(Glenview, IL: Glass Lyre Press, 2020)
The prime meridian we’re most familiar with is the line of longitude in our geographic coordinate system where longitude is defined at zero degrees. It is an imaginary separation, a divide, a splitting in half of a whole earth, a whole circle. A fissure that bifurcates the plenary sphere. And while the halves fit together, they are regarded in isolation. Such is the notion of Connie Post’s new book of poetry Prime Meridian; it is the story of a whole person cut in two, of a before and after, of pieces that fit together but can never be fully fused. A life cut in half.
It took me quite a while to get through Post’s book, not because it’s not well done, but because it’s so well done. This collection’s focus is the childhood sexual abuse the author suffers for years at the hands of her father. This type of violation, especially when perpetrated by a parent, is particularly insidious. As a result, the trajectory of Post’s life changes. Her father’s constant violations take away the person she would have become. Splits her world in half. Creates a prime meridian in which a great circle is no longer possible. And like a violent version of Sliding Doors, Post’s circumstances set her on an entirely different path, one filled with distrust, anger, and endless pain. She becomes stronger in ways no person should have to build strength, because a fragmentation this seismic never heals. It can’t. Rather, Post works to do what any person in her position must: find a way to bear the open wound that will forever need new bandages. A wound that must be cleaned and then cleaned again, covered for a time until the infection seeps through. Until the bandage must be torn off over and over in an attempt to keep the plague from taking over the body, from killing the victim.
The poems in Prime Meridian mostly eschew punctuation, a reflection of the endless and chaotic nature of childhood abuse. Rarely a comma, as the abuse rarely pauses. And line breaks mimic breaks in Post’s psyche, with sentences and phrases cut off at the knees of language. “I keep wondering what must be said / to make my skin forget / calloused hands against a throat,” Post writes in “To Someone I Must Forget.” An endless loop of language suggesting what the reader already knows: that forgetting is impossible.
Silence and its aftermath crop up repeatedly in this collection, another reference to the meridian that splits the landscape of Post’s life: “you wonder how much longer / a fault line / can maintain its own silence” she asks. Living “in the shallow grave of silence” for so many years becomes untenable. Speaking of silence over and again highlights the inherent contradiction between the desire not to speak the horrors of abuse and the urgent internal demand to do so. Yet she insists we remember silence’s desire to keep the horrors in. “We’re only as sick as our secrets,” Stephen King wrote in Doctor Sleep. He was partially right. Speaking these secrets doesn’t fix them, but perhaps makes them slightly more tolerable. “[T]he long languid ledge / of a wordless day” gives way to the long release after revealing someone else’s sins. Ironically, Post’s father develops Alzheimer’s in his old age, allowing him to forget what she never can.
And yet Post agonizes over her part in her abuse. “I destroy the evidence / upon waking / wash the blood / from bad dreams,” she writes in “Accessory After the Fact.” She sees herself as somehow complicit, as having to cover up her father’s crimes to assuage her own guilt. “I will rinse my mouth with my own sins” Post laments in the poem “Strands.” In the author’s disclosure of these feelings of guilt, the reader is constantly reminded of the turgid nature of child abuse, of the backflips the victim’s mind must do to contend with the unspeakable. Perhaps the author believes if she’s complicit she might have some power to stop it. But, of course, she doesn’t. She bears no responsibility. And as she looks back, this fact makes her father even more unbearable. It was all his fault. She was powerless. These realities are immutable.
As the mother of a daughter myself, I spent so much of the book wondering where her mother was in all of this. After all, her mother was married to her father, lived in the same house. Post addresses her mother’s problematic complicity through denial. “Sometimes a mother is a prayer / an alter upon which your knees break,” she writes in “Daily Worship,” a reference to the ways in which religion can sometimes protect abusers and their accomplices, and the ways in which accomplices can justify living with their willful ignorance. In “Iron Will” we learn that Post watches her mother iron other people’s clothes to earn some extra money, watches how she
smooth[es] the history
out of each rumpled seam
as the steam rose
from the fabric
I understand how
lives the quiet life of rage
I asked her often
“when are you going to be done”
but she never answered
the days bled into years
followed by the imperative séance of silence
These memories of her mother smoothing over what was wrong are haunting. Some wrinkles never straighten; some stains cannot be removed. The author’s mother is a prime meridian herself: one half abused by her husband, the other half responsible for not protecting her children. What stands out of her in this collection is the line that cuts her in two, that contributes to the author’s fault lines.
In this book, Post brings to life what she wishes she could outrun; what we all wish we could avoid confronting. But life doesn’t offer that luxury. By looking her abuse in the eye, by holding her abuser accountable, the author frees herself as much as possible. She puts the responsibility where it belongs, squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator. A triumph of both poetry and survival.
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Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018), and the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Amy’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared in Pleiades, Rust + Moth, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her work can be found at amystraussfriedman.com.