Friday, April 28, 2017



daughterrarium by Sheila McMullin
(Cleveland State University, Cleveland, 2017)

            Conventional wisdom contends that terrariums are the most humane enclosures for small land animals, easing their confinement by mimicking their natural habitats. Perhaps they are the cruelest containers, however, for creatures intelligent enough to see through the simulacra, the vestiges of former freedom that taunt them as they endure their owners’ groping. In the titular poem of daughterrarium, Sheila McMullin’s speaker pleads, “take me out of this bed and put me back in the grass.” Like a contained animal, she cannot switch environments without her handler’s intervention.

            With its illusory independence, McMullin’s terrarium conceit parallels the collection’s central theme: the aftermath of sexual trauma. In one poem, the speaker dreads the folkloric “King of May,” a man entitled to impregnate any woman in his village. The speaker desires to steal powerful keys from the regent who “does not care to learn” her name, but reflecting on his sexual ownership of her, she reconsiders, “If I get caught…think about what he could do / This is when I feel the most fear.” “Bad Woman, thought drawer variation,” one of the collection’s longest pieces, chronicles a girl’s hospitalization and self-blame after “a boy sticks his dick in her ass and then in her vagina,” with an interlude that juxtaposes the ordeal with the goading deception of a terrarium:

            “Between sapping limbs
            of plum and bark
            a child breaks
            the skin of her hands.

            Stopping the blood with sap,
            she licks off her fingers what she thinks
will taste like honey.

It tastes like sick and bedtime.” (7)

The girl cuts herself on the seemingly-sweet branches, and afterward finds that the juice that tempted her isn’t sugary, but nauseating. The girl mistakes the limbs as saccharine and harmless, just as the poem’s victim may have misinterpreted her assailant as a trustworthy partner, believing that their intercourse would be pleasurable rather than painful. At the hospital, the doctor infantilizes the victim, lecturing her, “Make sure to wipe yourself from front to back;” and her mother inappropriately frets about her reputation, warning her that her medical files are “not private in the way (the doctors) make it seem…they categorize you out of context.” The girl of the interlude anticipates honeylike flavor; the victim likely expects empathy from her doctor, genuine concern from her mother about her health. Similarly, a terrarium’s inhabitant often mistakes its plastic foliage for authentic plants, preparing for actual nourishment when it tries to take a bite.

McMullin’s speaker underscores the inseparability of a mother from her daughter’s sexual health, portraying a girl’s first period and her mother’s guidance, “Yes, you could have babies now. But don’t until you have a good job.” Like the mysterious hands that hover over a terrarium, the speaker’s mother anonymously haunts her. The speaker remarks to her wistfully, “You are white light behind the scene…You were involved in my birth / though I do not know your name.” Her unknown mother pervades her vision, constantly illuminating backgrounds.

God permeates the collection even more than the matriarch. As a terrarium-housed pet relents to the higher power of its owner, a single supreme being governs the speaker. She discloses, “In my fantasies / I sit in front of a bowl of poppies / at the kitchen table, thinking about God.” She reveres God so much, she daydreams about daydreaming about Him. Although the speaker clearly adores the Almighty, others doubt her worthiness of His affection. She admits, “My ability…to be loved by God and earth / have been questioned.” The speaker’s sexual assault spurs such challenges; society shames her into believing she is “broken and disgusting.” Numerous biblical verses exalt the body as God’s temple; therefore, the speaker equates the violation of her body with a sacrilege that could destroy her connection to the Lord.

The image, “God’s hand over our belly over the earth,” reverberates throughout the collection. This refrain is so rich. It positions the speaker and the subject between the firmament and the land, between Heaven and Hell. More specifically, it orients their wombs between these two poles. The placement of God’s palm on the speaker’s reproductive organs reiterates her conflation of her sexual and spiritual sanctities. It also reinforces the speaker’s conviction that she does not control her own body, corresponding to the powerlessness she feels as a victim of assault.

Other refrains echo throughout daughterrarium, ringing like death knells. Subverting the vitality its title suggests, decomposition ravages the collection. In “Bad Woman, thought drawer variation,” the recovering girl must stay in a hospital room where “the putrid smell / of the devil’s tongue flower hangs like fever.” The poem “Bad Woman, beneath vision seaweed variation” epitomizes daughterrarium’s gothic element:

“…the flowers wilted
and petals through rot
removed themselves from air…                                
women’s faces beneath water
sucking in water…
arms becoming seaweed
then seaweed becoming arms again.” (40)

Flowers and female bodies decompose, integrating into the land and sea to continue an eternal life-and-death cycle. The piece’s illustration of submerged, putrefying women evokes John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, implicitly critiquing the Pre-Raphaelite fetish for vulnerable maidens. McMullin denounces such eroticization of defenseless women because it promotes­­­ sexual exploitation.

            Since a gothic landscape provides a backdrop to discourse on bodily trauma, daughterrarium recalls Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy with Thorn. In McMullin’s collection, women surrender to seaweed, and her speaker instructs in one poem, “…let you go…give you yourself to the roadside trash.” When confronting racist or homophobic violence, Laurentiis’s speaker advises, “To negotiate the dark you must open, you must open / To the dark: dirt, the hundred worms beneath you, beneath / Where hands come to claw the dirt, let, and lay you down.” McMullin doesn’t specify the setting of her gothicism, whereas Laurentiis’s explicitly refers to the American South; but both poets recommend embracing nature’s ugliness when trying to recover from humanity’s. Each of them also populates their collections with phantoms. McMullin’s speaker declares that her grandfather needs her to “speak to the women that have died.” While reflecting on victims of lynching, Laurentiis’s shudders, “…I dream what haunts each night: / These bodies, even lynched, are still thinking.”

            The speaker of daughterrarium envies the ghosts’ incorporeality. She proclaims, “I feel optionless and forced to keep my body on.” Her physique burdens her not only as the site of her trauma, but also as a target of personal and, latently, political criticism. As many, if not most, women do at least once in their lives, the speaker implores society, “Trust me with my body.” She needs to independently navigate her relationship with her form.

            The speaker asks others to believe in her command over her own body, but she doubts it herself. She agonizes, “What will grow / in the untouchable space / in my throat?” Even though it’s her own organ, the speaker worries she cannot control what swells in her throat because she cannot physically contact it. A myriad of other growths riddle her flesh: McMullin’s body horror peaks in the poem “Toward Myself,” in which God punishes the speaker and her family for their greed by first eliminating their hands and feet, then infesting them with tumors:

            “a growth formed inside us
                        we gave praise
            purple and bulbous
                        we gave thanks
            a pain spongy and tissue
                        dear body,
            bent knees in water
                        asking for forgiveness.” (26)

            McMullin’s speaker envisions retribution as somatic invasion, specifically, the breach of alien flesh. Conventionally, sexual trauma involves penetration from the outside, whereas “Toward Myself” inverts that notion by originating the violation within the body itself. The poem portrays the constant, visceral damage sexual assault inflicts upon survivors’ psyches, how they must bear it with every step they take.

            The speaker not only fears growth within herself, but also excrescence from her body, projection into her surroundings. The speaker characterizes the ruefulness festering in her mind as an “angry knot twisting out of this pit.” She likens her mind to an abyss, and she conveys the fury of her regret by imagining it as a tuber that squirms up from its depths. She admits, “This makes me feel ashamed / An overextended body.” The speaker’s body expands into its exterior by the growth of protuberances or liquefication: in “Lilith’s Book,” she asserts, “my body would melt / under the eyes of the neighbors.” This contention explains the speaker’s dread of outgrowth: any extension of her body could advance it into society’s sightlines, could subject it to the glares of more critics.

            The fact that almost half the individual poem titles in the collection begin with the phrase “Bad Woman” manifests the neighbors’ damage to the speaker’s self-esteem. “Lilith’s Book” opens with the declaration, “When I sleep / I am a bad woman.” Even when completely passive, when doing something necessary for life, the speaker cannot escape censure. In “Bad Woman, thought drawer variation,” the mother of the hospitalized girl “believe(s) the daughter / could have handled the situation better,” assigning responsibility to her own child as she recovers from trauma. No wonder the healing girl chastises herself, “How was I so unprepared?” Parents are often their children’s greatest allies, their last lines of defense. Additionally, as McMullin evidences in other pieces, mothers largely influence their daughters’ perceptions of appropriate sexual health and behavior. Therefore, when the mother faults her daughter for her trauma in “Bad Woman, thought drawer variation,” no one remains to shield the girl from self-blame.

            In many of daughterrarium’s pieces, especially the lengthier ones, the authoritarian (and mostly condescending) voices of the speaker’s mother, grandfather, and doctors interrupt her. She recognizes her critics’ fallaciousness, however; to them, she claims, “…inside of my ears…(is) the difference between what you say I know / and I how I feel.”  McMullin mimics the speaker’s resultant cognitive dissonance. A segment of the titular piece begins with a catalogue of instructions for the reader to alter words in an unspecified text (“Exchange singular with lioness and redact lioness; insert crickets.”). These commands directly echo Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis, in which Ives follows nearly every line with the mandate, “Cross this out.” Just as the speaker juggles societal perspectives of sexual trauma with her own incongruous mindset, the coexistence of the original text with the orders for its revisions forces the reader to negotiate cacophony, to attempt to reconcile contradictory voices.

Unlike Ives, McMullin also implicitly compels the reader to do so by pairing words with parenthetical rebuttals. The poem “Clara’s Book” opens with the enigma, “this (that) came into me by way of God / you (God) delved straight in and / God (she) took hold, made me hurt.” In three lines, McMullin provides two options for what penetrates the speaker, and three for who wounds her. The piece “Antumbra” recalls the blank spaces and variants Emily Dickinson scrawled throughout her manuscripts. McMullin occasionally disrupts the text with bracketed gaps and provides choices for filling them: for instance, the reader can choose between the similes “breath / like summer wind” and “breath / like chameleon paper.” In his review of Anamnesis for Bookslut, Josh Cook aptly likens the paradoxical phenomena of such pieces to “Schroedinger's cat before the box is opened.”

            McMullin also engages the reader with page-long lacunae in the three poems titled “Firelight Mediation.” In this series, the speaker appears to address the reader directly, alternating between confessions (“I realized I was angry / and I realized late”) and queries (“Do you believe me?”). She trusts the reader enough to divulge her feelings, but also doubts their confidence in her, an extension of her society-imposed inferiority complex. By the end of the collection, however, the speaker gains self-esteem, and the implicit dialogue of the “Firelight Meditation” series involves the reader in her gradual transformation. Toward the end of the last poem in the series, she declares:

“I often still feel like a very bad person,
But it is getting easier to identify who is actually saying that…
You don’t have to support me
You have to get out of the way” (77)

The speaker still disparages herself, but she improves at discrediting and deflecting her critics. She concludes that she doesn’t need encouragement and vindicates her anger at her trauma, advising the reader not to interfere.

One of the collection’s final poems, “Olga’s Book,” evidences that the speaker can justify her volatility because she channels it into a virtuous pursuit: toppling oppressors. The poem’s form explicitly imitates Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, an epic in which a female protagonist slays a hegemonic, hyper-masculine Tyrant. The speaker’s nemesis in “Olga’s Book” is similarly misogynistic; he blames her ““for” “not having pregnancies”” and claims that she’s unlovable. She allows him to heap on abuses, then finally retorts, ““I” / “dare you to” “uncome in me.”” McMullin omits a response, indicating that the speaker’s riposte renders the bully speechless. The speaker returns the male chauvinist’s sexually-charged attack. This feat, coupled with McMullin’s direct allusion to The Descent of Alette, signifies that the speaker evolves into a feminist crusader, a champion for victims of sexual abuse.

Terrariums confine predators such as snakes and lizards, suppressing their instinctual fierceness. In the span of daughterrarium, however, the speaker augments and refines her aggression. Decay and a myriad of oppressive voices riddle her habitat, but when the speaker and the reader emerge from this “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” both are much, much stronger.


Katie Hibner's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Bone Bouquet, inter|rupture, Timber, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Vinyl, and Yalobusha Review. Her criticism has been published by Entropy, Full Stop, Heavy Feather Review, and New South. Katie dedicates all of her writing to the memory of her mother and best friend, Laurie.

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