- Following the Aesthetic Impulse:A Comparative Approach to a Poetics of Trauma
Where are the intersections of poetry, trauma, and healing? How does reading and writing poetry open a space for the imagination to transform embodied memories too real and horrific to be recounted in ordinary language into images that rest softly, or not so softly, on the page? How does writing become part of a process of cultivating self-trust when the world has taught you that you were wrong to believe your body ever belonged to you in the first place? Can a community-engaged practice of poetry-making cultivate collective healing for a society fractured and torn apart by systems of colonization and patriarchy?
These are questions I continuously ask myself—as a poet, as a trauma survivor, as an educator, and as an expressive arts practitioner developing a community practice with survivors of trauma.1 These are the questions that guide me personally and professionally, and they make up the focus of this article, which intersects many disciplines: literary theory and hermeneutics, psychology, feminist trauma theory, and expressive arts theory and practice. I situate this interdisciplinary work within Comparative Literature, because my ongoing and developing practice in working with trauma survivors is rooted, fundamentally, in viewing survivors as readers of their own histories and producers of poetry that transforms those histories. I follow in the tradition of Paul Ricoeur's phenomenological hermeneutics by focusing on poetry as a medium of creating effective individual and social change specifically because poetry, as a linguistic medium, is able to hold the complicated, intersecting and often contradicting narratives that trauma creates for the survivor's sense of self. Such narratives often overwhelm the structures of traditional discursive language because they overwhelm the boundaries and expectations of 'normal' experience. As trauma theorist Cathy Caruth expresses in her work Unclaimed Experience, the expression of trauma must be "spoken in a language that is always somehow literary: [End Page 298] a language that defies, even as it claims, our understanding" (5).
The discussion that follows integrates poetic excerpts from authors often associated with trauma literature, such as Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, and Canadian Indigenous author Beckylane. My use of literature serves to model how poetry becomes a site of change and transformation for survivors as both readers and writers. Discussing how this transformation occurs requires philosophical grounding in understanding of the mimetic reference of the poetically creative and imaginative act, which I take from Ricoeur's phenomenological hermeneutics. A brief discussion of Ricoeur's theory of the living metaphor is included as a means of locating poetry as an aesthetically mediating imaginative and imitative act in the process of healing. My own expressive arts practice with survivors is mentioned only briefly, as the purpose of this article is to further develop and share the theoretical foundations with which I currently work, namely, a poetics of trauma framed within a practice that is feminist and anti-oppressive. As Kalí Tal states in Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma: "When a survivor testifies, she both purges herself of an internal 'evil' and bears witness to a social or political injustice" (200). I agree with Tal that the political dimension of survivors' poetic transformations of traumatic experience is always present and always part of individual and collective healing.
A Poetics of Trauma
In Poetry is Not a Luxury, Audre Lorde, whose work and life often demonstrated a relationship between trauma, poetry, and an individual and communal healing empowerment, makes direct reference to the empowering effects of writing poetry by claiming that through writing we enter deep reserves of our selfhood and creativity:
As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.
For each of us as women, there is a dark place within where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, 'Beautiful and tough as chestnut/stanchions against our nightmare of weakness' and of impotence.
These places of possibility within ourselves...