Certain topics are so heart-wrenching that we find them difficult to express in literal terms. Lauren Berry’s debut collection The Lifting Dress—winner of Penguin’s 2010 National Poetry Series, selected by Terrance Hayes—explores the possibilities of figuration in post-traumatic narrative by opening up a broader palate of symbolism to confront the violence of one of the most monstrous human transgressions: rape.
Set in the humid-yawn of a watermarked Gulf Coast city, not unlike the small Florida town of the poet’s childhood home, Berry’s collection is grounded in the representation of a young girl’s emotional derangement and eventual coming-of-age in the threatening stalk of memory. The poems take us directly inside her synthesizing head.
Just-Bled Girl, as Berry has hauntingly named her, is stricken with an inability to relate the story of her rape. Whether its feelings of alienation from body or in social protest, in every self-admission, the girl has rendered herself speechless. The poems, formally disjointed yet sensuously lyric, reveal a young girl struggling to identify her venue and her voice.
In the opening poem, “The Just-Bled Girl Refuses to Speak,” we meet the speaker in the doctor’s office, “entire red carnation in [her] mouth,” presumably post-rape, where she must answer a series of questions. Dream-like in presentation, the poem’s quirky doctor attends to the girl’s flower-mouthed silence by framing her reprimand in the botanical, by cultivating the girl’s symbolism:
“Young La-dy! and demands,
Young La-dy, you cannot keep that garden
in your throat. How will we ask you questions?
How will you sip from the glass of water
And tell us what he did to you?”
That the doctor, a person assumed present to provide care, speaks within the Just-Bled Girl’s realm of understanding is evidence either that she is, without articulation, comprehending an intricate reality or that she is, in the throes of grievance, entertaining extreme illusions. Given the title’s premise and the implausibility of hosting a flower in one’s mouth, though, the former would be hard to imagine. Thus, the Just-Bled Girl reveals to us her own reality, a world just outside of tangibility.
However, Just-Bled Girl is not a young woman confined to a self-imposed fantasy. The lessons before her she will encounter through her own means. In “Seventh Grade Science in the Partially Burned Classroom,” Just-Bled Girl relates a science lesson on calories—“Heat. I whispered, I knew it.”— to the “red wolves in [her] body.” Half-grounded in science and half-twisted in figuration, the ravaged and scavenging mind of our character imagines burning “the thin virgin in [her] skirt.” Though ultimately nihilistic in sentiment, Just-Bled Girl’s desire to expunge the innocence from her “dress” reveals the mentality of a girl instructing the youth in her to grow-up, having already by another’s force forsaken her naiveté.
Indeed, Berry does imbue her poems with a certain kind of precociousness. In “Our Inherited Radio,” Just-Bled Girl listens to the radio under a “thin white tent, [her] own bedsheet,” where she hears the story of a girl refugee, Phalia, being asked by a soldier “How can I not lift your dress?” Despite the youthful picture of a girl under a make-shift fort, the poem confronts the idea of a young woman experiencing empathy. And yet, Berry, though portraying a woman of growing strength and opinions, does not do away with all of her damage. At poem’s end, the Just-Bled Girl, still caught in the wheeling stages of feminism, asks, “Does she [Phalia] think, / when she’s awake, that she’s pretty?”
The Lifting Dress is an eerily beautiful collection. Relying on the idiosyncrasies of various formal and informal poetry traditions—notes, histories, song, series, epistle, invitations, and petitions—Berry’s poems contradict their initial sense of simplicity. While the book belongs to Just-Bled Girl, The Lifting Dress juggles a number of characters—Sister Mary Dion, Big Man, Big Man’s Wife, Big Sister, Mother, Father, the landlord’s daughter, a town orphan, Rosetta—all of whom serve to complicate Just-Bled Girl’s search for self. Marking her path, then, are the patterns she cuts out of the surrounding and recurring images—water, pearls, dresses, whiteness, mouths, tongues. Though they verge on cliché, they reveal a scenery of feminine ideas from which Just-Bled Girl might have been “plucked.” This floral trope, though sometimes over-wrought, coalesces in one of the final poems, “Jealous of the Young: Conspiracy Theory Involving Small Flowers.” Here, Just-Bled Girl listens to a scientist explaining the migration of trees:
This morning I listen to the Scientist’s radio show. He calls the trees
an INTRODUCED species
[clears his throat] or
an INVASIVE species
As though introduce and invade are close
What to many other ears might sound like a simple botanical distinction becomes for Just-Bled an historical paradox, as she spells out in two similar lines: “The man with eight fingers introduced himself to me” and “The man with eight fingers invaded me.”
The collection ends in petition. Full of half-hearted I love yous and thank yous, Just-Bled girl wishes to leave Tallahassee, asking the place to “be a mother to [her]—knife / the umbilical cord.” As if admitting that the setting had everything to do with her pain, Just-Bled Girl makes a plan to flee the state, the region. It is unclear where went the vulnerability; it is unexplained how found she the voice. Yet she says goodbye: “Tallahassee, if we never / see each other again, know that I am grateful for the maid / who blots blood from the carpet with stationery.” And surely, Berry intends the reader’s conflation of Just-Bled Girl and maid, as they are, both women with blood to blot, both women with notes in their hands needing release.
Carrie Chappell is originally from Birmingham, Alabama. Currently, she serves as associate editor for Bayou Magazine. Her poems have previously appeared in Boxcar Poetry Review, Bateau Press, Dig Baton Rouge, The Offending Adam, and Thrush Poetry Journal. She lives in New Orleans.
The Lifting Dress
Penguin Books, 2011
$16.00 paperback, ISBN: 0143119656