Prime Meridian by Connie Post (Glass Lyre Press, 2020) unfolds how traumatic events can transform us down to the bone, how trauma can live in the body for years after it occurs. The narrative is told from the perspective of an adult woman grappling with the childhood abuse she endured at the hands of her father, about which she was made to be silent. We catch her at a moment of reckoning: “You haven’t spoken to your family / in fifteen years / you wonder how much longer / a fault line / can maintain its own silence.” As I read this line, I feel the pressure of all that is unsaid. I feel the pressure that caused the surface to split. These are the closing lines of the first poem in the collection, and this line becomes the axis around which these poems turn, the question that pulses behind each page. What are the costs of staying silent?
The narrator’s father is introduced as a disruption. The narrator is playing with her cherished pink hula hoop, and the moment becomes marred when he appears, gazing at her body. She describes the scene: “My father walked towards me watching intently, the motion of my hips,” and when she “started practicing in the side yard,” “he found [her] anyway.” It doesn’t seem as if this were the first time he has gazed at her like this, nor will it be the last. When she passes him in the hallways of their home, she hopes he “would not / spill [his] Jack Daniels / down [her] legs,” that his “shirt buttons / were fastened.” There is a sense that she is always watched by him, and always watching him for signs of danger. In their home, there is no escape, and no one to turn to. She describes the hallway outside her bedroom as “motherless.” If her mother knows about the abuse, she can’t or won’t protect her daughter from it. In “Iron Will,” the narrator watches her mother “smooth the history / out of each rumpled seam” of clothing, which becomes a metaphor for how she denies the abuse. She may rather project the image of a perfect family than admit to any “wrinkles.” Or, perhaps it is not safe for her to intervene. Either way, she cannot protect her daughter from it.
In the same poem, Post writes, “the days bled into years / of beatings / followed by the imperative seance of silence.” This line speaks to the imperative of silence within her own family but also the broader imperative of silence within a society that refuses to believe the word of survivors over the word of men, the patriarchs we have been taught to trust. When the narrator does try to tell family friends what happened, she is not believed. And so she is forced into silence. In “Four Miles from the Center of Town,” the narrator imagines finding her own body buried on the outskirts of town: “You will find… the barely thirteen-year-old / girl lying lifeless / pretending no one will find her / learning to live / in the shallow grave of silence.” As a child, the only way to survive the abuse was to leave her own body, to separate herself from what was happening to her. This is where she finds the body she fled: still hiding, buried in the dirt. In the grave silence made for her.
Later, she describes her “whole body” as “a fugue.” She has cleaved herself from the self that experienced the abuse, or she has tried to. She is still running, still trying to escape, but trapped within the confines of flesh. This is the challenge for survivors of abuse. To find a way to live in the same body that you want to run from. To make the body your own when someone else has tried to claim it as theirs. Or as Post writes: “how to leave a body / and then / how to return.”
How long can a fault line maintain its own silence? Throughout the collection of poems, this tension rises, the fault lines deepen, the walls crack. “Mountains / civilizations / houses / each succumbs to a kind of gravity / a weight which / they can no longer bear,” Post writes in “Crumbling.” And later, in “Daily Worship,” she sees her mother, on the steps of a church, “the confessionals crumbling / behind her / the cathedral folding into itself.” The institutions that the mother clings to, that we are taught to look toward for guidance — the church, the family, the patriarch — can only protect us so much. Eventually, they will crumble, in a terrifying, liberating crash.
And in “For All of Us Who,” we see that crash. The poem is a collective of different voices coming forward about their experiences with abuse. “I knew him, I didn’t know him, he put something in my drink, I was wearing winter clothes, I wasn’t wearing any clothes,” Post writes, creating a chorus of survivors’ voices, each statement beginning with “I,” creating a powerful refrain. The collective of voices provides the narrator a space in which she can tell her story. The repetition in the poem creates a tension that is finally relieved by the final line, which breaks forth from the paragraph with need and urgency. “I / need / to / tell / the / truth.”
And so the truth roars. Telling the truth about her abuse doesn’t make the weight she carries any lighter, but it does provide her with a path to go forward. In the final poem in the collection, “Omen,” the narrator describes a black squirrel who visits her backyard. “It doesn’t look right,” she says, and encourages “the dogs / to run after him.” But one afternoon, when the squirrel is visiting the yard, their eyes meet, and she sees “his small heart pulsing / how a sorrow fills a cavern / and keeps beating.” This is how she will go forward, not by banishing her sorrow, or fleeing from its cavern, but learning to live in it, one heartbeat at a time.
What is, perhaps, the most salient aspect of this collection is the honesty with which the narrator speaks about the darkness that has defined her life since she was abused. The images are sometimes gruesome, and sometimes repetitive, but there is no sanitization of the ways the narrator continues to be haunted. And furthermore, the narrator does not strive to make peace with or forgive her father. When he dies, she skips his funeral. While, culturally, we do seem to be moving away from the insistence that survivors must forgive their abusers in order to move on, this insistence is firmly rooted in the way we often talk about abuse, and, to me, is a way of dismissing survivors’ pain and excusing abusers’ actions. Post writes: “everyone is gathering at the grave site / but me / after all / a black sheep / has her wool to groom in the hour of your death.” There is no forgiveness here, only earned bitterness, and a turn inward, to one’s own wool. Taking this moment to shift away from her father, and toward herself, to groom her own wool, perhaps, as an act of care, and furthermore, as an act of acquaintanceship with the body, the body from which she has wanted to flee, feels, in some ways, like defiance, and a quiet triumph.
Kathleen Gullion is a writer based in Houston. Her work has appeared in the Esthetic Apostle, Coachella Review, F Newsmagazine, and others. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.