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In ‘Intimacies, received’, intimacy and violence intertwine: NPR

In ‘Intimacies, received’, intimacy and violence intertwine: NPR

The way we present ourselves to the world is not always the way we see ourselves. This gap widens when it encounters the constant memory of violence.

In his second collection of poetry Intimacies, Received Taneum Bambrick accepts this gap in her life – understanding how she shielded herself from the burden of a traumatic past by simply daring to remember it.

As a storyteller, Bambrick is lively and meticulous. The poems in this collection are set primarily in southern Spain – the poet’s recollection of a high school mugging clashing with immediate details of the countryside, intimate gatherings and sex as she travels through Spain years later. As she writes new lovers, stories from her past simultaneously emerge as a way to frame her new reality for readers. This dance – back and forth – is a subtle but clear way of showing how difficult it is to unwind from the past and build a new future.

One of the first poems in the collection, titled “Saying I’m a Survivor in Another Language,” considers the moment before two people have sex for the first time:

We fill our mouths with salami and wine.
I’m careful, I remove the waxed paper from the glazed sponge cake

cooked by nuns who live on the streets.

Such acts of mindfulness appear throughout the book, situating the reader in the poet’s own unease. Bambrick writes: “A nun this morning took my hand in hers // as she told me that the most important ingredient / is the silence of prayer. The reader is so anchored in this moment of silence that we reach out – and pray – alongside the poet.

She then brings us to the reason for this prayer: after her attack, she notes: “I was terrified. I haven’t touched a man for seven years” – the memory of the assault threatening to pierce this present moment before the poet is about to have sex. But the poem ends: “You are the first person who does not know it.” So with Bambrick, we’re moving on.

Still, this move comes with its baggage, and Bambrick points it out confidently, even when those around him try to shame him for it. For example, a poem titled “Willow Street” begins:

When after four years, C is gone,
she said I seemed indecisive about men.
Only one tragedy held me back
to fully experience sex

But then the poem changes and Bambrick does what she does best – pointing directly to the complex nature of passing time.

We used to pull our hair from a brush
and drop it by the window above our bed.
On a tree in the neighbor’s yard, a bird
trampled this hair in its nest.

Just like a tragedy – every strand of hair is a memory, and every memory has an impact. Even if the poet is no longer attached to this memory, it leaves a trace wherever it lands.

Other poems evolve in the same way: Bambrick presents the reader with a moment, then a detail brings us back to his past tragedy – it is memory that seeps into the present. In “Date”, the poet looks at two swans wading in the fountain of a restaurant, then: “From the bar, you come back with a friend / who owns an ice cream chain in town”. This friend laughs when the poet says she loves ice cream, and he says to her date in Spanish: “I could eat his face, I could eat his face. / Could she have an American girl for me?“Suddenly the swans have reached the end of the fountain and “there is no more room / for the birds to turn their long bodies.” The innocence of the ice is lost as the poet remembers once more of the time when she was not free.

This non-linear experience of trauma is best expressed in the poet’s lyrical essay “Alligators” in which she recounts the moment she was assaulted and all the subtle moments of violence leading up to it. “Because of the way bodies negotiate around trauma, most of what I remember of the man who assaulted me are the things he did before. I recorded them as romantic” , she wrote. The poet was 17 and learned to cope with ensuing panic attacks in therapy.

The most powerful part of the essay, however, is when she writes about the Spanish word for freak. She learned it very early in life, teaching her students about alligators, but later in Spain, when she hears her partner using it gleefully, she wants to disappear. She doesn’t speak to him for days, turning him into the man who assaulted her. Eventually, the partner realizes what may have happened and tells him, “In Spain, the word freak can also mean friend.”

In this way, Bambrick masterfully describes how moments of intimacy can represent moments of violence – and how difficult it can be to disentangle the two. As the poet travels through Spain – looking at art, meeting her partner’s family, coming to terms with her homosexuality – the memory of the assault runs deep in her understanding of herself.

Yet Bambrick refuses to let it entirely define her life. At each moment when the past infiltrates, the poet counter-attacks with the will to appropriate her present. In some poems she refers to an illness – an infection – after having sex with her partner. “Some bodies are not compatible. / It can take years for a woman to adapt,” she wrote in her poem “Partners”. As she adapts, throughout the relationship, she learns how long she has been adjusting against herself.

So the poet isn’t afraid to point out all the ways she’s tried to hurt herself by denying intimacy. His lyrical essay ends with “No one has helped me overcome my fear or taught me to stop acting in sometimes irrational, even violent ways.” But also knowing that she did it to protect herself, she continues: “I survived. Because nothing worse can happen that I don’t want my life.”


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