“In Truth I Wish Him Harm”: A Review of Natalie Eilbert’s ‘Indictus’

Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus isn’t a timely book. That’s important to know. Standing at a bookstore podium in Madison, Wisconsin, less than a week after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Eilbert tells us this. People keep calling this book timely, but it isn’t. Not factually—it was written years before the words “Me Too” were ever preceded by a hashtag—and not in subject matter, either. It’s not timely because sexual violence, which is what this book is largely about, or responding to, or engaged with, is not timely. It’s ancient and current. Time is meaningless to it.

“I was seven,” Eilbert writes, early on in the book. “I was thirteen. / I was fourteen. / I was twenty-one. / I was twenty-three. / Recently.” It’s biblical: speakers become holy through dust, and there are snakes, and annunciations, and a whole reworking of the Genesis story. The speaker’s favorite word, she tells us, “second / to DEVOTION, is STONE.” I think of women who were turned to stone, how high the cost of speech can be and how far back it goes. I think of what forgiveness means to the stone. Eilbert’s speaker fears she is a liar, a “bright red wet mouth that lies to everyone.” She doesn’t want to tell us what she is going to tell us, fearful that “you”— that “we”—will not believe her. “She knows her words are not enough on their own. Narrative is a door closed, memories blocked off. Having spoken, the speaker retreats. “If I exaggerate,” Eilbert writes, “it is so / you believe me this time, so my body finally forms into its fable.”

Indictus is Eilbert’s second full book and winner of the 2016 Noemi Press Poetry Award. It is obsessed with thingness, this untranslatable memory or destroyed memory, this twinned inability and desperate need to tell a story about trauma. Eilbert refers to this as a “failure of narrative,” a term that has been echoing in my head ever since I read it. I think the idea it gestures toward is familiar at this point: that imperative to create, in court or before loved ones, a coherent story that will explain things, prove things, convince people. Convince men. Make one’s innocence clear.

At the same time, Eilbert is playing with the stakes of not being understood, of telling a story incorrectly or incompletely, or not at all: “I tell a friend I want to delete this whole book so that no one will ever see it,” she writes in the book’s first pages. She disavows words, details, the book itself. She points to the root of it: “Words are filthy. / With themselves. With the past.” Much later, she writes, “I want to tell you what happened to me.” Urgent and feverish, full of rage and perverse pleasure, the speaker wields verbiage as weapon. She gives and takes, obscures and elucidates. Often, she delves: “How hard it is to construct a narrative toward forgiveness! / We must look at the word DEFINITIVE. The words we grip around it.” This turn toward definition and grammar can be a kind of disembodied poetics, an inability to inhabit the too-pained body, but it also permits Eilbert to peer into the roots of the language that both uses and is used by her. In this way, it is simultaneously a burrowing-in and a turning-away. That Eilbert so often toys with these constraints, so often bends and subverts them, speaks to the power and intelligence of these poems.

If Eilbert’s speaker fears failure of narrative, Katie L, described as the narrator’s best friend from childhood, suffers from overdetermined narrative. In the opening to a long section of the book, Katie and the speaker bond over suffering: “best friends, our mouths linking our hurt / in the rows of teeth we bit with to bite through.” Their mouths hurt because of their braces, because they are teenage or preteen girls. But the pain they share is also the result of a deeper, though not unconnected, form of violence done to their bodies, a form of violence much less appropriate to this image of best friends linked at the mouth. What happened to Katie—that ominous phrase, that dehumanizing clause, what happened to her—is this, sort of:

       took her in a van, taped her weapon shut, left her
       on the grass one block away hours later. They
       called her fine, because that’s how we monetize
       damage – a transaction of skin against survived sin.

They dropped a coin in her palm, its warm nickel
       bridled her with purpose so she never spoke again.

Was the van a white van? they urged as she stared.

Her stare was a white van or it was not. The Ls abandoned
       the house and never returned. No address. No answer
       to the white vans chewing through wilderness.

Sylvan weeds trembled through the Ls’ dirt, grew toward
       clouded residence. A vacuum filled their acreage. A void ate their home.

The language is both straightforward and impossibly abstract. “Someone” has hurt Katie L in irrevocable ways. Eilbert does not tell us who; maybe she doesn’t know, or maybe no one knew, or maybe she doesn’t want to tell us. That “someone” has taken Katie’s voice, literally: she cannot speak, or will not speak. “Someone” has “taped her weapon shut,” rendering her unable to do the thing that women are supposed to do when they are attacked, which is to scream. Why didn’t you scream, prosecutors may ask the rape victim in court. Why didn’t you struggle? Katie L is not a woman; she is a girl. When Eilbert writes “they,” she does not refer to the “someone” who took Katie away. “They” refers to the authorities, who don’t ask the right questions, who only want to know if the van was white: the kind of van that always brings violence to little girls, the archetypal van, the van carrying bad men from a different neighborhood. “Everyone called what happened a damn shame,” Eilbert writes. “A damn shame is when they describe Katie L as adorable / and blonde. Jaundice halos above her bedpost night after / night. I read her Simone Weil: A hurtful act is the trans- / ference to others of the degradation which we bear / in ourselves. The van doors slam, the men disappear.” Saints are supposed to suffer first.

The “jaundiced halo” is the Laura Palmer effect, the way violence done to “adorable” white girls is both suppressed and fetishized. The way it provides the perfect motivation for white men’s self-exploration, or revenge narratives, or violence—for action, in a word. Kristen Martin wrote about the dead girl for LitHub not too long ago, citing Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls and the ways in which the dead girl in popular TV shows “ceases to be a person and instead becomes a body.” The white girl’s body, Bolin says, is at once the subject of “worshipful covetousness and violent rage.” The Ls move away, their home is eaten up, Katie ceases to speak. What was done to her is blank and emptied out and full of horror. There is dead time. “Someone” hurt her, “they” of the white van and “they” of the authorities afterward. Who dropped the coin in her palm? The details are inaccessible and ancillary. Trauma suppresses, makes chronology twisted and vague. “I don’t know Katie L anymore,” Eilbert writes, “her name a rope in my gut I can’t pull.” And: “Dead girl. Not a dead girl. Dead girl. Not dead. Dead.” The difference between the two begins to seem hazy, a matter of semantics. Katie L is a hole, Katie L is a rope. Everyone asks the wrong questions. Katie L doesn’t exist.

“Words are filthy,” Eilbert writes. And: “I refuse to let this be chronological.” Instead, Eilbert’s language shifts and turns, rushes and stops, man turning into serpent into lover into ultimate perpetrator. The fear—one fear, I think—is that he might be all of these things at once, that someone loved can do so much harm, or perhaps that the one who does harm to you may also be the one you love.

Her words are unsteady, sexual and sexualized, violated and capable of doing violence themselves. “I make him just once pierced with hundreds of holes,” Eilbert writes. These poems are littered with holes. Every possible meaning seems to apply: the hole as vagina; as female lack, classically writ; as absence, whole/ness, alienation from one’s self. The hole is the thing that is taken from a woman when she is violated in the way that Eilbert’s speaker has been violated, and it is female power, too. “A poem is a hole in how it is dug up.”

Eilbert’s violations are also holes because things sink in and don’t exit. Details fall into the abyss of trauma. We learn everything about emotional landscapes and nearly nothing about physical ones. Or else there is archetype: white vans, green lawns, forests where smart girls go in and dumb violated girls come out. As though they have entered a mimetic landscape as themselves and emerged the victims of original fairytale, constructions of a kind of clichéd violence. But maybe I only call it cliché because this kind of violence is so commonplace, so stock character. It’s all been done before. It’s in the Bible.

The book constructs a nightmare temporality of endless trauma and suffering, always being done to the narrator, never being done—as in over with. It’s deeply claustrophobic, a chorus of “I”s resounding in a small room. The poem titles repeat, “Indictus” and “Indictus” and “Indictus,” litanies on “Liquid Waste,” on auto bio graph[ing] the self. One page just says “Blue,” over and over and over again, an entire television screen-sized block of words with a solitary one —“Blue” again—at the very bottom. Like the narrator, kidnapped and trapped in this rocking, reverberating room, the reader struggles to escape, reaches for questions. Where is the route out? How can we know what was done, or why? These are the questions we ask of events to make peace with them, to come to terms. But Eilbert has already declared these goals impossible.

Years after some of these events have occurred, the speaker receives an email from her rapist. He is sorry. He is in AA. He brings her into flashbacks. He re-inflicts. Once again she is “dumb little smart girl,” she is name in his mouth, she is cursed. “Could have screamed.” Didn’t.

She imagines silence as a hole that instead inflicts violence on the rapist and his body. Perhaps these are also real traumas that have happened in his life. His dogs die of cancer; he overdoses on something. His back gives out: “That pain will only ever occur to him.” What pain?

Her pain will only ever occur to him. All her life a footnote. This whole book some quiet night that shouldn’t have happened.

At the end of the poem the speaker arrives home safely. She has “deleted” her bruised breasts. She has “deleted” her night, which did not aid or save her, which too let the violence happen. Which witnessed and did nothing, a vacant bystander. She has deleted his email, and the snow it reminds her of, and the virtual trashcan the email has been relegated to.

She does not arrive home safely. Her pain will only ever occur to him. Timely, ancient, etc.

“In Truth I Wish Him Harm,” she writes. This is the title of one of the poems of Indictus. I want to write that line out on every page of every notebook in the world. I want to think forever about arriving safely, about home, about not screaming. I’ve contented myself with writing this essay. I recommend you start by reading this book.


Jacqueline Krass

Jacqueline Krass is a writer and PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She interns for The Millions and studies contemporary and 19th century women's writing.

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