Swan Feast by Natalie Eilbert
2015, Bloof Books*
Lately I’ve been carefully watching when I’m a victim, and when I’m not. I’ve been looking for ways out of a victim narrative, and noticing when I do or don’t have a way out. I’ve been thinking about what means are necessary to turn over victim/perpetrator narratives — I’ve been reading Adrienne Maree Brown on love and forgiveness as militant actions and I’ve been longing to trust rather than to hate the humans that are hard for me. I’m interested in how to communicate the truths of suffering but/and remain powerful.
A few weeks ago I asked a Buddhist meditation teacher about how to let go of narratives of suffering when they continue to be re-written upon the body. He referenced a re-telling of the Sisyphus myth in which — instead of being doomed to continually roll a boulder back up a hill — Sisyphus realizes he can step out of the way of the boulder, allow it to roll down the hill, and go home. So too can we, the meditation teacher said, step out of the way of a narrative of suffering, realizing it is not located upon us or our bodies, and that our bodies are fluid enough to step out of the way.
I was troubled by this — I’ve found myself troubled before by the new age-y admonition to “get out of your own way” — in terms of larger social conditions that continue to send the boulder our way whether we are reinscribing it or not. I was thinking about black bodies being terrorized in this country, being made victims of police violence again and again. I was thinking about gender and gender roles as heavy boulders. I know these two oppressions are not the same, and yet I was thinking of them both as boulders. I was thinking about bodies having boulders continually sent their way, boulders so heavy that they are very lucky and very strong if they can in fact step away.
In her first poetry collection, Swan Feast, Natalie Eilbert does fascinating things with the embodied and re-bodied victim. The book dives in and around the Venus of Willendorf, a small sculpture of a woman found in 1908 and believed to date from between 28,00 and 25,00 BCE. The Venus’ origins and significance are mostly unknown, and thus in many ways she presents the perfect canvas for a relationship with gender and gendered embodiment, as Eilbert writes from the perspective of the Venus: They have latched their karabiners to my thighs and pulled me close, my sob story closer.
How to speak to a mysterious sculpture– or have a sculpture speak– in any way that does not mean putting one’s own ideas onto it? And yet, Eilbert speaks, and takes responsibility for this putting-upon. The putting-upon itself becomes a central tenet of the book: Who do we talk to? Who do we talk with about what? When do we choose to talk of suffering? What does that talking do?
For Eilbert, the talking is in part a way of returning to the capacity to speak. She writes, When I died I skipped home to tell her about it, no taste of mountains in my mouth. In Eilbert’s poems, the object of the Venus becomes the home to return to, with whom to speak. The object of the Venus seems to allow the speaker in these poems to settle into where she lives (her home), a city, “no… mountains.” At times the Venus is an object, and at times a character who joins the speaker in a city full of other objects and characters. What’s useful about this objectification is Eilbert’s fine-tuned attention to the stories we all know about objectification, and about gender. Eilbert’s speaker watches herself objectify the Venus, and watches gendered narratives move across the location of this sculpture, and of the surrounding city. She writes: the pain I presume her / to possess in her fissures see since pain is a woman’s only natural / possession.
If pain — and confessing pain — is a woman’s only natural / possession, the speaker in these poems seeks to possess it as fully as possible. The speaker walks through this city, often slipping into a confessional mode — especially when she touches on themes of eating, eating disorder, and body. Eilbert writes in a mode familiar to many about control over body and hunger: I can train my hunger to do anything, and it listens.
The I is clear here, and takes a stance as itself. It observes, is aware, locates itself as watching. The confessional speaker, however, has a habit of noting and re-telling the stories she sees around her without ownership. She possesses only herself and her control over this self, as in, I crave your calm, which like language I can’t claim.
And yet, she is claiming something, over and over and over by stating it, by speaking it. What could it mean to claim by awareness? To claim by speaking aloud, and then releasing from one’s claim? In Eilbert’s poems, this claiming would mean a capacity to control which images come forward in her consciousness and which do not.
Eilbert’s speaker expresses a dislocation from home — she has no home but adopts a home, adopts a conversation piece, adopts an I, adopts a place around which ideas of gender and power and violence can rotate. One gets the sense that she does this out of total necessity. She needs to locate herself within objects and stories in order to be able to operate in relationship to them, to be opened, for someone’s gaze / on my fissures. / To be smelled for the ice age inside me.
I often felt relief throughout this book; the relief of a seeing, and then pushing back. A scientist’s gaze, as Eilbert references, or a pushing back from the table and saying: I see you. I am at the table with you.
A series of poems in Eilbert’s book are entitled Conversation with the Stone Wife, evoking this pushing back, a titling, a conversation — but who is having the conversation? Is the Stone Wife the speaker herself, the statue of stone, or both? Can they merge? A true conversation or exchange is not always clear in these poems, and the series reads in many ways as a narrator just asking to be left alone, pushing the reader away for the narrator’s protection. A recognizable and familiar self-defense mechanism: I will push you away before you hurt me. I will not be hurt because you are stone. I will converse with you, but you will be stone. You will be stone, so I will not — cannot — converse with you. I will not be hurt because you are stone.
And still, the speaker talks herself into existence. She takes responsibility for her talking, and in some cases notes the lightness that occurs when she talks of her own burderns: My burdens are entirely my own. How light they make us. Here, then, suffering and burdens are held in speech. They are held in the power to make others feel an experience of lightness — a power (or labor) of care with eons of gendered history. And yet, the speaker does not say, “how light they make you” but rather, “how light they make us” — the narrator is also made light by her own capacity to hold herself.
Swan Feast is a story of speaking with/in power. It locates itself with a city as a place to put experiences, rather than putting them onto a body that has already been reproduced and layered upon beyond hope of clarity. The speaker tells us: I called this a city a place to store my men and wives a place for talking. The speaker acknowledges a power that is enacting itself upon her while simultaneously enacting her own power.
This makes me feel relief, and gives me some hope. It gives me hope for the flexibility of victimhood, the reinvention and re-speaking that can emerge from positions without power. I feel relief because of Eilbert’s honesty, the kind of acceptance she allows us in lines such as, We simply don’t know how to escape empire do we.
But I believe this book thinks that we do – do know how to escape empire. By speaking, enacting our own myth, and our own locations. The book whittles at these locations — body, myth, gender, power — and sees their weaknesses, their changeability. Eilbert writes, A stranger handed me a narrative of my life, and another made of stone. / I whittled a symbol in the shape of my body and handed it back.
Maybe Eilbert’s poems are a hopeful, escaping version of Sisyphus because they stand right in the way of their boulders. They see those boulders coming and they stand in their way. They are flattened by those boulders, and arise again, re-whittled, re-shaped, whittling and handing it back.
–Leora Fridman is the author of MY FAULT, forthcoming from Cleveland State University Press. More at leorafridman.com
*The author wishes to acknowledge that Swan Feast is being re-published by Bloof Books, and this review is presented explicitly in support of that re-publication. The author stands with survivors and supports Swan Feast’s removal from Coconut Books.