In “The (Im)Precision of Language,” the first poem in Shaindel Beers’s third collection Secure Your Own Mask, the speaker opens with “How far the ring-necked dove is / from wringing a dove’s neck.” This pointing toward the faltering nature of language shows where words can fail, especially when faced with the contradictions of an abusive relationship — when someone who is dear to you cleans a hunting rifle while saying “I don’t want to be / divorced. We can make this work,” when the speaker is careful with each word they say to their partner. They are careful with the volatility of him because they know “saying nothing / meant everything, where saying everything // meant nothing left to fear.”
In her previous books, Beers shows her propensity for capturing the intricate beauty of nature, but Secure Your Own Mask is searing and unbridled in a way that makes the reader want to cheer at the strength of each speaker. This collection details women (and sometimes animals) in a variety of relationships, each having endured an increasing violence. The speakers vary from Bluebeard’s wife, a bird wife, a farm wife, a female seahorse, Curious George who loves The Man with The Yellow Hat, and a woman in a pair of knife throwers. While each moment of brutality and admonishment is painful to read, it is framed in a future position from which the speakers have escaped the violence of the partner and each can begin to reclaim her body, her home, and herself again.
This is a lyrical, often narrative collection rich with allegory. Slipping into this collection feels like peeking behind a curtain of a dark fairy tale. One in which Maleficent and Cinderella’s step mother take the shape of an older woman telling the speaker, “I think of young women like you as a present / for my husband.” The speaker then asks if Disney villains have committed crimes beyond growing old and becoming replaceable. Even in a world of fairy tales, the speaker finds herself something to be opened, something to be used: “I am an object to be unwrapped, opened, slipped into for a fortieth birthday.” This objectification in multiple realms shows its inescapability in this collection.
The violence endured by the speaker isn’t just from a partner at home, but from the public world as well. In “Is it Human?,” the speaker, who is Jewish, is harassed by neo-Nazis on Twitter, sent racist images and asked, “Is it human?” Anti-Semitism, like partnered violence, is ever-present in this collection and shapes each interaction therein. Both of these types of violence, sometimes large and sometimes smaller, add up to a “death by a thousand cuts //every day.”
Secure Your Own Mask is filled with ghosts: memories of a past abusive relationship, the injuries gone but still remembered, the dead that keep returning. One of the most striking poems, “Unfriending the Dead,” addresses the strangeness of mourning when those who have passed still have social media accounts:
They show up in the Newsfeed. Facebook
as memorial. Birthday reminders. Events where
the guest of honor will never appear.
The poem asks, “How are we always inventing / ways to keep the dead with us?” This haunting reverberates throughout, sometimes in the form of an old boyfriend from college “heart-crushed by his steering wheel” appearing in a dream, others it is the still-felt shotgun cleaned by a displeased husband. Violence done to and caused by men fill this collection until the reader feels the same ever-present gendered violence as the speaker. By the end of the collection, the speaker realizes the danger of the abusive partner is gone, but his presence is still felt.
Even after the violent partner is gone, the collection is still riddled with speakers remembering accusatory and critical language from the partner. “This Old House” painstakingly captures the echo of abusive language. As the speaker visits the house they shared together, she remembers the reproach received in each room:
The kitchen where
I made the pie he said wasn’t a real pie because the middle
wasn’t moist enough,”
. . . . .
This is the bathroom where
I spent too much time getting ready. Where I looked in
the full-length mirror before he asked, “Is that what
you’re wearing?” every day. Some days he was just
kidding. Some days the browns didn’t match.
. . . . .
This is the room
where my female body was so disgusting, he had to buy
a new trash can because I should be ashamed of my periods.
After feeling the husband’s presence throughout the entire collection, this poem is where the speaker asks the pivotal question, if you throw away everything connected to him, “at what point isn’t that everything? When do you decide / not to throw yourself away too?” Where do you stop removing and where do you stop rebuilding?
This turn to rebuild is what makes this book one of resilience. While enduring the abuse in the past, the speaker wanted to respond with anger when friends asked for advice on paint swatches and new sheets, but now that she has escaped the abusive relationship and has begun to find a point from which to stop removing and start rebuilding, she has finally moved beyond survival mode. She is ready to claim, “This is my house and I want to fix it.”