A short while ago there was a video making the rounds on the Internet, as videos do. In it a giant Boeing 787, takes off from the runway at an incredibly sharp incline; for a few seconds it looks like this commercial airliner is climbing straight up into the air on takeoff. It’s kind of…gorgeous, the way it eases up into the air, glides around on its own accord, and presumably sets itself cleanly back down later.
Sierra DeMulder’s latest collection, the memoir-esque chapbook We Slept Here (Button Poetry, 2015), takes off like a Boeing 787. Its first poem, “And if I am to Forgive You,” sets the stage with
Who am I
if I am not
and it becomes clear that the plane’s not coming back down until it’s good and ready. It’s cliche start a review by telling you how the book opens and comparing it to a plane taking off, but as an artist DeMulder has a rich history of going straight for (and to) a reader’s heart, and it’s no accident she’s doing that here.
We Slept Here unfolds into snapshots of DeMulder’s past relationship with an abusive partner. An author well-known for her deft, eloquent exploration of the emotional world, here she is also working as an affected, breathing human who made it to today. Forget the author/narrator divide — separating the two in this case would disrespect the honesty she’s given us here, the universality of these poems that implores us not only to understand the characters but to recognize them around us, outside this book.
But this is not a book of suffering. It’s one of looking at reality and asking the hard questions — Why do we end up where we do? What does it mean if we stay? How do we forgive people — and should we? On the last, a thread through this chapbook are DeMulder’s studies of forgiveness — “Study of Forgiveness as a One-Night Stand,” Study of Forgiveness as an Old Woman,” and the especially wrenching “Study of Forgiveness as a Sociopath,” in which she names the thoughts we cannot escape when our survival is and has been on the line:
… I have dreamt
of kicking you, pulling out slivers
of your hair, as if violence
is the patron saint of healing — cause
damage to repair damage.
The ensemble cast in this book lends itself to its urgency; here we meet DeMulder’s father and mother; her sister; the addict; the survivor in the past, present, future; the audience; the I; and yes, the you. As in the poem “On Admitting You Are an Abuse Survivor,” DeMulder doesn’t seem to be using the second-person narration to distance herself from her story — no, she’s actually speaking out of the page to you, to me, to all of us who might need to hear her.
I could write about this book all day. I could read it for years. This is an incredible collection of poetry and a testament to Sierra DeMulder’s importance as a voice in contemporary literature. It’s hard and it’s necessary, and it knows it: in its back pages are a plea for survivors to not hold themselves responsible and a list of support resources in multiple languages and geographies. This book is real, and the world is better for it.