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Inscribing traumatic experience: Allusion and satire in poetry

That rape trauma is unspeakable is a damaging myth for those who experience sexual assault. The work of poets Pascale Petit, Fiona Benson, Vanessa Place and Patricia Lockwood showcases the broad range of strategies that women can employ in poetry to speak about rape and rape trauma within a rape culture. This thesis asserts that poetry is a particularly effective mode through which to express, possibly convey, and definitely inscribe the traumatic experience. One aspect of the difficulty of speaking or writing about rape is the constraints of language, the grammatical bind of subject and object; the impossibility of the phrase “When I was raped,” as though “I” was the one actively making decisions. What makes it difficult is the bitterness of the phrases “victim” and “survivor”, particularly given these labels apply directly to the event itself, rather than the aftermath in which this thesis is interested. Thus, the use of phrases with high lexical density such as “those who have experienced rape,” or the neologism “endurer” which turns the verb into noun. This thesis begins with reference to the body of theoretical and scientific knowledge which asserts a connection between mind, body and self in the experience of trauma, and draws attention to the social framework within which rape poetry is written. Throughout, there is a discussion of the personal biography of the studied poets, and the ways in which raped bodies speak through fragmented, figurative and imagery-rich language. In this thesis, it is not the event of rape itself that is of interest, rather the experience of subsequent trauma which seeps into the mind and body of a rape victimised woman, the wounded body. As a literary device, the wound as metaphor for pain and trauma is well established. Chapter One extends the wound image in order to explore the distancing effect of allusion employed by Pascale Petit in The Wounded Deer: Fourteen poems after Frida Kahlo, and Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost. While Petit relies on the biographical detail of Frida Kahlo to create an analogous inscription of the experience of trauma, Benson draws on mythological allegory to convey the specific experience of rape trauma, and the fear that trauma endurers embody in the wake of such an event. In continuing the wound imagery, Petit’s approach is considered comparable with the idea of the callous as there is a thick layer of hardened skin between writer and audience. In the callous approach to writing the rape experience, Petit opts for a masking of the personal, while Benson’s approach is categorised as one that blisters after the burn—it is confessional. Throughout this chapter, and the thesis as a whole, there is an exploration of the ways in which poetry can mimic the disruption to temporality which is experienced during a trauma flashback, and the ways in which sensory-rich imagery is bound to any expression of the experience. Chapter Two surveys the landscape in which we laugh at rape. From the misogynist, to the feminist, the rape joke acts a site of subversion, particularly for poets. Rape culture is explored in reference to popular culture and stand up comedy, before a critical lens is applied to a close reading of the symbolic violence inherent in the format and content of rape jokes in Vanessa Place’s You Had To Be There: Rape Jokes. The internet, and online culture is an ever present thread in the work of Place (as this is where she drew her material from), and in Patricia Lockwood’s Rape Joke. The ways in which rape culture at large plays into personal and individual confession or disclosure of rape is evident in the responses to Lockwood’s “viral” Rape Joke poem, as well as in the content itself where the damaging psychological impact of victim blaming is evident. While Lockwood’s tone lends itself to satirising victim blaming, it also exists within the framework whereby women who are raped are subsequently silenced and disbelieved, complicating notions of subversion and perpetuation of the patriarchy. The voice of the patriarchy is illustrated throughout Place’s onslaught of hate speech rape jokes, and a discussion of the role of the reader/listener/audience in participating in making meaning of rape culture follows. This thesis is closed with a sequence of poems entitled & therefore bodies. The sequence is written from the raped body using similar techniques of allusion and humour as discussed in reference to Petit, Benson, Place and Lockwood. The techniques are employed in order to inscribe a version of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of rape. The sequence of poems seeks to speak an individual rape trauma as experienced amongst misogynistic social messaging in the context of contemporary New Zealand rape culture.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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