Metaphor & Traumatic Memory in Emilia Phillips’ Empty Clip

Harvard Psychologist Arnold Modell in “Metaphor—The Bridge Between Feelings and Knowledge,” argues that, “When traumatic memories are activated, metaphor recognizes only similarities.” Working from a definition of metaphor as “a pattern detector that recognizes similarities and differences across a nearly infinite variety of domains,” Modell points out that something different happens “in conditions of safety”: “the mode of cognition shifts and affective memory evokes a metaphoric play of similarity and difference and meaning is expanded.” Though Modell is not discussing literary metaphor, his description of the behavior of metaphor in conditions of traumatic memory offers us one possible way to read Emilia Phillips’ uses of metaphor in her collection of poems, Empty Clip. Her title itself is a metaphor suggesting that a clip of ammunition has been emptied, that trauma has already occurred, and the poems address aftermath wherein the conditions of safety vary, and the metaphors themselves expand and contract accordingly to offer both speakers and readers various positions from which to experience the narratives and fragments of narrative Phillips provides.

In the book’s opening poem, “This is How I Came to Know How To,” the speaker tries to lift the memory of a sexual assault through the gaps of more benign memories on the surface. The title runs over into the first line, then breaks, “forget afternoons               crying.” The repeated command to lie down joins the multiplying contexts obscuring the memory of lying down for nap time in kindergarten while one child is taken into the pantry “full           of graham crackers and Peter/Pan/peanut butter” by a “Red-/Haired Man.” As the poem braids benign and threatening contexts, the command to “lie down” morphs: “Lie down, said time/ to the roof” and “Lie down, said the ear to the whisper” and “Lie down, said the dark to the anchorite.” The variations on the commands’ speakers and hearers gradually dissociate the trauma from the victim, showing us how memories morph to protect us, how we’re complicit in our own suppression of pain to protect ourselves. Phillips’ use of metaphor here could be described in more literary terms, as Rich described formalism in her own work, as “part of the strategy – like asbestos gloves, it allowed me to handle materials I couldn’t pick up bare-handed.” The proliferation of local metaphors decontextualizes the past trauma as it unfolds through the safety of the present, allowing both speaker and readers to “know” the experience directly and indirectly, the latter from a position of relative safety in which meanings can multiply.

Though Modell sees metaphor as an embodied cognitive device, and Phillips’ uses are largely language based, the varying distances her poems provide us from the sites of trauma, allow her speakers and readers to move between trauma’s tendency to focus on similarities in iterations of piercing detail, and the safe distance’s ability to widen the scope of meanings. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the book’s first section, “Hollow Point,” where references to gun violence occur frequently. “Hollow Point,” refers to a bullet with a hollow point that expands on impact and forms a mushroom shaped cap. The poem, “Hollow Point,” tells the story of a father shooting the speaker’s dog, and her reaction to the loss reverberates years later in a hospital where she lashes out in anger at a nurse—“I hurt her because I was being hurt.” The original wound expands like the hollow point into a remote future.

Most of the poems in the first section turn on gun violence or the threat of it: in “Campus Shooter PowerPoint and Information Session,” “a retired cop” working through his presentation concedes “if a shooter/enters your classroom, there’s nothing/ I can do,” while the speaker remembers her own father sitting outside her first night job in an unmarked car providing an illusion of safety, though protection and destruction can look a lot alike when guns are part of the equation. In all these poems, Phillips finds a way to move us back and forth from a site of relative safety to the site of the trauma, whether it’s the speaker’s own or one observed from a safer distance.

Several poems in the section prove to be radical acts of empathy for others on an edge; “To the Previous Tenant,” addresses and imagines the other with such precise detail and intimacy that as the poem unfolds, current and former tenants merge when the speaker contemplates her own “cheek slack and hatched/ in scar” and “I find a space/ for you/ at the tree line, in the long-gone.” Likewise in “Overpass,” the speaker crosses a bridge marking its pros and cons as a mode of escape, and as she walks safely back toward home, tells us exactly how these metaphors work: “The more we speak of the world,/ the more it becomes concrete/ & metaphor.” In Phillips’ poems the range of possible meanings for metaphors expands and contracts according to the safety or danger she subjects us to. She’s expert at leaving one realm for the other at just the moment when similarities and differences active in the context surface and proliferate.

While Section 1 shows us metaphor as the site where meaning expands and contracts in individual memory, in section two, “Split Screen,” we see the violence played forward in digital media’s uses and abuses of language, its pressuring of the collective memory. “The CIA Live-Tweets the Assassination of Usama Bin Laden Five Years Later,” compiles fragmented speculations and questions about the CIA’s decision to revisit the assassination details on Twitter in May of 2016. The poem’s speaker reports the CIA to Twitter for the travesty of its choice to replay the killings, but the report is to no avail, and the speaker remains stunned, as well we all should, that the CIA would want to enshrine such a “memory/ of violence,” and the idea that “casualties become casual/ become causality.”

In “The Uncanny Valley’s” nimble lyricism, Phillips builds us a world where “the new moon” is made unreal, “that vixening/ vertigo of simulacra/ simpatico/ with the mind’s/ conflation & eye’s.” The speaker simultaneously stands on the street and sees herself “in reductive code, a blue/dot nosed by an arrow” with no shadow, and no memory. The problem with her avatar is that “What’s almost/ human damns us by its/ error/ of no error.” In the end, it’s a contest of metaphor’s conjurings: “how/ blood the blood/ of the metaphor,/ how still/ the heart that’s/ beaten in fear.”

“Barista,” a powerful account of the harassment those in the service industry endure, exposes the role conflicts women must manage. In this case, the speaker’s empathy with the harasser is pitted against her fear of what he might want. Carefully built out of refusals to finish narratives after having sketched them lightly with searing details that heighten our anxiety for the speaker, the poem never loses sight of the harasser’s vulnerabilities. We’re afraid this man who presents the barista with a tin box of his own kidney stones as a stand in for his desire to give her more of his private parts, will eventually get what he wants, but here as in “To the Previous Tennant,” Phillips carefully balances threat and security, harasser and harassed. Given the precision of detail she provides, we experience the crime despite its unfinished narrative and come away with no doubts about its having occurred—if not on this night in this location, then, of course, elsewhere and often.

“” returns us to the opening metaphor, the bullet with the hollow point that mushrooms as it penetrates. Opening on young cousins sneaking a look into a website of death images, “” jumps to a present in which the cousin is “just a photo in my Facebook/ newsfeed: camo and a rifle,/ a shotgun, a .44 with a/ silencer,” a participant in the gun culture that also haunts the speaker via her own father who, having shot himself accidentally, also urges a gun on her for her own safety. Again, the screen is split between safety and harm, real and digital, father and daughter, owning/not owning firearms, and ultimately, death and life.

The book’s final lines return us gracefully to the book’s epigraph from Shakespeare’s Emilia, Iago’s wife in Othello, as she dares to speak her truth even as men advise her against doing so. The living Emilia, figuratively bound to the villain that is a misogynist culture, knows exactly how much danger lies in speaking, and also how implicated we all are in that misogyny by being its wife, its daughter, its lover—its object and audience: “If we stand/ monument to anything,/ it’s that only some voices belong/ to men.”



Leslie Adrienne Miller’s sixth collection of poems is from Graywolf Press. Her previous collections include The Resurrection Trade and Eat Quite Everything You See (Graywolf), Yesterday Had a Man In ItUngodliness and Staying Up For Love from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Miller’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, Georgia Review, Ploughshares, and Crazyhorse. Professor of English at the University of St. Thomas, she holds degrees in creative writing and literature from Stephens College, the University of Missouri, the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the University of Houston.