Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy
Arianne Zwartjes
120 pp., paperback
University of Iowa Press

It’s rare anymore that review copies via Tarpaulin Sky resonate with my “other” / “non-literary” nonfiction work. Most of the books we receive are poetry or fiction, but that’s not what what sets them apart from my present interests; rather, it’s the distinct sense that their authors have neither experienced nor examined anything more distressing than a hangover or a rejection slip.

This is a huge generalization, of course, and completely untrue. At least as regards the best books we receive at TSky. Plenty of  authors, even U.S. ones, and certainly my personal favorites, whether working in fiction or even in poetry, still manage to include the viscera and grief, the sufferings chronic and acute: murder and rape and torture at home and abroad, whether as domestic pathology or foreign policy; or the slow daily grind of psychological abuse by an intimate partner or via systemic classism, misogyny, racism, etc; or the slow grind of disease, and once-completely-unaffordable healthcare; or suffering under an economic model and political platform built on the idea that there are winners and losers, and losers have only themselves to blame, and if they are not being dragged into the light to be scorned by the winners, then they should be hidden in the darkness–and above all, if they these losers are not being publicly ridiculed and flogged, they should be forgotten: in prisons, in ghettos, in rural wastelands, in post-industrial black holes.

Our fears surges when we recoil at the risk of physical rupture. But it is even more grippingly intertwined with our avoidance of the internal dark. The soaking stain of shame, the slicing fear of being utterly alone:unloved, unlovable. The rasp of what is torn, shards of glass all inside. (Zwartjes 70)

In her most recent book, Arianne Zwartjes focuses on trauma, as the title makes clear. The text is not overtly political, however, unlike my introductory paragraphs, which have less to do with Zwartjes’ book then with my own present sources of anger. The traumas in Zwartjes’ book are the result of a variety of causes / events, and some of them intersect with healthcare, for example; but most of the traumas explored are not the result of a system, per se, except for the system that is biological life itself (with death being its only sure outcome, etc.). Indeed Zwartes book uses various systems and “parts” of the human body as sub-titles and catalysts for the essays–“Brain,” “Nerves,” “Lungs,” etc, explored under larger titles such as “This Suturing of Wounds or Words” and “A Cardiovascular Study in Hope.”

Zwartjes’ are lyrical essays, well-wrought meditations on anatomy and physiology, car accidents, wildfires, exposed nerves; meditations that border on poetry, even if their subjects are fractured and ruptured.

Which is difficult territory. Not for the reader, but for the writer, who must not only dwell in suffering but render it readable. And, more importantly, without making it too readable. After all, trauma is the subject. Too much poetry makes an essay on trauma seem–well, odd, surely, if not exploitative, of the exploitation ilk that so fascinates the daytime-talkshow audiences who wish to weep, but then also to get on with their day: Give me trauma, but only if Calgon takes it away.

Mercifully, Zwartjes’ essays often avoid “closure,” and the book will not repel readers who have found that closure is bullshit and that only scar tissue and slow time make any difference.

If we healed our inner rupture, would there be less need to pretend away the uncertainty in each minute? Or not–even whole, how can it ever be easy to face the possibility of impending loss? To love, and simultaneously, continuously prepare for love’s departure. (70)

At the time of this writing, “trauma” has been an overused word for three decades, and the word is all but stripped of meaning for anyone aside from those who have actually experienced trauma. A reader has only to listen to conversations in the cafe, in the subway, on FB & Twitter, etc: Just count how many times you hear someone describe an event as “traumatic.”

. . . and the teacher grabbed my cell phone and threw it against the wall. I was, like, totally traumatized! . . .

Trauma being redefined as annoyance, with real traumas being things that happen to other people.

Zwartjes’s essays deal with trauma to body and spirit. Its subjects are actually wounded. Burns steel thin skins. Bones pop through relationships.

Sometimes fracture arrives forcefully. Sometimes a telephone. Sometimes it is quiet. Sometimes a conversation, a sunny morning. Sometimes fracture is slow, no word at all, sometimes it is in what is not said. In absence. And sometimes it is sirens and lights and cones and yellow tape.

But not mostly. Mostly it is not that dramatic. There is a doctor talking to you in a real room with a real tree outside and the words she is saying are real.

The words she is saying mean everything has changed. (54)

They are wounds from which persons we may heal, however, the book’s back jacket emphasizes.

We may heal.


But neither does Zwartjes’ Trauma offer easy platitudes. Where there is bonafide poetry, it works well.

Everything can fracture, though that doesn’t mean it will. Here is where trust comes in. Or perhaps not trust but a willingness to risk breaking. A crimson overlay of wrong flowers. (15; italics in orig)

Recommended. Especially for fans of Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time, or Spring Ulmer’s The Age of Virtual Reproduction (both of which are from the amazing Essay Press), or Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, The Art of Cruelty, et al.