(This post is being drafted using voice typing on Google Docs. I am using this technology because I broke my dominant wrist and had surgery, and am still recovering. Please excuse any Typos and imperfections!)
In thinking about my friend Gayle Brandeis’ new book, I recalled Joy Williams essay “Why I write” from her book Ill Nature. In the essay, Williams writes, “The good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life. The work– this Other, this other thing– this false life that is even less than the seeming of this lived life, is more than the lived life, too. It is so unreal, so precise, so alarming, really. Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face. Whenever the writer writes, it’s always three or four or five in the morning in his head. Those horrid hours are the writer’s days and nights when he is writing. The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve… something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness– those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.”
I was thinking about how to talk about my experience of reading the new work of Gayle Brandeis. How these riveting verses accumulate into story, and along the way, yes, enchant, for their lyrical brilliance, and yet still, for their horrifying imagery, explode in my face. Although (please know) they are extremely unsettling and certainly violent, the voices of these (imagined or channeled) victims of Countess Bathory make their impression in part because of the importance of not looking away. The lives of these girls and women, from the perspective of their torturer, were incidental, always a casualty to Bathory’s drive to torture.
The victims survived by adapting. As victims often do. On page 29, Gayle writes,
“We learned to stay upright, to work even when wounds wept beneath our sleeves; we learned to keep our voices down, learned to not look her in the eye; we learned fear becomes another organ in the body, pulsing gall through every vein.”
On page 35, Gayle writes about how the body keeps the score, writes about the words burn, drown, freeze, scald, verbs which were among the methods of torture, how they stay with the spirit even when the body is gone.
“…These words have become something more than words. They have become weapons, ready to get under the surface of you, pry you back open.
Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body.
(some tender part of you still flinches.)
( some immaterial nerves still flare)”
This short, crystalline book is not an easy read. After diving in and becoming quickly engrossed, I was unsure how exactly I would get through it. But I trusted that Gayle–and the survivors’ spirits–would lead toward light. And they did. The victims, so many unnamed survivors, found and picked up their power through making a circle, banding together. And they needed to tell their story. Ghosts need witnesses.
We need to witness.
From page 102,
“It’s fine you don’t know our names now.
You know our testimony.
You know enough to yell “Meat!”
when we call out “Bone?”
if you are listening
(are you still listening?)
You know enough to lay some flesh upon our forgotten skeletons,
to feel the weight of our death inside your own body.
You know enough to remember how alive you are
I am grateful for the reminder, for knowing enough to remember how alive I am, and how lucky.