To read Indictus (Noemi Press), Natalie Eilbert’s second book of poems (her first was Swan Feast, published by Bloof Books), is to have an experience beyond reading. It would be easy to describe this book with empty adjectives such as fierce, powerful, or obsessive, but this book is more like an escape room that one might never want to leave. Indictus is a tour-de-force, not because of its subject matter of rape, misogyny, and sexual abuse, but because of the writing, its acrobatic linguistic gymnastics, its resistance to naming and shape, and the writer’s sharp mind that attempts (but ultimately fails) to resist damage and feeling.
At 113 pages, Indictus is already a long book of poems, but one can imagine this book being much longer because trauma is endless, in perpetuity. A writer or editor, trying to shape this work might have challenges because the risk of shape is to debase the trauma, debase the language of trauma, debase the experience of trauma which isn’t easily reduced to the traumatic act(s). Eilbert ultimately succeeds in allowing Indictus to shape, un-shape, and reshape, itself in the way trauma resists shape. One of the ways Indictus resists shape is through the resistance of narrative and detail. In the opening of the book, the author writes:
Words are filthy.
With the past.
If I jump around in my details, it is because I have willfully refused details in writing...
Poetry allows me to enter into the afterlife. Line after line, I find specific names, construct a knowing from malignant odes—but no, I don’t want to be found, personally.
Let me say of language that it is my currency and performs best when it is stripped of decorum.
This book attempts to write trauma by resisting the traumatic act. Eilbert: “willfully refused details in writing...” because she seems to understand that the details of trauma don’t really matter as much as the aftermath of trauma. As the speaker writes:
I don’t write because there’s a problem that needs to be solved. I write because I can’t even tell
you the problem. It is like the mathematical axiom of nothing—that to solve anything on the
basis of nothing, we must first solve nothing. And there is nothing to be solved...
And again: “I grew up disappearing into a body. Then several. I want to tell you what happened to me.//But what should I say?” Therein lies the conundrum—how does one articulate trauma? There are hints of detail here and there but they hardly seem to matter and they don’t arrive until many pages into the book (pages 56 and 57) and when they arrive, they don’t seem to arrive with ease. The speaker starts with the metaphor of horses:
When I was a girl, I was surrounded by horses. I mean they were on every side of my parent’s
land. Corrals full of braying, the uric sweat warping the doors of my home. I knew to be terrified...
I followed them into the woods, toward the equine heat. They let me. They lost me. I
let them. I was a miserable kid.
What do I want to tell you?
The time they threw me around and took turns punching my guts wasn’t traumatic—it
“What do I want to tell you?” exhibits the difficulty of simply stating the trauma. It’s almost as if the speaker has difficulty naming the act(s) because the echoes of the act(s) are so much more powerful and define the trauma more than the trauma itself. After another riff on the “problem,” there’s finally a little bit of detail (the only detail in the entire book):
I cry in a nail salon because the woman is so gentle with my hands. I grew up in a house. There
were horses on every side of the land. I uncovered my vagina for a boy. We looked deeply into
it, equally disturbed that I was its carrier. I had a father. I had a mother. I had two brothers. One
had terrible friends but they were each one so cute, except for one. Except for one who walked
with an insidious gait and who were older than the rest. Except for one who, after the rest play-
attacked me, kept going with the door closed. I had an aboveground pool. I had cats. I
Even the detail is not detailed: “kept going with the door closed.” That’s it. That’s all the speaker discloses to the reader. There are no descriptions of skin, the way the attacker’s eyes looked, the sounds or lack of sounds during the rape (there’s not even mention of the word rape). And after, there are simply more lists of the items of childhood such as an “aboveground pool” “cats” and “plumbing.” This lack of description is brilliant. A lesser writer may have spent 113 pages describing the rape, naming it, deconstructing it, but not Eilbert. Eilbert seems to understand that the act itself isn’t the tragedy.
Indictus also uses metaphors masterfully, of which one is the image of a hole, a shapeless indentation that serves as a metaphor for trauma, for the female body, for rape, and so much more. In its shapelessness, it becomes an infinitely flexible metaphor. In one instance, the holes are holes that blasted into men, eventually becoming the men: “I didn’t mean to assemble my whole career on lies, so now I blast holes/in the men. I blast holes in the pits of the men. I blast holes in the holes/who are the men.” The hole is also where the speaker lives: “I live in the gap of the verb of my life as I always have.” The hole is also a place where words are stored: “I have a hole where I store my typographies.” It is also, “One definition of country: Dig a hole and replace. Dig a hole and replace. Dig a hole and replace...” It is something the speaker endlessly tries to fill: “I am the sand that fills the hole, and not even sand.” It is also the false idea of consent: “Consent is a hole I’ve dropped all silverware through. I eat with arms/tied.”
There’s so much to admire in this book, but again, it’s the language and the mind that sings. Nearly every word in this book, every line, is stunning. Here are just a few: “I was lonely before I learned the care of men—then I craved loneliness” or “He is drawn from the rocks. He rapes a hole in me to fill me with rocks./My consent is my sinking to the seafloor./I hum to the bottom” or “My patience has become glandular. My inner resources split in twine. Split in twain” or “Friends, I have memories now. Memories dehydrate living:/film is interstitial and brief, so we may choose to grieve” or “Was the only night I ever drove drunk. The dark was not God’s back turns away” or “My fever/is I’m starving” and so on. These poems hover between searing pain and emotion, and philosophical intellect as the speaker tries to make sense of physical and emotional trauma. And the maximalist form of the book—its horizontal landscape physical shape, its long lines, utterly expansive phrasing—serves as a kind of counterpoint to the actual act(s) of trauma, as if to say, trauma can’t be contained.
Ultimately, this book traverses between the desire to understand trauma and a desire to erase trauma, between a desire to describe trauma and a desire to dismantle the language of trauma (and the realization that perhaps trauma is indescribable). This lack of shape is ultimately what allows the book to breathe and to soar. This un-naming is what allows the book to explore trauma. In its meanderings and wanderings, the speaker never finds truth or meaning. That’s the victory of this work; that’s the mastery of this book. Ultimately, this book is about what is unsaid more than what is said and the difficulty of realizing that trauma is amorphous, shapeless, and lives in the body and mind forever—that it is more like an empty hole than a telling: “I have learned so much of myself from what I haven’t said.”
Victoria Chang‘s fourth book of poems, Barbie Chang, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. Her third, The Boss, won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Her other books are Salvinia Molesta and Circle. Her picture book, Is Mommy?(Simon & Schuster), illustrated by Marla Frazee was named a New York Times Notable Book. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship in 2017. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches at Antioch University’s MFA Program. You can find her at www.victoriachangpoet.com.