inequalities, assaults, and complicities manifest in “how a space lays out / its violence.” Likewise, Sipple’s WWJD and Other Poems, set in eastern Kentucky, recalls the harrowing effort of growing up and coming out as queer in a region where strip-mined mountains serve as constant metaphor and backdrop for any reckoning with the damage wrought to the self by religion, poverty, and abuse. By contrast, in Rosalie Moffett’s Nervous System, the ground-zero point of trauma occurs in more interior and amorphous territory: inside the brain of a mother who suffers from a traumatic brain injury as the result of a fall. As her mother retreats into the entropy of her own mind, we see the speaker of Moffett’s poems working to make her mother’s inner world tangible and accessible to her so as not to lose her—envisioning, navigating, and elaborately mapping the world of the brain as if it were a landscape woven of spider webs and electrical wires.
Bambrick and Sipple are both unflinching as they confront the full concussive force of human interference upon the natural world. In Bambrick’s poem “Exhibits: After the Dam Flooded the Town of Vantage,” a town is flooded for a hydro-electric dam and the surrounding landscape is suddenly filled with the expelled snakes: “In the flood all the holes blew out / hundreds displaced / the rattling was / a constant sound.” And in Sipple’s poem “All I Know of Coal,” the consequences of strip-mining are clear and devastating:
This is what happens when you cut the world in two: it turns
on you. We all die: cancer, copper water, no money,
meth, oxy, percocets, loss: a job or love, too much or too little
Jesus, mountain blasting zones—where we blow
Destruction reverberates from its source in shockwaves, affecting not just the landscape itself but also everyone who lives within it, whether directly or indirectly. And annihilation becomes a perpetuating cycle, one in which the severing of both topographical and human bodies becomes accepted practice, so pervasive that the language of violence delineation seems to surface everywhere in both collections, working its way into poems and images almost subconsciously.
In Vantage, we see this violent bifurcation immediately, in a horrifying image in “Litter,” the book’s opening poem:
And as the torso
Of a man is fished from the river
I wade in to my knees.
Watching for bones, coils
of skin, I try to imagine
at the hips, the sound
of a spine snapped.
This anonymous, submerged corpse is the first of many in the collection. Elsewhere, we find “a guy who’s had a saw through his face;” the elks whose “twenty-seven bodies formed a triangle of hide and bone,” startled into jumping to their deaths by the sound of “fucking rich kids slicing the reservoir in half” with their jet skis; the female coworker and lover who “shoveled the bathroom / snakes in half.” Violent fracture is everywhere, even in seemingly benign gestures as when “she cut a flower from / the yard // when she left” or when “Grayson takes an apple & snaps it in half / with the pads of his hands over // one knee.” And of course, all of these dissections lead us back to the bifurcated, dammed river—the river that is both the embodiment and source of the class divisions left in its wake: “The dam is a line after which the river is class-divided. i.e. where is higher, where has less cattle-ditch run-off billowing into it.” Because the ultimate violence is one of resource allocation, of valuing one community over another by determining that “the affordability of electricity” is more important than the destruction wrought by “flooding a truck stop town” or “the erasure of Wanapum land, so much land.”
A similarly stark language of division and demarcation can be found in WWJD and Other Poems, though Sipple most frequently applies this weapon against the self. In the poem “After Seeing a Topo Map of My Childhood Stomping Grounds Hanging in a Colleague’s Home,” for example, an examination of the boundaries of the speaker’s childhood landscape leads to a language of delineation, a series of “lines” that represent an ever-constricting series of traumas:
Once I hit a line drive into my brother’s chest. Twice his fist found
my nose. A relief: every time we hurt each other, we cried. The
contours tighten: I wrecked my truck, flipped a golf cart, crashed
my car, kept telling myself I was lucky. When I was little, I kept
bronchitis. My father gave me vodka for the cough. My lungs on
fire. My kidneys on fire. My house on fire, years later, felt like
a line elevated, on that would bleed me dry, scar me, one that
would leave me
Like the landscape, the self takes shape as a ruined geography, a surface to be scarred and marked, each trauma building upon and leading to the next, creating terrain, a topography of hurt. Or, alternatively, the body becomes objectified as a cut of meat—sliced, parceled, preserved, and labeled, as in the poem “Pork Belly”:
Imagine you clutch the carving knife,
slice it under & against your own ribs—
one cut for every time they call you fat.
Take that meat, preserve it with salt
to season your beans—pinto, green.
The use of the second person here emphasizes a sense of disembodiment and dislocation from the self. The body is dissected, reduced to object, but it is also turned into food to be hoarded or consumed. Here, in this brutal and yet somehow generous image, we see the nexus of endurance and self-harm, how the damage one renders to the self is so often the result of an attempt at survival. This, Sipple writes, “is poverty: you save every drop. / Tell me, how many people // you trying to feed?”
In Moffett’s Nervous System we also see language used in a manner that simultaneously suggests disembodiment and an attempt to move into “a space / between what has been said and what // has been said, / where we might wait for our survival / to be furnished.” This impulse is apparent from the book’s opening poem, “What the Mind Makes,” which begins by positioning the speaker as someone distant from her subject: “I close in / on the room where she’s been . . .” Further distance is then created by substituting the speaker’s gaze for that of a camera, a technique which allows the poem to take on a attitude of documentary distance:
floats the hospital hall
and my memory grows, rising dough, it self-
out to include in the frame the necklace
of cars fleeing the storm,
child-me asleep in one glinting bead.
Here the delineation is present but, even in the book’s opening, it seems softer than in Bambrick or Sipple’s work. The “necklace / of cars” is visually fractured by line break, meandering across the page. Memory creates a dissociation, the speaker gazing down on her child self from behind the lens of a camera, but still its borders are permeable and elastic, like“rising dough,” because, as Moffett concludes at the end of poem, the mind’s survival lies in “filling in / what isn’t there—.”
And indeed, this is Nervous System’s central undertaking: to find a way (or many little ways) inside the distance created by trauma. “The concussion made a shell,” she writes, “cool well / of clues inside a hurricane // -emptied hospital.” And she has consciously chosen language as her method of “spiraling inwards / for answers” because “there are many things one can make seem / to happen with words.” As a result, the lines Moffett portrays throughout the book—“spider threads / ensheathed in nerve cells, new suspension bridges”—are primarily connective rather than divisive in nature. In poem after poem, most untitled, we see Moffett wrestling with and fighting against the demarcation inherent in the poetic line. We see her struggling with the notion of lineation as it applies to genetics, the family line, her fear that what happened to her mother might also happen to her due to some genetic weakness: “I feel around inside my head for soft spots / that might turn // worse.” She webs and weaves, eschewing linearity, creating an elegantly fractured, inverted syntax that spirals the space on the page, at once revealing and collapsing distance, knowing that the thing she is attempting to map is one that inherently defies definition:
Human voltage is everything. It’s our hurt, traveling
to the brain, it’s our heart, in fear
quickening its pace. This electricity, lineless,
jumps cell to cell—
The brain—electric, erratic, potentially explosive—presents an inhospitable interior landscape, but Moffett steps into it anyway, imagining it into being, because doing so is the only way she can access her mother:
I need to understand this, standing
under the webs between the wires, because I can see her
better if I can see into her:
electricity gone berserk, wrong turns
tugging her body
into its spasms, rickety system flashing
Thus Moffett brings us directly into the center of the tangle, into a space between delineations. And it is here, under “the webs between the wires,” where “electricity” has “gone berserk,” that one can see most clearly.
Sipple and Bambrick also write into similar centers of conflict, spaces marked by a confluence of contradictions. In Sipple’s poem “What We Tell Ourselves,” we see the intensity of the paradox, the self melded to the mountains, submerged in a torrent of opposing emotions:
home is I don’t know if I love
the mountains I don’t know if I hate
the mountains I love to drown
in the mountains I hate the crooked
mountains I love the mountains I hate
the mountains I love the mountains I hate
the mountains I love
And in Bambrick’s poem “Elk Tooth Necklace,” we are given this liminal moment at the bridge over the dam: “Heading home, we used to stop there, / above the water, and though the fall is too slow / to see, we’d squint long enough to convince ourselves / we were the reason the reservoir emptied.” In both of these passages, we see a space where body and landscape seem to merge. Where feelings of love, hate, and complicity serve to bind the speaker to the landscape. A resulting catharsis occurs, a necessary falling away from the daily demarcations by which we survive and suffer. For, as Moffett puts it:
What we want is to feel
like we’re wearing nothing, wanting
for nothing, our territories bleeding
into bigger blotches,
like wine dripped on a dress slip.
And so, in order to achieve this, each of these poets must enter in her own way into the center of trauma and dissemble the boundaries found there. As Sipple puts it in “WWJD / on prayer,” one of series of poems that depicts Jesus as a companion and confidante (and lunch date) in the book’s final section:
Jesus would say / let go / throw yourself away /
from that / Jesus would take
one look / He’d say / cut those ties / He’d say / for the love of God
But though this surrender seems an integral stop along the path toward healing, it is also a tricky space to enter, fraught with the potential dangers of stepping where one does not belong. “Perhaps I have no business / imagining her brain, dawdling in a picture,” writes Moffett. And Bambrick, too, considers the risks of her own work, the potential for causing inadvertent harm or accidental exploitation: “Even in our best attempts at reparation we excavate,” she writes. “Make the river like we’d shape a driveway.”
Yet despite these inherent difficulties, all three poets rely on the belief that love can exist, intensely and profoundly, within a process of damage and decay. And this belief courses, river-like, through each of their collections, motivating them as they engage in the task of active witnessing, of naming and mapping their sufferings and dislocations in order to arrive at a place of greater accountability, understanding, and connection with respect to both self and landscape. WWJD and Other Poems presents us with the sharpest shift in this regard, as the speaker moves into acceptance of both her body and her sexuality, finally falling in love with a partner who values her just as much. “My body is a holler I’ve tried to escape / time and again, but now, with this woman, I am home,” proclaims Sipple in “Jesus Shouts, Amen!,” before moving into the book’s penultimate poem, “WWJD / about love,” where she writes: “Latch yourself / there: her hip a hinge, her lips a door / you want to open and visit, not visit, / set up shop. You want to live there.” These lines evoke the earlier language in which she found herself grafted unwillingly to the mountains, unable either to go home or to leave. Only this time the graft is to another human, the emotions are no longer conflicted, and the sense of arrival is certain. Bambrick, too, writes of return. In “Sturgeon,” the essay-poem that appears as Vantage’s penultimate piece, she speaks of a fractured relationship with her father and how her “experience working on the maintenance crew around the dam” brought them closer, how “without it I don’t know that I would have found him again.” And she observes how this experience led her closer to herself as well, providing a sense of embodiment and physical ownership she had not had: “For the first time in years I felt like I operated my own body.” And Moffett concludes Nervous System by showing us a poignant moment in which her mother successfully trains her dog to enter a “narrow tunnel / with one cloth end collapsed,” a task that should have been impossible because “my mother could not crawl, could not / show the dog // it was possible to enter the dead end, / and find a way out.” And yet, she does: “I don’t know what she did,” writes Moffett, “ but I watch now // how she can say In, and point. / And the dog crawls in.” It is a final image that serves simultaneously as invocation and homecoming, a recognition of what it means to trust in process, to enter in spite of fear and all that one cannot know, and to find one’s self on the other end, arrived.
Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, farmer, freelance editor, critic, and small-town librarian. She is the author of two poetry collections: Midden (Fordham University Press, 2018) and Work by Bloodlight (Cider Press Review, 2017). She is the recipient of the 2018 Maine Literary Award; the 2016-17 Poets Out Loud Prize, selected by Afaa Michael Weaver; and the 2015 Cider Press Review Book Award, selected by Linda Pastan. Her poems and book reviews can be found in Grist, Poetry Northwest, RHINO, River Styx, and other journals. A former Managing Editor for Alice James Books, Bouwsma currently serves as Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and as Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.