Resisting Tropes: On Poetry, Masochism, and Domestic Violence
By Christopher Soto
At dinner she asked why I write such sad poems. And I told her, “my poems are not sad, they are masochistic.” My poems like a good choking, a good spanking. They want to be bound and gagged and told what to do. There is a pleasure that my poems derive from being under such control; from having trauma recalled and then stripped of its agency.
And I used to think that I was like my poems. For a while, I identified as an emotional masochist. I chased the boys that’d make me cry until I’d vomit. I’d yearn for the volatility; a boy that could push me to the furthest depths of my emotional range. Then catch me right before I break. Or reassemble me from the fragments scattered across the floor. I wanted my boys how I wanted my poems: unsafe. No dull vocabulary, no predetermined endings, no pathologizing. Just hard tears and lost breath.
After losing my last lover, I stopped identifying as an emotional masochist though. I began to acknowledge the differences between myself and my poems… My poems understand that masochism is about trust, about controlled chaos, about reclaiming (not reinstating) histories of trauma. My poems are capable of walking away from pain, of naming their needs, of saying “no.” My poems are much more autonomous than I am. But this wasn’t always the case.
My first poems were written in the bathroom, with my father’s voice banging around the house. Those poems were so desperately codependent. They would hold onto the worst stanzas, not wanting to let go of their narrations. Not wanting to feel alone. They would tell me “But you can’t cut these lines! You both have so much in common! You both survived a history of domestic violence!” For years my poems would reiterate these conversations, and suffer in their creativity, unable to start a new page. Now we are both older. But, I feel, my poems have matured a bit quicker than myself.
They have found autonomy and consent in masochism. I am still trying to vocalize my needs. They have learned how to cut the unnecessary stanzas. I am still holding on to his memory.
There is a plethora of articles that tell me why survivors of domestic violence get caught in cycles of abuse. How we repeat the relational structures that have been normalized to us. And, sometimes, I wish I could be as keen as my poems, resist the assumed tropes. But, often, it feels like the words LOVE and PAIN are synonymous. And I forgot which one I am experiencing and for how long I can allow myself to experience it before it kills me.
Lauren Berlant wrote, “When sentimentality meets politics, it uses personal stories to tell of structural effects, but in so doing it risks thwarting its very attempt to perform rhetorically a scene of pain that must be soothed politically.”
Thus, we must do more than speak our truths. We must look at the structural underpinnings which support the dynamics of domestic violence. We need to acknowledge that the abuse is greater than the perpetrator and victim. The abuse is supported by the state, by the church, by a culture which says that some of us are worthy of protection (and some of us are not).
For example: Do we have a livable minimum wage? Do we have equal pay? Do our communities have affordable childcare? And affordable psychological services? A functional shelter system? Access to public transportation? And are the police really on our side when we are being abused? What if we are undocumented? What if we are drug addicts? What if we are sex workers and the abusers are our pimps? What if we are closeted queers and the abusers threaten to “out” us?
We live in a system which supports the dynamics that foster situations of domestic abuse. And then, too often, we fail to confront the system itself. Rather, we tend to look at the system for help (as if more incarceration would help us).
In a conversation with Audre Lorde, James Baldwin said, “Now you know it is not the Black cat’s fault who sees me and tries to mug me. I got to know that. It’s his responsibility but it’s not his fault. That’s a nuance. I got to know that it’s not him who is my enemy even when he beats up his grandmother. His grandmother has got to know. I’m trying to say one’s got to see what drove both of us into those streets. We be both from the same track. Do you see what I mean? I’ve come home myself, you know, wanting to beat up anything in sight- but Audre, Audre…”
After twenty-five years, my father is still yelling at my mother. She is crying in the passenger seat. And the scene is so damn cliché, I can’t even write about it anymore… I finish a stanza, I read it aloud. I hate the sound of his name in my mouth. I delete it. He is all over the whitespace.
This piece was originally featured on VidaWeb.