That Was Then: The New Time of Memoir in Meg Shevenock’s The Miraculous, Sometimes

Author’s note: Meg Shevenock is a friend of the reviewer.

What does it mean to tell the story of one’s abuse as an uninterrupted act of creation? It means, in Meg Shevenock’s The Miraculous, Sometimes, to infuse memoir with a new kind of narrative time. We are familiar with the temporal structure of being haunted by the past. And we are familiar with the structure of testimony: telling a traumatic story in the past tense from a position of temporal distance. Shevenock’s book, which recounts the story of a male high school photography teacher’s sexual abuse of a female student, performs the telling of this trauma within a dynamic now: a present tense speaker who, when not narrating the events of the trauma, relentlessly finds what she calls miracles in the dust: 

... Exhibit A

Plastic shopping bag trapped in the branches of a tree, inflates and deflates with every gust. Lung of the universe, in pure garbage.

The miraculous, sometimes.

Such moments of lyric sublime constantly interweave into Shevenock’s narrative of abuse. Or, narrating sexual abuse intrudes upon the lyric sublime. Both are true, as this book toggles steadfastly between lyric and narrative, allowing neither to become a seat of rest, just as trauma itself overwhelms human channels of thought, feeling, and speech and, unless healed, forecloses the human possibility to simply “be.” Add to that a speaker who, since childhood, has been troubled about the fact of our impermanence and so could never simply be, and you find the switchbacks and dicey terrain through which Shevenock’s book maneuvers.

The Miraculous begins with a disarming pronouncement of the abuse:  

Of the Man Who Touched Me

At seventeen, in a hot tub, oh, cliché,  

but wait, there’s a part I never say  

his wife was in it, too. And she and I wore

his boxers for bathing suits, and the long 

gentle pines towered over us,

and the sharp little stars were out, too far 

to make a call, so well we were removed

from the rest of the world. And each of us,

in our own brains, pretended

all was usual, nothing un-

about this bath, nothing not

ok, not when I lifted my dripping body,

see through in white, for cool,

not when he navigated froth

to stick his big toe through my hot little hole.

Not moans formed our mouths,

but words, casually sweating above the surface....

More than the facts of testimony, at stake in Shevenock’s book are syllables, syntax, the exact tone and timbre that differentiate truth versus a lie. How we become emptied of our own capacity for deep engagement by the ways words are marshaled by an abuser, as in the case of Woody Allen, who, Shevenock tells us, plagiarized Emily Dickinson—“The heart wants what it wants”—to defend molesting his stepdaughter. You cannot consume Shevenock’s story in the ordinary way, the book seems to say, and ultimately this book is doubly grievous for how its speaker must work so hard simply to be seen and heard: the qualifier, oh, cliché, sounds on re-reading less ironic distance and more simply painful: the speaker must fight so hard with language to exist. And this mirrors how, as a high school student, she had been reduced only to what a sexual predator wanted her to be: “learned to move knowing my movement would be memorized, my gestures, weighted: pulling out a chair, taking a sip, lifting a strip of film up to the light.”

Styrofoam, “A lavender piece of leather puckered by a red snap,” “a balloon’s sun-bleached string”: Shevenock’s fragments of strangers’ lives could just as easily be somebody’s lost treasure or so unimportant no one ever formally removed them from the realm of the kept.  Shevenock’s book invites us to see how trauma survivors hover uneasily upon this continuum: do I matter? How do I matter? If I matter, why did these things happen to me? And Shevenock’s book invites us to see how any human finds herself inside those questions: Do I belong? To what do I belong? 

Presented to us by the curatorial vision of parataxis or juxtaposition, garbage becomes photographic miracle. Sculptural miracle. Poetic miracle rendered not so much beautiful as essential, as in one W.S. Merwin quotation that serves as this poem’s title: “Everything that does not need you is real.” Here is precisely the difference Shevenock casts between her ways of seeing and the perpetrator’s gaze is clear: Shevenock’s objects are considered garbage until seen and brought into artistic communion with the speaker; the young girl, rendered object of the teacher’s “camera peepholed before his eye,” would have been most protected by not being seen. 

The found fragments in The Miraculous sometimes become objective correlatives for the young girl, utterly alone and unseen in her situation. These present tense poems of making become a kind of cocoon around the trauma, a special frequency by which or in which we process the ugly materiality of abuse: “a dingy motel room,” “an open beer I refused in fear, sweating on the bedpost.” Through a sophisticated composition, triggering sensory details are never allowed to dwell in their own echo chamber. Always, they are paired with a present in which the speaker has become a maker and finder in ways that explode the see/being seen dyad. Haunted as she may well be by the past, Shevenock’s speaker haunts the perpetrator’s exploitative gaze with present making and finding.

Into this braid, the book also weaves a portrait of the speaker as a child enthralled by mortality, who keeps an apple under her bed for a full year and marvels at the worms who consume the fruit. Or “the early experiments of childhood: if I touch the wood in this exact place, and say to myself, Remember this moment, for the rest of your life, will I remember this moment for the rest of my life?”

That child becomes a teenager who, simultaneous with the period of abuse, explores a derelict house of dust-covered, moth-eaten domesticity:

I opened every drawer in the new house. Candles, envelopes in ballpoint, disintegrating, lace-edged slips. Mice, curled like commas. It mattered, these things: melted, crackled, stained, remained.

In this present, a child is being abused. In this present, a girl is making art. In this present, a young person is aware of her own being-toward-death. During, and inextricably linked to, her abuse, the teenaged artist finds souls in objects, wresting meaning from all that is abandoned or derelict as a way of accessing the abandoned and derelict inside her.

Eventually that child grows up, becomes an adult who, while the child could not, now offers the abuser “a different kind of no”: this book, which enacts something quite different from victimization. Instead of being the object of predation, the child becomes maker. The vulnerability of the artist’s seeing transforms object into subject, used into beautiful, and ultimately eclipses the perpetrator’s gaze. 

This redemption is not a dream of getting past your past, for the book begins directly in the abuse and never leaves it for long. This transformation is a profound, nonlinear growth in which the gaze of the abuser no longer defines, and it happens entirely by poetry. What is found in this new iteration of the opening poem is not a redemptive ending to the plot, e.g. “terrible things happened, but I went on to have a happy and healthy life.” There is no “that was then and this is now” falsification. The Miraculous returns and returns to moments of violation, reframing their meaning rhetorically, syntactically, imagistically, tonally. 

Poetry—by which I mean language’s capacity to turn and return to itself on the level of sound or the syllable—is a form nimble enough here to birth such a self. Because trauma reiterates, and healing rewrites, being a maker is the essential piece. The speaker doesn’t grow by moving on, by saying, “that was then and this is now,” but by standing in a simultaneity of times, in the very spot in memory where suffering lives, stamping down upon the earth a new relation. 

Robin Clarke is a writer, teacher, and psychotherapist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her first book of poems, Lines The Quarry (Omnidawn, 2013), won the Omnidawn 1st/2nd book prize for poetry. With the poet Sten Carlson, she co-authored a chapbook of poems entitled Lives of the Czars (nonpolygon, 2011). An excerpt from her memoir-in-progress, Those Little Anodynes, won the 2016 Tupelo Open Prose award. Her poetry and prose has been published in Critical Quarterly, Denver Quarterly, Fence, LABOR, Verse, The Volta, and elsewhere. She lives in an intentional co-housing community with her partner and their two daughters.