*This content includes references to sexual assault, abuse, and death*
CRACK OPEN/EMERGENCY (Finishing Line Press, 2020) reads exactly how you want it to: vociferously. Karen Poppy’s first poetry chapbook leaves no stones unturned as she explores illustrations of cultural trauma and its corresponding effects on identity. The non-binary author writes of the ways one’s voice can be confined, yet offers readers solutions that both acknowledge and redefine human existence.
“We say / ‘My rapist,’ / ‘My executioner.’ / I think / Of my / Bruised, pulped / Thighs. / Of Emmett / Till’s face, / Unrecognized / And / Unrecognizable / As human.” Here, Poppy immediately illustrates one of the themes in the opening poem, “Defining”: the power of naming. As she states in an interview with Peculiar Journal Blog, “Giving a name to something, defining it, gives it power.” Poppy’s mentioning of these labels is every bit intentional. It demonstrates where society’s focus often lies: the oppressor, not the oppressed. As a result, the survivor’s story goes unknown and unnamed. But, it does not take Poppy long to redirect the reader’s attention. She begins to describe where her focus lies as she references moments of horrific examples of both sexual and racial violence from the perspective of the survivor. Yet, by recognizing a survivor’s story in an attempt to humanize them, do we remove their humanity by defining them by their experience? This is the question Poppy poses to readers: “Why should / We be / Symbols / Of our own / Oppression? / Define us / Instead / By our / Beautiful / Spirits. / By what / We said / And how / We made / You feel.” Recognition of oppressive experiences (e.g., sexual violence, racism) and who it affects is important. Recognition of oppressive power structures is important. However, recognition of oppression should never additionally de-humanize survivors. Poppy suggests that individuals be remembered for their character, their spirit, and their contribution; not only their trauma. This suggestion alone returns the power to the survivor’s identity and rightfully removes it from the oppressor.
Following “Defining” is “A Woman’s Body—A Power unto Itself,” which further grounds Poppy’s beliefs around power and human recognition. She unapologetically responds to the degrading and subjugated nature of American “womanhood”: “When men write us / Sing us / Inanimate, / A fertile or blighted land. / When men write themselves / Sing themselves / Over our bodies, / Silence our power / Of decision.” Poppy lyrically addresses America’s patriarchy and the room men are often given to belittle women’s minds. She brings attention to the notion that womanhood is defined by patriarchy alone. Patriarchy has long “written” the rules of womanhood, defining what it means, what it looks like, and how it is to be acted out. But, Poppy commands readers to “Take away every poem, / Take away every song / That steals / Our volition.” Again, she redirects the readers’ focus to the oppressed, not the oppressor. Poppy places power back in the hands of all women, reminding them of the will they hold regarding their own bodies, their identities, their forms of expression, and so on.
Poppy closes CRACK OPEN/EMERGENCY with “Forgiveness.” She writes, “Sometimes / We can find it there, / In the quiet rupture / Of noise. / Space between beats.” It is “silence” that Poppy redefines for her audience. While her earlier mentions have described the weaponized use of silence, Poppy aims to give the concept new meaning for those within marginalized communities. With a calm firmness, she tells readers, “We cannot / Double back / On the sound. / We can only move forward. / To silence, / forgiveness without apology […] / Broken in two: / Sound, no sound. / Noise, noiseless ecstasy.” Poppy presents this dichotomy to restore hope among her readers. Silence can be an occupant of personal reflection, but also a response to the political. Silence can be home to recognition of our bodies and our stories, but also a catalyst for rejecting harmful narratives. The power to define, to name, and to rewrite remains with us.
CRACK OPEN/EMERGENCY gives voice and complex articulation to the invisible. Poppy does not avoid what is painful or what cuts deep; instead, she pens the words that others may find difficult to share, refusing to characterize these experiences as erasable. That is the beauty of this chapbook. Poppy urges readers to “crack open” the language that communicates the uniqueness of their experiences; the particularity in who they are. And the language that emerges from suppressed voices may be scarred, yet it is resistant, aware of the silence, universal, and burrowed in the truth.
Brooke Shannon is a published poet, speaker, and aspiring author. She attends Grand Valley State University for a Writing major and minor in African/African American Studies and Psychology. Her work has appeared in Display Magazine (Issue 111), In the Limelight with Clarissa (Fall 2021), and the 4th edition of Joining the Conversation.