Going through some old emails, I recently came across the name of the woman I talk about in the beginning of this post, in whose escape from her abusive husband I played a small role. I remembered this post, which I wrote back in 2010 when I first met her and which I think is worth reposting.
Three weeks ago, as the students were filing out of the room at the end of one of my classes, a woman stopped in front of my desk and said something along the lines of, “So I want to write poetry, but I don’t know how to start. Can you help me?”
A question like that is not one you want to give an easy answer to, at least not without hearing a little more of what the person who asks has to say about themselves, why they want to write and perhaps even what they want to write about. So I asked the student to wait while I packed up my things and we went to find an empty room where we could talk. As we sat down, it was clear that my student was nervous about something and I, of course, assumed it was related to her question about writing poetry. It was, but not in the way I anticipated, and so I am going to skip over most of what we talked about to get to the point. After talking a bit about strategies for starting to write, I suggested to my student that she might want to check out a local reading series run by one of my colleagues. It’s a wonderful, warm, welcoming place for beginners to go, both to hear other people’s work and to begin to share their own, but as soon as I suggested it, my students said, “You know, I barely have enough time to work, go to school and go home. I am in a very difficult situation and I know I won’t get the chance to go.”
Something in her tone of voice told me she was not talking about a merely practical difficulty and so I asked her, “By difficult do you mean dangerous?” She said yes. I don’t want to give any more details, since I don’t want anyone to be able to identify her from what I write here, but suffice it to say that she accepted my invitation to tell me more about her situation. She is in a marriage that she needs desperately to get out of. Her husband has not physically harmed her yet, but she is afraid of him, and while she didn’t say so explicitly when we talked, I think she believes him capable of killing her if things ever get to that point. [I will add here that he did subsequently threaten her life, showing her a gun he’d bought just to prove his point.]
I am doing what I can to help, and if it becomes possible, perhaps I will write more about that, but what I have been thinking about today is how domestic violence has always been a current running through my own life, from the boyfriend who held my mother hostage with a butcher’s cleaver to my mother’s best friend when I was a young teenager, who was found stabbed sixteen times in the chest with a serrated knife, most probably by her boyfriend; from the woman in whose bed I spent the night–no sex was involved–because she was afraid that if her boyfriend came back he might get violent (see the poem below) to the woman who lived downstairs from me who screamed like she was dying when the cops showed up at her door because I called them on a night when I was home to hear her boyfriend beating the shit out of her. (Some weeks later, he heard me, through the way-too-thin walls of my apartment, telling the story about that night to a friend of mine, and called back that, now that he knew I was the one who’d “called the pigs on him,” he was going to make me pay for it. He never did, but it scared me into doing everything I could to avoid him for about a month.) And if I go even further back in my life, there was my stepfather’s belt; and then, when I was in graduate school, my own too-close-for-comfort-brush with being the one on whom someone else might have had to call the cops—which I will write more about in the future.
I don’t really have much to say about all this tonight in any analytical sense; it’s just all been coming back to me in waves of feeling and it put me in mind to share this poem, “Coitus Interruptus,” which is from my book called The Silence of Men. There are likely to be all kinds of triggers all over the poem, so if you decide to read it, this has been your trigger warning. The only other thing I will say about this poem is that, with the exception of a few details which I had to alter in order to make the poem work, it is entirely autobiographical:
Naked at the window, my wife calls me
as if someone is dying, and someone
almost is, pinned to the concrete face down
beneath the fists and feet and knees of three
policemen. I’m still hard from before she
jumped out of bed to answer the question
I was willing not to ask when the siren
stopped on our block, but now I’m here, and I see
the man is Black, and how can I not
bear witness? They’ve cuffed him,
but the uniforms continue to crowd our street,
and the blue-and-whites keep coming,
as if called to war, as if the lives
in all these darkened homes
were truly at stake, and that’s the thing—
who can tell from up here?—maybe
we’re watching our salvation
without knowing it. Above our heads,
a voice calls out Fucking pigs!
but the ones who didn’t drag the man
into a waiting car and drive off
refuse the bait. They talk quietly,
gathered beneath the streetlamp
in the pale circle of light
the man was beaten in, and then
a word we cannot hear is given
and the cops wave each other back
to their vehicles, the flash and sparkle
of their driving off
throwing onto the wall of our room
a shadow of the embrace
my wife and I have been clinging to.
When I was sixteen, Tommy
brought to my room before he left
the Simon and Garfunkel tape
I’d put the previous night
back among his things. He placed it
on the bookshelf near the door
he’d slammed shut two days earlier
when he was holding a butcher’s cleaver
to my mother’s life. I wanted
to run after him and smash it at his feet;
I wanted to grab him by the scruff of the neck
and crush it in his face, to dangle him
over the side of our building with one
ankle in my left hand and the Greatest Hits
in my right and ask him
which I should let drop.
But I didn’t, couldn’t really:
he was much too big,
and I was not a fighter,
and one of my best friends right now
lives with her son in the house
where her husband has already hit her
with a cast iron frying pan,
and so there is no reason to believe
she is not at this moment cringing
bruised and bleeding in a corner
of their bedroom, or that she is not,
with her boy and nothing else in her arms,
running the way my mother
didn’t have a chance to run,
and there’s nothing I can do
but look at the clock—Sunday,
11:11 PM—and remind myself
it’s too late to call, that my calls
have caused trouble for her already.
When they pushed Tommy in handcuffs
out the front door, past where my mother sat,
quiet, unmoving, and I did not know
from where inside my own rage and terror
to pull the comfort I should have offered her,
the officer making sure Tommy
didn’t trip or run winked at me, smiling
as if what had happened were suddenly
a secret between us, and this our signal
that everything was okay. I wondered
if his had been the voice, calm
and deep with male authority—Son,
are you sure your mother’s in there
against her will?—that when I called
forced me to find the more-than-yes
I can’t remember the words to
that convinced the cops they had to come.
Sophomore year, walking the road
girdling the campus. Up ahead, a woman’s voice
pleading with a man’s shouting to stop.
A car door slamming, engine revving,
and then wheels digging hard into driveway dirt
that when I got there was a dust cloud
obscuring the blue vehicle’s rear plate.
The woman sprawled on the asphalt,
her black dress spread around her
like an open portal her upper body
emerged from. She pulled
the cloth away from her feet,
which were bleeding, and I drove
to where her spaghetti strap sandals
lay torn and twisted beyond repair.
She left them there. Then to her home,
two rooms in a neighborhood house,
and I helped her onto the bed
that was her only furniture, and filled
a warm-water basin to soak her feet,
and he had not hit her, so there was nothing
to report, but she said she was afraid
and would I sit with her a while.
We talked about her home in Seoul,
the man her parents picked for her
that she ran to America to avoid marrying,
and here she laughed—first trickle
of spring water down a winter mountain—
So instead I take from Egypt! I so stupid!
Then: What you think? Can man and woman
sleep same bed without sex? I said yes.
So, please, tonight, you stay here? Maybe he coming back.
He fear white American like you. I was not a fighter,
but I stayed, and in the morning when I left,
she said kamsahamnida—thank you—
and she bowed low, and she did not
ask my name, nor I hers, and though
I sometimes looked for her on campus,
I never saw her again. Just like Tommy,
whom I forgot to say before was white.
Just like the Black woman who lived downstairs
before I got married, whose cries—Help!
Please! He’s killing me!—and the dead thud
of him, also Black, throwing her
against the wall, and his screaming—
Shut up, bitch! Fucking whore!—filled the space
till I was drowning. The desk sergeant
didn’t ask if I knew beyond a doubt
that she was being beaten,
but when she opened her front door
to the two men he sent, she shrieked
the way women shriek
in bad horror movies
when they know they’re going to die,
and I almost felt sorry for calling.A few weeks later,
a voice on the phone: You know
what’s going on below you, right?
Please, tape a message to the door: “Mr. Peters
has been trying to reach you.” Nothing else.
And whatever you do, don’t sign it.
For a month all was quiet. Then,
coming home early from work
I walked upstairs past people moving furniture
out of her apartment. No one ever
wants to get involved,right? a thin white man
in shorts and a t-shirt whispered bitter
behind me. I kept walking
the way Tommy did when he saw me
trying to catch his eye: head down,
gaze nailed to the floor, and then he was gone,
and the questions I wanted to ask him
never became words. That tape
was all I had, till one day,
cleaning house, my mother
held it up:
Do you still want this?
I never play it.
Throw it out then.
So I did.
I am hearing in your story a lot of family disruption. Boyfriend of mother, step father and so forth. I have read that one of the biggest dangers for children are the boyfriends/stepfathers/men-to-whom-mother-is-attached who are not the biological father. (Not that biological fathers get off scot free, but apparently statistically they are less dangerous.)
Just noticing. I think this factor plays into a lot of stories.