- Playing Monster :: Seiche by Diana Arterian
In her debut poetry collection, Playing Monster :: Seiche, Diana Arterian considers the enduring nature of trauma by splicing together two narratives: her childhood memories of her father's abuse (Playing Monster) and her mother's experience with a stalker (Seiche). Drawing from memory and found texts, including newspaper clippings and her mother's diary entries, her long poem reads as both documentary and crime thriller. In spare language devoid almost entirely of punctuation, short stanzas are enveloped in white space—palpable silences that accompany Arterian's tone of flat reportage. As the narrator works to piece the story together, flashing back and forth in time and through multiple settings, she takes pains to avoid editorial comment, approaching her own snatches of memory as archival documents. In rare moments, the narrative slips into more lyrical language, which comes howling through the restrained telling:
Violence is at the heart of itA sure hand all its capacity
Violence whistles sparks The handclawing windfire
In conversation with poet Natalie Eilbert for Literary Hub, Arterian explains that Playing Monster and Seiche were initially two separate manuscripts. On their own, each failed to capture the difficult reality of trauma. When combined, however, the two "became a larger project regarding aggression and its many gradations—be it out-and-out beating to a quiet, menacing word from a stranger while walking your dog in the dark." For Arterian, the interwoven narratives present a greater challenge to readers, resisting the fantasy of an easy conclusion or recovery from a traumatic situation.
Though the title emphasizes the book's dual structure, both narratives are also joined by a third thread that expands the scope beyond intimate family drama. Annotated as "found-texts describing events near my mother's home," brief interludes drawn from The New York Times are interspersed throughout the collection. Crimes in or around Onondaga Lake in New York, including the 1884 desecration of a Native American burial ground and an 1897 dumping of a body in the lake, create the historical [End Page 305] background against which contemporary events are set. By juxtaposing past and present, Arterian suggests a repeating pattern of violence. The various narratives circle around the lake, where a man and his son report seeing a monster swimming along the surface in 1877. The incident joins the title's two images: the monster and the seiche (pronounced saysh), a standing wave created by a disturbance in a contained body of water.
Throughout Playing Monster :: Seiche, Arterian registers different types and degrees of terror. Near the book's opening, we are told that Arizona (where early childhood scenes are set) is a place where a man can beat his first wife and then his second, his third, and his children without reckoning. The speaker hears her father's laughter—"the storm the very cracks of his teeth." The monster is named up front, and yet, the revelation does nothing to interrupt the book's mounting sense of dread.
Initially, the father is depicted through his arbitrary methods of control: invented rules and punishments, such as forcing his terrified son to hold a cicada husk or banishing sugar from the house. When his small daughter helps him prepare dinner, he accuses her or tampering with the ingredients. These moments gradually escalate to his first eruption of physical violence. The speaker recalls that when her father discovers evidence of a pilfered sugar bell, he goes into an animal-like fury:
He picks me upby my shirt withhis teeth our eyesso close he is shaking mein the air dropping me
Later, the father apologizes and "mends his small hole / near the collar of [her] shirt." This cycle of abuse has been recounted in afterschool specials since the 1980s: violence followed by a honeymoon period of calm before tension again builds to the next abusive incident. Yet, as the book progresses, non-chronological fragments of memory interrupt and overlap each other. In the midst of rising tension, the father takes his daughters to a fancy buffet, where they laugh over the...