It’s not news that Americans are moving into a cultural moment in which the questions, considerations and politics of abuse are taking center stage. It’s a discordant time: victims are coming forward and powerful men are being held accountable for their actions at the same time the sitting president remains, himself, an alleged abuser, his presence in the White House casting an exhausting and ominous pall over many Americans’ lives.
The topic of abuse is at once capable of generating waves of inspiration (such as the #metoo campaign) and panic (anytime a news alert buzzes across the surface of our phones). Which is perhaps why it feels so fitting for literature to step forward as a space in which these symptoms are performed and dissected. In this regard, poet Diana Arterian’s “Playing Monster: Seiche” is particularly useful. The book, readily comparable to Maggie Nelson’s “Jane: A Murder” in both content and form, reads simultaneously like memoir, book-length poetry and mystery. At once ambitious and restrained, “Playing Monster” demonstrates not only Arterian’s lyrical range and knack for producing work with a certain epic energy, but also her ability to pair delicate content (in this case the trauma of domestic abuse), with a form expressive of its deeper energetic truth. The result is a portrait of anxiety and fear that is both detailed, sweeping and evocative on a micro level of the current cultural trauma many Americans find themselves struggling to process.
Early in “Playing Monster,” Arterian defines the term “seiche” as, “a phenomenon that occurs within a confined body of water such as a lake, sea or pool. Once disturbed, the enclosed water may produce a ‘seiche’ or standing wave that moves across its surface or, when below, between the warmer upper and colder lower layers. The wave does not break.” This “seiche” is, readers recognize with each passing page, a well-placed metaphor for the series of traumatic past events Arterian chronicles, their repercussions reverberating through time like ripples. At the heart of this trauma and its aftermath is a father character whose presence, as well as his absence, looms throughout, so much so that the book’s other characters anticipate his anger long after they have left him in Arizona for a new life in New York.
To keep clear her disparate locations and time periods, Arterian structures “Playing Monster” as a weave: bits of memory and dated diary entries chronicling the parents’ marriage braid in with contemporary anecdotes of threats to the mother character’s new home, which despite its distance from the father, remains tinged with anxiety, the legacy of his violence. These strands might be difficult to manage if Arterian didn’t pay such close attention to her form’s relationship with the content it renders. In her hands, the braid framework depicts a trauma that evolves with its victims as they age, grow up, relocate.
But distance does little to alleviate the painful symptoms of the abuse Arterian’s characters have survived. In “Playing Monster” abuse is an imprint, indelible as a tattoo; it is also an inheritance, passed from fathers to their children. In one poem, Arterian describes a paternal grandfather character hitting her in the head with a canoe paddle, and slapping her brother in the face, evidence that he once hit his own son, and in so doing transformed an innocent boy into a violent man. In another poem, Arterian recounts a memory of an older sister character, arriving unexpectedly at her mother’s house one afternoon:
She is hysterical
held a broken spoon
to her neck
My mother urges her
to stay – No I have
to go back
I can’t let him
hurt the others
Just as the generational repetition of abuse reverberates throughout “Playing Monster,” so too does a child’s impulse to trade her safety for her sibling’s protection. Abuse and self-sacrifice are entwined, Arterian suggests:
When they were small
my mother and her sister
flew up the steps
to avoid his temper
But he followed, once
hounding my aunt to a room
My mother was there
Seeing her sister’s fear
she said, Strike me
and he struck
Of this same character, now an adult woman, Arterian writes:
you want to know why
is a shapeless thing
It holds you in
when everything else
Arterian builds the intensity of poems such as these to climactic points before offering her readers “interlude” sections consisting of found documents describing events near the town where the mother character moves, thousands of miles from her dangerous ex-husband. But even these interludes suggest a violent history, situated around a nearby lake, as if dark threats follow the characters, or are attracted to them, the unshakable aftermath of their pasts. The OR sections, which Arterian also employs to break up the poems depicting active violence, posit potential catastrophes that might befall the mother character and portray the catastrophic thinking and scenario building, that are hallmarks of PTSD. Throughout her sections, Arterian maintains a stark, borderline affectless tone, which not only works to perform the numbness of her trauma, but to showcase the beauty of her abstract poems which stand out, as if rendered in colored ink:
What is a daughter then but clay eyes
ice A witness twice over
The terror/father Now faceless
Even here, in one of the most musical of Arterian’s abstract offerings, the language remains restrained. It is the understated that is of interest to the poet in “Playing Monster,” which presents an image of abuse characterized less by the climactic and intensely brutal scenes readers are trained to respond to (though those exist as well), than the seemingly small psychological trespasses easily mistaken by friends or onlookers as less damaging than they truly are: the brother forced to hold the cicada he is scared of; the daughter punished for missing her mother; the daughter punished for her sister’s rebellion; the sister forced to feel responsible for her sister’s pain.
Generally, these moments work best when readers are privy to the children’s reactions to their father’s rage, or their anticipation of it; as is often the case off the page, it is through children that we understand the scope of fear itself, terrifying in the present and unforgettable in the years to come. Of that fear, Arterian writes:
Violence is at the heart of it
A sure hand all its capacity
Violence whistles sparks The hand
Though the content Arterian chronicles in “Playing Monster: Seiche” singes to the touch, she keeps clawing. The result is an examination of domestic violence and its aftermath that manages to capture not only the constant threat of ongoing abuse and the wildfire-spread of it, but the emotional scars it leaves, marks that burn long after the flames have died out. Sadly for Americans, these burn marks are inevitable. And though Arterian’s book does little to offer the hope or condolences that we might like, however unrealistic, to receive, it leaves something behind in readers long after the last page: the hope that the violent flames we are currently fighting, personally and collectively, might somehow lay us bare, strip away that which we don’t need, and leave us ready to rebuild. This is, Arterian suggests, the best we can hope for in the aftermath of trauma.