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Let me say of language that it is my currency and performs best when it is stripped of decorum.” This line from the opening page of Indictus serves as a foretaste as well as a forewarning. Direct, utterly devastating sentences fill this volume with revelation and heft. In her second book, Natalie Eilbert skillfully investigates the violence of trauma in all its resonances, ruthlessly exposing the deep misogyny and rape culture threading through America today.
It is in that same poem that Eilbert introduces us to the role reversal of male agent and female object. It is made clear from the start that the male you exists as a thing to be made to fulfill her needs. “Made to” means “constructed for the purpose of.” It also means “forced into.” Within these pages, Eilbert says, control is hers.
I make him hundreds of times, let his holes grow dusty from lack of speech.
I make him hundreds of times and he sits on a rock all bashful and glitz.
I make him hundreds of times until he is pretty and worth his weight in flesh.
Eilbert builds you with intention, assembling a language-arsenal to do her bidding. The act of making, the agency of speech, is her power over the object. In her hands, construction is a kind of conscription: the object made to obey cannot revolt, having not been given the means to revolt.
Her object of desire must—impossibly—be silent and becomingly shy, yet eye-catching with sparkle. Prettiness equals worth in this equation, an idea doubly underlined by the flesh that unexpectedly takes the place of gold in the familiar idiom. The invocation of flesh also calls to mind The Merchant of Venice, in which a cross-dressed Portia appears in court to save Antonio from losing his life to pay Shylock the promised pound of flesh. Hers is a victory no one else could have won, yet it hinged on circumvention of the misogynist social framework.
In Eilbert’s workshop, the male you is the object of creation and of utility. “I thou him so hard I feel his fingers wrapping their worth round my neck.” If he does not want to be treated thus, why does he not say no? the poems rhetorically ask. Why do you not say no, after I have sewn shut your mouth, after I have fashioned you mute with my words, with my power? In these poems, Natalie Eilbert enacts a visceral dynamic. Within these pages, a lack of control is imposed upon you, the reader. It is not a comfortable book to read; the truth is rarely comfortable.
To call a woman a hole is to suggest immediate use.
To call a man a hole suggests grave incivility—
incivilities I place like a knife at the windowsill.
Eilbert not only addresses the violence implicit in social constructs, she often pulls apart words themselves, bringing their etymology to light. She wants to understand them, to understand what we mean when we say them, though we may not know it, by understanding what they once meant. “We understand others by breaking them apart… a seed blooms from the rapture of seed, see it?” The words hold secret meanings.
The lives chronicled in these pages stand in for all who must exist in cultures of injustice and violence. It is not beautiful but it is true. Silence itself bears examination, just as rape can be committed in the absence of a no. Eilbert writes, “We ignore vacancy when its convenience leads to pleasure.” Indeed, it is made clear in these pages he has been stripped of language. It is impossible to refuse consent or even shape the narrative: “He digs a hole in the ground and climbs in / and this makes him mine forever.” Possession is a form of power; silence is a terrible sentence.
It is a form of oppression. Ignoring, discounting, disregarding a group is subjugation of that group. American rape culture, supported at the highest levels of government, perpetuates a state of tyranny over women. This is not an overstatement.* The status quo is oppressive. There are some among us who have not yet personally experienced this destructive a powerlessness; this is a book for them to read.
In the courtroom scene of The Merchant of Venice, Portia gives a famous speech on the quality of mercy, begging Shylock to take pity on Antonio. When he refuses, she unleashes her legal argument against him: he is a Jew, not a citizen. When his inferior social status is made clear, his contract with Antonio is considered tantamount to attempted slaughter. In short, Portia saves her husband by pointing out that their opponent is from a minority group.
“In a world without men there is no need for mercy.” For Eilbert, the time for mercy has passed. Cleverness and blame are not an acceptable solution. The system itself must be burned to the ground. And so, she writes, “I wrote // like I was waiting… I saw I was ready to make use of loss”. Eilbert carefully explores the valences of power and the function of memory, breaking apart her subject again and again like a bloody geode. This is a book comprised of its own process of creation, teeming and effortful.
Indictus is a tour de force. Its anger is unafraid; it owes us nothing and refuses to apologize; it is a chronicle and an agent. Eilbert tempers her words for no one; she too has a truth, and has unmade your mouth so you might listen.
Indictus by Natalie Eilbert
Published January 1, 2018
*Nine out of ten rape victims are women (Source). Out of every 1000 rapes, 994 rapists will walk free (Source). Across the board, groups that are already victims of discrimination and oppression are more likely to also experience sexual violence (Source, Source). Donald Trump, the President of the United States, had been accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women (Source).
Sarah Huener received her BA from UNC Chapel Hill and her MFA from Boston University, after which she traveled in Croatia and Israel as a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow. Her most recent poems can or will soon be found in Nimrod International Journal, Congeries (via Connotation Press), StorySouth, The Collagist, New Delta Review, the Greensboro Review, and Salamander. She was the winner of the 2016 Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Sarah reads for INCH, interviews for The Collagist, and reviews poetry for the North Carolina Literary Review in addition to the Chicago Review of Books.