Sunday Apr 14

Suchon Poetry Jessica Lynn Suchon is a poet, essayist, and women’s rights advocate. She is currently an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University where her poetry has received recognition from the Academy of American Poets. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Radar Poetry and Rust + Moth, among others. In 2016, she was named an Emerging Writer Fellow by Aspen Words, a partner of the Aspen Institute. She currently lives and writes in Carbondale, Illinois with her boyfriend Josh Myers and their dog Gracie.

Jessica Lynn Suchon interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour

One of the things that strikes me about these poems is the use of the natural world, especially the last lines of “Aubade for the Summer My Father Went Missing” and “After the neighbor boy touches me—”. These poems both end with either the world breaking open or a garden in bloom, but it’s not the conventional opening or blooming a reader might expect. These images reflect a world that is a place of hurt, not renewal. Could you talk more about this, as well as your use of the natural world in your work?

I experienced my first really large hurt at a very young age and it really influenced how I saw the world as a child. When I look back at my childhood, which, for the most part was pretty wonderful, I can trace all the ways that this one event sort of forced me to grow up very quickly and realize some terrifying truths about my existence as a woman and the politics of my body – I think it removed a lot of the magic from the process of growing up. My maturity became sort of a rush-job– like I had suddenly blossomed into womanhood, but there was nothing natural about the way it was catalyzed.

I was a child who was given every advantage in life and was fiercely loved, and then this awful thing happened. The world became this very overwhelming place where I learned how love could be used to harm me. I was too young to understand it at the time, but the conflation of love and pain and power really altered how I interacted with the world around me. I carried that conflation with me for most of my life and it led me to a lot of dark places.

So much of my life was influenced by this one person’s actions, and it made everything around me feel so fragile. So, when I write about nature as this harmful place, I think what I am saying is—here is this beautiful, miraculous world that I am supposed to treasure and be in awe of, but how can I look past how terrified I am of everything around me? When trauma is so internalized, how does someone cope with the immensity of the external? The world is beautiful and threatening, and the little world inside my small self had already been so overcome with suffering that I didn’t know how to take on any more.

I think a lot about the house that my pain built and the ways I’ve occupied that space. I only truly started tearing it down over the past few years. I had to overcome a lot of ugly truths about myself in order to grow in an organic way, which was nothing like how I was forced to as a girl. I was very complacent in my suffering and all of the narratives I played out because I was trying to correct that first hurt. I acted as though it was my choice to suffer, because it soothed me and gave me a false sense of power. I thought that it was the best that I could ever do or hope for. Living in my pain kept me safe from the immensity of the world, which was too much for me to handle. I couldn’t even address my own trauma, let alone the complexities of everything else around me. I think this is the case for a lot of trauma survivors – we grow comfortable with our pain because it is familiar so we seek it out in its many different forms and call it by new names. What is outside of familiarity can seem even more threatening than the suffering we know how to survive, and the natural world offers up a lot of unfamiliarity.

I’m interested in what you say about the natural world offering up unfamiliarity for trauma survivors, and how survivors navigate the outside world while also navigating the interior world of pain. In one of two of the poems featured this month titled “An Unkindness,” the speaker experiences a memory that is a “sacred, hungry / thing chewed unrecognizable and swallowed to keep quiet” because it is too painful to view. This poem is a stunning and honest example of what it is like for a person to live with the memory of a traumatic event. Not only do I admire the poem for this reason, but also for its craft. Could you talk about the decisions you made between imagery and narrative in this poem?

Oh my gosh. First of all, thank you so much for your kind words! In the past year or so, while working on my MFA thesis, I became really interested in the concept of daemons, which are sort of these spirits from Greek mythology that take on naturalistic forms – usually animals. They act as these sort of intermediary spirits between men and the Hellenistic gods, and are usually indicative of someone’s innermost self.

Daemons are almost like the angel and devil on your shoulder, or similar in nature to the allegory of the two wolves living inside of you, the good and the evil. You become which one you feed and whatnot— sort of this physical embodiment of your most polarized duality. So I started thinking about godliness or the higher-self and how it would function in a trauma survivor, and I think that is something that exists – it’s at the core of a survivor’s intuition and hyper-vigilance and sort of this instinctual and almost primal piece of their being that comes alive to keep them safe. Most people I know who have survived trauma have the most extraordinary capacity for both love and cruelty. They are the warmest and coldest people I know, and the side of them that is most present is usually the piece of themselves that they nourish, it’s how they respond to their trauma.

I really wanted the recurring image of this unkindness of ravens to sort of serve as the girl’s daemon. For the most part, the birds are observers, but anytime they appear, their actions and presence echo the current interiority of the girl. I wanted this specific poem to work on two levels – as this actual physical scene in which ravens sort of function as guardians that help the girl to forget what is harming her, but I also wanted them to function on this psychic level where the girl’s innermost and most spiritual form is trying to protect her, essentially from herself.

So in the poem, the ravens take on a physical form and directly force the girl’s forgetting, and so the memory itself sort of takes on this physical form. But, essentially, the ravens are an apparition that the girl manifests to keep herself functioning and feeling like normal girl in her everyday life. They sort of breach the gray area between her body and her spirit.

I notice in these poems the confusion of the speaker as to what body she inhabits, whether she is girl or bird, and whether she can be “anything / more than a girl.” Elsewhere in another poem, there is a woman who “used to be” a mother, who “sours / in the sun.” I find very interesting the shift in identity with the body, either for the speaker or the people the speaker knows. The body changes in form and meaning in these poems, and I’d love to hear you talk more about this. 

I think my own body is something that, until fairly recently, I never felt I fully owned and so I enjoy trying to experience it in new, impossible ways. Once a woman’s body enters a public space, it becomes political—an experience, a vessel by which women are evaluated, something to be assessed and debated. One of the most wonderful privileges of writing is giving new power to something, or telling a story in a way that feels truer than what you actually lived and witnessed. I think that maybe sometimes a poetic truth feels more real than memory or experience. In poetry, a body can be more than a body, and I think that playing with that idea lets me discover what’s true about the body or a situation or about myself—it allows the external and the internal to converge through image. This might make less sense than I think it does.

Jessica, that makes perfect sense. I agree that poetry allows us to explore the meaning of the body in ways we can’t within our culture. I’d like to ask: given your writing about trauma and the body, who have been the most influential writers for your work?

Oh, yay! I love this question so much. My first real milestone poem was Traci Brimhall’s “Aubade in Which the Bats Tried to Warn Me.” All of Rookery is so wonderful. She came and did a reading at my undergrad in 2010 and it solidified my decision to major in creative writing. Marie Howe is consistently so fantastic. I think that What the Living Do and Bruce Snider’s Paradise Indiana are perfect books. Rebecca Hazelton is unrelenting and so incredibly innovative, and I am in constant awe of everything she does. Shane McCrae is a genius. His book Forgiveness Forgiveness is so brilliant and painful.

More recently, Staci Schoenfeld just published her poem “The Patient Admits” in the latest issue of Rust + Moth, and not only is Staci one of the kindest people in the world, she also writes some difficult and incredibly honest poems about the complexity of abuse. Megan Peak is such a beautiful writer. Her poem “When Asked If I Said No” made me cry. It’s this small, raw nerve of a poem. I just read Claudia Cortese’s Wasp Queen and it’s become this lovely, ferocious little ghost that’s been following me around for weeks.

Joanna C. Valente recently put together A Shadow Map: An Anthology for Survivors of Sexual Assault, which I was so honored to be a part of, and the whole anthology is just brutal, and heartbreaking, and necessary – Staci and Claudia are actually my anthology-mates in there as well, and Joanna’s most recent book, Marys of the Sea, is incredible.

I’m also really lucky to have a supportive community within my MFA program. A lot of women within my program work with trauma and the female body, and I think the women within the poetry community here are truly committed to the success of their peers and really celebrate each other’s work. I know that not every program, and not even every cohort is like that, so I feel super grateful to Allison Joseph, Judy Jordan, and Jon Tribble for providing me with that opportunity and always opening new doors for me.


First Lesson

Suddenly the stars were white teeth of girls
who couldn’t keep their mouths shut.
This was before I did not know I was anything
more than girl. My skinny legs opened
and there I was in the cold of winter,
on my back beneath the branches’
cracked necks. The ground under me
dusted in juniper berries. I think something
was stolen and placed back into my body,
my skin plucked bare by an older pair of hands.
In all of the years that come after, whose
body do I keep waking in? The neighbor boy
teaches me how to keep a secret, how to bury
a dead thing deep inside of me. He says
that’s what you do when you love someone.

Aubade for the Summer My Father Went Missing

There is a woman who used to be my mother,
asleep and mauve-lipped on the sofa. Dirt
beneath her fingernails, spade lying

violent on the front porch. Myself: seven,
fickle little nothing who snapped the home
in half, who doesn’t speak. The neighbor boy

keeps touching me. Mornings, the woman sours
in the sun. In the hours between coffee and wine,
she kneels, coaxing things to grow, far away

from the house and ghost of my father’s name chicken-
scratched into everything he touched. One night
the woman says you know you were the reason

we couldn’t stop fighting . My mother’s long, long sleep.
I dream glass shatters in every room I step into. The boy
next door keeps touching me. This my mouth: silk

-stuffed and caulked shut, how I learn to roll secrets
gently up the legs like stockings. Everything blooms
in the garden that year.

After the neighbor boy touches me –

My mother says it’s strange
how often he wants me
around – an older boy, high school boy.
On the playground, I grab a classmate

by the shirt collar and kiss him
on the mouth. He asks me why.

I say that’s what you do
when you love someone.
I tell my mother I never
kissed anyone. Say nothing

about the neighbor boy’s hands,
my back pressed to the ground.

Sometimes I hardly remember this girl.
Am I really that same child

my mother finds
asleep and screaming on the floor of my closet?

Double doors slide open
and light knifes that small, dark hollow

           with its eager hands. Blue
as an unwelcome iris,

        every day the world breaks
open for me.

An Unkindness

To warn her, the ravens left
glass marbles and carcasses
of unborn birds, bodies

leathered; scraps of communion
dresses; the golden fillings
of molars; they left music boxes

wound on her dresser, gears
twisting like shadows into a song;
a rotten bulb: milk-colored

and mold-soft in her palm;
black feathers beneath her pillow,
thick and lolling like tongues.

Each morning, outside the window,
ravens suffocate the gutters, shiver
like dead leaves in the trees.

An Unkindness

And then one night the ravens find the girl
knee-deep in the wetland behind her childhood
home, but she does not see them. She slips

her mother’s garnet ring from her finger and drops it
into the swamp water. The marsh unravels
like a spool of cricket song. How cannibalistic

this one memory – sacred, hungry
thing chewed unrecognizable and swallowed
to keep quiet. A fistful of delicate

hemlock dropped in her palms, the birds
bend her to the water
to drink from the hollow stems,

to sleep until she finds what else is there,
what she does not want to see: his shadow
swallowing hers in the grass.

Revision with Young Girl as Icarus

The girl’s marrow is humming,
a harp string vibrato
in her bones. Her pearly body
          flying. Is she a wingless
woman or child? Remember
her mother taught her
to lift the body – sweet girl, pretty
girl . Yes, the sun is beautiful,
Higher. Below, men
aim for what is sewn inside
her dress, stretch bow strings
back to their clenched teeth.
One eye closed,
unsure if she is girl or bird.
When the arrow hits,
when she opens her lips,
the only thing they hear is yes.