Exploding the Language of Shock: The Endurance of Trauma in Dickinson, Plath, and Jarpa
1 December 2010
Exploding the Language of Shock:
The Endurance of Trauma in Dickinson, Plath, and Jarpa
You’re trapped. You’re back in that old house, the cigarette smoke already enveloping you. You sit on the edge of that yellow and brown floral couch, the coffee and brandy stains creating a pattern on top of a pattern. You wait. You’re supposed to be safe here, but you know better. You pick nervously at the cracked, bloody skin around your thumbnail as you wait for him. You hear him in the next room, knocking over the gold lamp you’ve seen too many times before on that night stand. Cursing. The smoke, coming from two lit and yet discarded cigarettes which sit in the ashtray, reaches your nose and you cough. You inch away from the ashtray just as he lumbers into the doorway, supporting himself with one rough hand. It’s time. He invades you. You can’t control it. He’s stronger than you. You grit your teeth, focusing all of your energy on counting the little holes in each one of the dropped-ceiling tiles as he presses his sweaty body up against you. And then it’s over. And your mother comes to pick you up. She smiles, you smile weakly. The silence becomes smoky, murky, swallowing you, drowning you. You thrash nervously in your sleep, clawing at your pillow, ripping out its stuffing. And they wonder why you burned that house down.
It is not the initial physical event that brings about such prolonged suffering and explosive violence in the victim. Rather, it is the suffocating silence, the projection and insertion of terrifying images into one’s memory that overwhelms the victim and impels her to fire back at the individuals or groups which she perceives to have supported and maintained the numbing of her pain. The poems of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, together with the visual artwork of Chilean artist Voluspa Jarpa, prove that this stitched-up, contorted, suffocated language of shock is cross-cultural and cross-generational, a universally painful experience of sexual and patriarchal trauma. The exploration of this language has led me to believe, however, that painful silencing and tongue-paralysis is not the end of the road. The second step to this world-narrowing process is the explosion in which these mangled, warped, boiled words are released in the form of fire-balls, gun-shots, and volcanic lava that explode the ever-shrinking limitations of the traumatized woman’s world and perpetuate the violence which had shrunk it.
The specific details of the traumatic event are basically irrelevant in the analysis of the trauma-inspired works of Plath and Dickinson. What is important, however, are the images and subtle references to these events which have shaped their works. Echoes of abuse and subsequent trauma are evident in each artist’s work, and it is the culmination of these haunted images that allows the reader to follow the process of traumatic endurance. In her book A Wounded Deer: The Effects of Incest on the Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson, author Wendy K. Perriman uses E. Sue Blume’s internationally recognized checklist of incest survivor aftereffects to establish that Dickinson was a victim of some form of internal family abuse. Perriman uses evidence found in Dickinson’s letters and poems to argue that the poet displays 33 of the 37 outlined aftereffects. Interestingly, many of these aftereffects, such as intimacy and abandonment issues, forgetting certain aspects of childhood, sexual issues, and relationship patterns, also manifest themselves in Plath’s “Daddy,” suggesting that not only do these two poets share unconventional and misunderstood personality quirks, but that the root causes of these aberrations may also be similar (Perriman 52, 53, 67, 69).
There are concrete images in Dickinson’s and Plath’s poetry to support Perriman’s claim about incest, or at least about perverted relations as a source of trauma. In one of Dickinson’s most notable sexual trauma poems, “In Winter in my Room,” the speaker describes a “Worm-- / Pink, lank, and warm,” as it grows in strength and power until it is a menacing, uncontrollable snake which overpowers the speaker both physically and mentally as it begins to usurp her power and drain her of her ability to express herself (Class Handout). This line, and the entire poem of which it is apart, is the manifestation of what Blume labels sexual issues: the terror that has been inserted not only into Dickinson’s sexual relations, but also into her psyche as a result of her described experiences. Plath also portrays a specific aftereffect in the poem, “Daddy,” when the speaker admits to the Imago of her father, “I made a model of you” (Vendler 23). It seems clear here that Plath is speaking of her primal need to recreate her father, for better or for worse, by marrying Ted Hughes. “Blume explains how an adult survivor often gets involved in relationships with older, more powerful lovers so that she continues to function as a child instead of an equal” (Perriman 69). This is also evident in Plath’s child-like diction in “Daddy.” It seems as though she has been paralyzed at nine years of age by the Imago of her father which occupies more and more space in her brain, forcing her to find a living human to continue to control her and “father” her.
The case of Jarpa’s traumatized subjects is a little more difficult to define, as the events which prompted such paralyzing torment are unknown for each specific case. What is obvious, however, is that the painful recollection of these events has stolen the subjects’ ability to express themselves. Jarpa’s exposition, entitled “L’Effet Charcot” is a reaction to the early research of Jean-Martin Charcot, a French professor who was especially interested in the physical responses of traumatized and “hysterical” women who manifested the symptoms of body contortions and devolving language. His research took an unethical turn, however, when he began photographing these women without their permission in order to create a “living museum of pathologies.” Jarpa has used these photos and this professor’s motivation as fuel for her collection, for which she has created thousands of transparent stamps depicting the body coiling of these women. She hangs these transparent stamps from ceilings, and their culmination looks like a swarm of bees—an interesting contradiction to the fact that these women were unable to express themselves in any audible way as their worlds continued to contract and narrow.
While many of Blume’s outlined aftereffects of incestuous trauma seem to apply to both Dickinson’s and Plath’s poetry, and perhaps to Jarpa’s subjects, I will introduce a new aftereffect: the loss of language. In her book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry delves into this idea of “world-contraction” which Jarpa, Dickinson, and Plath explore with their art. Scarry describes it as the process that occurs during and after the trauma of physical pain which has the ability to rob capacities of expression (32). According to Scarry, as a person endures intense amounts of physical pain, their world shrinks until he or she only exists within a two-foot radius: a world of solipsism. She goes on to describe how physical pain, “does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned” (4). The trauma endured by Jarpa’s subjects left them practically mute, with only groans and body contortions to express their pain. This devolving language is the first step in the process of traumatic endurance, and it is what I will refer to as the universal language of shock: the process of losing capacities of expression as a result of a traumatic or a series of traumatic events.
Philomela, the princess of Athens in Greek mythology, has come to represent the phenomenon of muted traumatized women. She was raped by her brother-in-law, who, in a cowardly attempt to cover up what he had done, cut out her tongue. Plath and Dickinson prove, however, that the perpetrators of traumatic events do not need to physically cut out a woman’s tongue in order to take away her ability to speak of it. While Plath’s poems are full of images of mouthless, plugged-up women living inside of bottles and shoes, devolving language is especially obvious in Plath’s “Daddy” where she directly states, “I could never talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw. / It stuck in a barb wire snare. / Ich, ich, ich ich” (Vendler 22). The reader can almost feel Sylvia Plath as she chokes on the unintelligible words, a hybrid of an unfamiliar German tongue and an increasingly forgotten English one. Otto Plath did nothing directly to take away her ability to speak. However, his looming presence in her life suffocated her, forcing her to spit out broken pieces of a language that felt foreign and wrong to her lips. And perhaps this is another devastating effect of trauma: it takes away the meaning of language. The language of shock, the language of trauma, if it even exists, does not make sense to the outside world. This loss of language further aids the process of vision-narrowing and world-suffocating, for it takes away one of the only outlets for the victim. She is trapped. Inside of herself.
The last line of “The Soul has Bandaged moments” deals with this. The speaker says that the experiences she has endured “are not brayed of tongue” (Class Handout). This word, “brayed,” is indeed a powerful one. Donkeys bray, not humans. Therefore, this word implies the dehumanization that occurs when rights are violated and the value of life is stripped. In all three of these poems, the perpetrator is not described as being fully human, and as the perpetrator continues to wreak havoc in the victim’s life, she loses some of her human capacities of expression, differentiation, and comprehension. The “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God”, the “ghastly…Goblin”, and the “snake with mottles rare” are the projections of a type of trauma that is so haunting, so other-worldly, so omnipresent, that it could barely be considered human (Vender 21, Class Handouts).
As this language-devolving process continues, the speaker’s world begins to shrink, and its walls begin to collapse in around her. Not only does her language become deformed, mangled, and limited, but her other senses become limited and contracted as well. It seems that as the memories and the visions of the traumatic event begin to occupy space in the woman’s mind, all other thoughts and visions are pushed to the corners and eventually eliminated. In her poem, “’Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,” Dickinson’s speaker endures this world-narrowing process as the storm closes in on her. The tone of the poem becomes increasingly solipsistic and menacing as the maelstrom, “Kept narrowing its boiling Wheel / Until the Agony / Toyed coolly with the final inch / Of your delirious Hem” (Perriman 149). While Dickinson’s speaker explicitly refers to a violent whirlpool which is circling ever closer to her, threatening to swallow her up, the inanimate storm is not only capitalized, deeming it a personal pronoun, but it also develops human capacities, such as the ability to reach out and touch in such an intrusive way. This poem, with its images of a swarm-like whirlpool of a storm, is an interesting parallel to Jarpa’s artwork of the swarms of traumatized and mangled women. This idea of being engulfed and swallowed up by a more powerful, controlling Master-presence seems to be another universal aftereffect of trauma. The speaker is left “helpless in his Paws…And sense was setting numb” as she is suffocated, frozen, and overpowered by the strength of the storm of trauma, and then the most explicit mention of robbery of the senses: “And when the Film had stitched your eyes / A Creature gasped ‘Reprieve’”(Perriman 151). The poem ends with a stitched-up speaker who is all-consumed and blinded by pain and anguish, as she asks, “To perish, or to live?” (Perriman 151). Her senses have been robbed, her eyes have been stitched, and she has been absorbed into an ominous, whirring storm.
Sylvia Plath was very interested in these images of stitched-up, mouthless, eyeless women that Dickinson describes. She was captivated by Georgio De Chirico’s painting The Disquieting Muses (1918), with its images of faceless, stitched-up statue-women whose heads look like darning eggs, and she wrote a poem of the same title as a response. Perhaps, instead of a sexual violation, Plath’s speaker feels oppressed and traumatized by the constant feminine expectations that surround her. In both “The Disquieting Muses” and “Medusa,” Plath’s speaker is suffocated and torn apart by traditionally feminine and motherly items: darning-eggs and placenta. This is still the same basic psychological trauma of restriction and possession, whether the speaker feels controlled or possessed by a specific man or the whole host of men who have established masculine and feminine roles which endured from Emily Dickinson’s era in the 19th century until Plath’s era in the mid-twentieth century and beyond. In a tone similar to that of Plath’s speaker in “Daddy,” her speaker in “Medusa” suffocates. “I could draw no breath,” she gasps, calling out to an omnipresent mother-figure who lives, “Off that landspit of stony mouth-plugs, / Eyes rolled by white sticks, / Ears cupping the sea’s incoherences” (americanpoems.com).
Again, the speaker is overwhelmed by expectations, suffocated by the rows of nodding, silent women and fascist, abusive men. While the speaker in “Daddy” has lived like a mouthless, eyeless, faceless foot inside of a black shoe for thirty years, Plath’s speaker in “Medusa” has lived inside of a bottle, still feeling deprived of a voice and breath. Instead of calling out to her father or mother specifically, the speaker moves on to the whole hierarchy of the Catholic church, calling on the “Ghastly Vatican” which seems to have enslaved her with its “Communion wafer(s)” and its “Blubbery Mary(s)” (americanpoems.com). These kinds of institutions are notorious for keeping secrets of misconduct and abuse, and the penultimate line, “Off, off, eely tentacle!” seems to suggest not only that Plath feels burdened and choked by the Church, but also at a more specific kind of trauma: a personal experience of sexual trauma which was kept silent and never revealed.
This silencing is the first stage in living with trauma, and Jarpa, Dickinson and Plath explode these walls as they cave-in around them, perhaps not only to save themselves from their own painful memories but also to save women such as those studied by Dr. Charcot who never broke out of the silence. While many psychologists, based on the Freudian concepts of psychoanalytic therapy and free-association, would argue that the simple act of writing and expressing oneself is the first step to recovery, I will argue that these words, after being soaked and boiled in violence, will only be released in the form of boiling, warped, mangled words and violent actions.
One of Dickinson’s lesser-known poems, “On my volcano grows the Grass” is a clear manifestation of the volcanic, explosive power of her language. In this poem, Dickinson describes the calm, green grass which grows on top of her volcano, numbing, cooling, and hiding the white-hot rage that boils beneath it. She admits, “How red the Fire rocks below / How insecure the sod, / Did I disclose / Would populate with awe my solitude” (americanpoems.com). Here, she contrasts the outsider’s view of her person: a peaceful, picturesque recluse when held at a distance. However, upon closer inspection, Dickinson is discovered to be Veusvius: a volcano ready to explode with words that would shock those around her. Dickinson took the eight lovely notes set aside for women of her day to write about, chewed them up, and spit them out. She was not interested in flowers and birds and bees, at least not in the accepted sense, and she continues to “disclose” herself, she dares to appall her Victorian counterparts with the fiery language held within. The lava overflows.
While the poem as a whole reveals the way that words are denatured when held in the acidic world of internalized trauma, the word “disclose” warrants special attention. Jarpa’s artwork and Scarry’s insight draw attention to the process of closing-in. Physical and psychological pain close doors to the outside world by closing capacities of expression. Patriarchal society and traditional expectations close outlets of opportunity. Women such as Dickinson and Plath felt obligated to close themselves off from the rest of the world, to hole up in an intensely isolated space in order to create. And yet with these explosive poems, they begin to dis-close their world: to open it back up, regardless of the negative backlash they might receive. It is the job of artists and poets to use their tools to open up new worlds. However, after these artists and poets have been so suffocated by the violent world in which they live, the words and pictures that escape their minds and mouths are often not the prettiest, and eventually the violence which has infiltrated their psyche will be thrown back at the world which bore it.
One of Dickinson’s more famous poems which illuminates this idea, in a notoriously misunderstood and enigmatic way, is “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun.” In this poem, Dickinson blows the doors off of femininity – a world in which women are expected to be passive, silent, and obedient. She opts instead for a genderless, dehumanized world in order to have her freedom of expression. While she still seems to be owned by a certain kind of master, a recurring theme in both Plath and Dickinson’s poetry, the power-struggle has flipped, and Dickinson, or her dehumanized speaker, is in control. She and the “Owner … roam in Sovereign Woods -- / And now [They] hunt the Doe” (Cameron 107). In order to live freely in the realm of her aforementioned volcano world, a world of explosion and honesty, Dickinson’s speaker becomes a hunter, a murderous warrior. Dickinson and her owner are not just hunting deer, but they are hunting female deer, a doe. Like Plath’s speakers, Dickinson seems to turn her anger out against not just her specific perpetrator, her Master of sorts, but upon all of the people, men and women, who allowed the abuse to continue. Perhaps Dickinson felt that she had the same kind of ominous female presence in her life: a row of nodding, silent women whose stitched-up mouths and statue-feet kept her silent and paralyzed, and for that reason, she hunts them in order to regain control of her life. She develops a somewhat animalistic protective instinct as the poem continues: “I guard My Master’s Head” (Cameron 107). This process also seems to follow the forced suppression and silencing of traumatic memories. At first, the victim feels compelled to protect the perpetrator out of fear: she lacks the power to speak out against what had happened. However, after the memories of the event occupy more and more space in her brain, and she is forced to live with the recurring sights and smells of the pain, this psychological trauma eventually taints her words, actions, and outlooks with violence and bitterness.
She says, “every time I speak for Him -- / The Mountains straight reply” (Cameron 107). Instead of the muted speaker who bemoans that her perverted relations, “are not brayed of tongue,” at the end of “The Soul has Bandaged moments,” the empowered speaker in “Loaded Gun” has begun the final stage of traumatic endurance: when violence is so absorbed that it is eventually turned outward onto the world which created it. She uses gunshots as her words: explosion, smoke, and gunpowder as her violent means of expression. This is very clearly portrayed in the fact that Dickinson is only able to express herself through a smile on a “Vesuvian face” (Cameron 107). Again, Dickinson’s speaker threatens to shock those around her with the hidden explosiveness of her words. The destructive power of the speaker is solidified in the last two lines: “For I have but the power to kill, / Without – the power to die” (Cameron 108). Language, one might argue, has the power to kill without the power to die. Violence has the same properties. By the end of the poem, Dickinson’s speaker has become the manifestation of violence. Dehumanized and degendered, she is so full of rage that it is the sum of her makeup and all that she is able to produce.
Dr. Sharon Cameron, a professor of nineteenth-century American literature and twentieth-century American poetry at Johns Hopkins University, comments on this particular poem in her chapter in Harold Bloom’s anthology Modern Critical Views: Emily Dickinson. She goes so far as to suggest that, “the poem is thus the speaker’s acknowledgment that coming to life involves accepting the power and the inescapable burden of doing violence wherever one is and to whomever one encounters” (Cameron 109). Victims of traumatic events, or those who live traumatized beneath oppressive expectations, she argues, live half-lives -- lives covered in pretty green grass which serves to cool off the fire below. Cameron does not see this as a dis-closed life, and these poets realize this as they begin to write and their words ignite with rage as they hit the air. She suggests that violence, in any one of its many forms, is an irrevocable part of life.
While fire is inevitably destructive, it can also be purifying. Ecologically speaking, fire is required to regenerate and bring to life certain kinds of plant species. Fire, in the form of violent expression, is what brings these women back to life: it purifies their muddled and tainted perceptions until their senses are restored to their original capacities. Without that fire, they would continue to live within a two-foot radius, their arms and legs betraying them, contorting and coiling without the heat. Cameron notes the life-giving power of fire as she says, “fury grown larger than life disassociates itself in terror from the one who feels it and fantasizes its own immortality” (109). In other words, as rage grows into something expansive and uncontrollable, the victim begins to live outside of herself and outside of the fear which had controlled her for so many years. Based on Dickinson’s and Plath’s poems, it is not just the act of self-expression which acts as the antidote to oppression and trauma, but it is violent expression which expands the victim’s world, endowing her with the same kind of negative power which had been used against her too many times before. None of the poems I have studied have a particularly cheerful or self-actualizing ending, but this raw violence is more productive, more human, than the paralysis of the language of shock.
While Plath’s speakers seem to find their voices by the end of her “trauma poems,” the evolution of their language of shock is also a violent one. The speaker in Plath’s haunted and haunting “Ariel” echoes Dickinson’s speaker in “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” by dehumanizing herself and embodying a sort of weapon. Amid bloody mouthfuls, shadows, unpeeling, and dead body parts, Plath’s speaker transforms into an arrow: a dehumanized tool for killing. While she has found her voice through poetry and expression of these haunting images, once again, the speaker does not end on a self-actualizing note. Rather, she ends on an inwardly and an outwardly destructive note. However, this is still a new note, one that provides empowerment to the victim, who now feels armored against a violent world. Beyond the image of the arrow, Plath’s speaker delves even further into a self-destructive place, identifying herself with, “The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of the morning” (Bennett 157). It seems that the speaker envisions herself diving into a boiling cauldron, perhaps to boil out the pain and trauma she deals with internally. She sees that its heat could possibly bring her into a fuller life—one of raw emotions and power. Again, Plath takes traditional housewife items, turning what could have been an ordinary coffee or tea pot into a boiling witch’s cauldron: the very symbol of the culture in which she felt suffocated. Like Dickinson, she dares to de-feminize herself, even to dehumanize herself in order to regain some semblance of the control which she seems to continue to lose. The speaker feels dead, like a peeling potato among the world of heels and thighs and hair. She lives in a world of black and white and shadows, where she cannot or will not connect to that crying child in the background. She forges on, sharp and rigid and warrior-like, for she has realized that she must defend herself and take arms against against a world which has thrown nothing but violence and judgment her way.
Plath’s speaker in “Daddy” blames a specific person, or the Imago of that person, for the culmination of all of this violence and the perpetuation of it inside of her mind. The poem is, as Sharon Cameron labels it, her acknowledgement that violence is an inevitable part of being alive. The reader can sense the Plath’s struggle to kill the Imago of her father as he continues to grow, “Big as a Frisco seal / And a head in the freakish Atlantic” (Vendler 21). Her rage grows throughout the poem, beginning with threats such as, “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two,” in reference to her father, Otto, and his recreation in the form of Ted Hughes. However, the culmination of her rage comes in the last stanza of the poem. Instead of ending it with a calm assurance that, “Daddy, you can lie back now,” as many readers would have preferred, Plath’s speaker begins a tirade (Vendler 23). The speaker in Plath’s “Daddy” seems to harness her voice and lose control of it all at the same at the end of the poem, as she screams, “And the villagers never liked you. / They are dancing and stamping on you” (Vendler 24). The image of the villagers stamping on her father is the last one we are left with, and it is indeed a violent one. However, it seems that the only way for Jarpa’s, Plath’s and Dickinson’s subjects, and perhaps the artists themselves to regain control is to take the violence in the form of oppression and silencing that had been thrust upon them for so many years, wad it up, and throw it back, on fire.
It burns. Edges curl up, coil, and flake away. The curtains catch, and the fire climbs quickly upward, smoke filling each one of the holes in that drop-ceiling. The yellow-and-brown floral couch incinerates. Its dark brown stains evaporate, the flames eating up the cushions and pillows, leaving only the black, jagged skeleton. You stand in the front yard, watching through the window as the fire melts the icicles which hang from the brown gutters, and the flames warm your cheeks as they shoot through the melted glass. The flames swirl out of control, reaching up to the roof, their unbridled dance reflected in your blue eyes. You are ignited. You’ve been heard. You are outside of yourself. The memories, you hope, have burned up with those crumpled sheets of stained paper, with the discarded cigarettes, with the half-empty beer cans. You have heard him cough for the last time. You have waited for the last time. You have held your tongue for the last time. The ashes blow away with the wind. The smoke is absorbed and dissipates into the black night sky. You run.
Cameron, Sharon. “‘A Loaded Gun’: The Dialectic of Rage.” Modern Critical Views: Emily Dickinson. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. 99-128. Print.
Davis, Robert. Class Handout: English 200, Wittenberg University, September 2010.
---. Class Handout: English 200, Wittenberg University, September 2010.
Dickinson, Emily. “On my volcano grows the Grass.” americanpoems.com. 9 Jan. 2004. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.
Plath, Sylvia. “Ariel.” Bennett, Paula. My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity. University of Illinois Press, 1986. Print.
---. “Daddy.” Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology. Ed. Helen Vendler. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s , 2010. 21-24. Print.
---. “Medusa.” americanpoems.com. 20 Feb. 2003. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.
---. “The Disquieting Muses.” americanpoems.com. 20 Feb. 2003. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.
Perriman, Wendy K. A Wounded Deer: The Effects of Incest on the Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006. Print.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.