Deducing the Syntax of Pain

it’s the grammar of skin / peel it back, let me in

“Sympathy,” Sleater-Kinney

I’m guessing you’d like to read something about feminism and poetry, because you’re here and I’m here and these are the words that float between us. I write a lot about the earth-shaking impact of the literary canon on self actualization (Seriously, a lot. Always, I am on and on about this thing.) and I’m going to do so again, a little, but mostly just to say that at this point we might as well burn it all down.

In an interview with Guernica, South Korean feminist poet Kim Hyesoon states that when she first wrote poetry, “I used to feel as if my tongue would go numb. I did not have any role model. I could not learn anything from the female voice that these male poets used … Nor could I learn anything from ancient female poetry that only sang about love.”

This is the female literary experience.

“For thousands, probably tens of thousands of years,” writes RATTLE editor Timothy Green, “poetry served a very clear and important role as the only way to fix language.” This is a beautiful statement, until you start to consider who is typically in the position of fixing and having their fixes acknowledged. There have over the centuries been, undoubtedly, many different poets with many different voices fixing innumerable different things, and yet when it comes to what we’ve preserved via canonization, the scope of what was covered in these centuries feels somehow incredibly minute.

A lifetime as an avid reader plus 11 total years in 4 separate foreign languages did not, for example, prepare me for sexual assault. Similarly, being raised bilingual in apartments full of books followed by a 4-year-degree in linguistics did not prepare me for the assault being a catalyst in recontextualizing my entire romantic & sexual experience. Things happened and I had no words and this felt like an additional trauma, because the one thing I had always counted on, as a poet & writer & general literary type, was my ability to describe my own life.

“Another way to put it is that poetry is magic,” Green continues. “A poem is a spell, cast — a string of sounds that, when recited correctly, changes consciousness from one position to another.” And here I hold the canon up against the visceral, scorch-hot power of poetry and go “what the fuck?”

The last year, for me, has involved a lot of trying to solve for “what the fuck?” By identifying the separate sounds that made up my private phonology, the rivulets and foxes and hearths and blue-bells that grounded me in things evocative of childhood, of the heartbeat of me-me-me-me: this is my context. By working out a morphology: my body, your body, these are how the parts break down. This is how the sausage is made and digested and excreted, this is the house I built with the splinters I pulled from my own heels. This is the collected encyclopedia of the scene inside my head, to the left and a little up, where I play and replay and replay and replay until something clicks, or doesn’t.

I eventually had a chapbook: MY HEART IN ASPIC, a small collection depicting the poetic narrative through which I processed trauma. I’ve come to identify with the genre term “body-horror,” where “the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body” — in writing the poems, I wanted to break and defile and mutate my elements to reflect the decay of character I felt, and the powerful new growth that blooms amidst dead things. I wanted a somatic work that echoed the mental health practice of mindfulness, a fast, shitty dance between the grounding nature of mud beneath feet and the grinding nature of fractured bone.

Or, as Kim Hyesoon says, I “came to grotesque language in the patriarchal culture under the dictatorship. The body that was broken into pieces is a sick body. I put the disease of this world and my sick body together.”

While walking through the fog of trauma that surrounded me after the initial impact, it was in the genre of horror that I found respite, both in the sense that it eased my anxiety to explore fear in such a controlled settling & that the terrifying, disturbing imagery of horror mirrored the terrifying, disturbing state I was in at a time when most media felt completely sterile and unrelatable. In an on-going conversation at the Poetry Foundation, Trisha Low talks to Arabelle Sicardi about how female and non-binary people have found a strong point of identification in a genre rife with misogyny. “What I really love seeing,” Trisha says, “is people’s points of identifications in horror movies. For a lot of dude horror nerds, it’s really in the being-scared, the narrative discontinuity as pure aesthetic experience, but for a lot of people of colour or queer folk, the point of identification is the being-scary, locating oneself at a point at which ideal forms of beauty can be pushed to a limit of the uncanny, or the uncomfortable.”

“Which is another way of saying,” Trisha continues in another interview, this time with Caketrain’s Katy Mongeau, “being feminine in horror could be a way of making your actual body some kind of grimoire, a patterned, patchworked quilt of curses, blessings and lessons.”

MY HEART IN ASPIC will be published this summer by Porkbelly Press (pre-order it here!) and while it is, at its core, a work about assault, sexual violence is not explicitly mentioned anywhere. There is at least one reference to kissing, a pocketful of teeth, and a handful of dillweed. There are enough candles to light a dark room for the time it’ll take you to make bone broth four times over. Despite the subject matter, it’s ultimately a love letter to language — to the transmogrifying power of casting your own spell. It’s not a light read, maybe, but it’s meant as a pleasurable one, a rich meal of ingredients that will taste foreign or familiar depending on your viewpoint, your own context, that which you bring to the table, your own experience made magic.

Sonya Vatomsky is a Moscow-born, Seattle-raised poet and essayist. An introvert, she balances her time between being active in several feminist communities and cooking elaborate five-course dinners for herself, alone, in the dark. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in No Tokens Journal, VIDA: Women In Literary Arts, Maudlin House, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Bone Bouquet, Weird Sister, and elsewhere. Find her online at  and .

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