The idea for this manuscript came from one word – baby – a loaded word. It suggests an infant and a lover, as it’s a word used to infantilize women and to sexualize girls. The title is written as an ambiguous address, the opening of a letter to the narrator’s younger self. It also introduces the intrusive male voice calling the narrator an infantilizing pet name.

I have been writing on, around, and through the topic of domestic and sexual abuse for over two years, largely without consciously working inside a structure. Entering this year with the idea of writing a manuscript, I wasn’t starting from nothing. I engaged a process of working through piles of journals, poems, reflections, and notes scrawled on book margins or stashed in my phone. Through this process, I realized that I had been writing within a small set of themes for years. In a conceptual sense, my poems deal with the personal effects of sexual and domestic abuse as the manuscript’s temporal narrative progresses. I also realized that my poems are about a figure that I have come to call “my girl.” Sometimes I give her advice, sometimes I fail her, sometimes I simply observe her, and sometimes she becomes me. The manuscript I have created here is about the space in which my girl grew too fast into a sexual object and too far into relationships without realizing she wasn’t happy or safe. I saw this earlier self as other than me to such an extent that I wondered how I could ever have been some of the “I’s” or “she’s” in these poems. And I wondered how all these different versions of myself would live in a house together, in that dreadfully domestic place that hides and contains.

The manuscript begins with two small introductory poems that establish a sparse frame for the poems and how they approach this topic. They address the reader directly, and explain why they exist and what work they do. These poems offer stories and proof of trauma in an attempt to provide a platform to discuss that trauma, which often denies explanation. From the intro, the poems organically fell into a temporal progression from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Separating the collection into sections was mostly for the sake of clarity, a decision that created a cohesive timeline for myself during the editing process and eventually for the reader. In the introductory poems, the narrative “I” speaks from a space outside of the temporal narrative that transpires as the child grows – a space where she is finally able to recollect her past selves and talk to them. The voice transitions away from that older speaker as the storyline progresses and the “girl” figure develops her own voice and the ability to speak for herself, which is why that girl figure blends from “she” pronouns to “I” pronouns. By the closing poems, the adult speaker is back in that initial space outside of the temporal narrative, watching her “girl” play in the backyard in the wake of everything that they both experienced in the house.

This thesis exists in another form, as a physical house in which the poems live and interact with each other. I made the decision to build the house because the poems demanded a literal domestic setting that mimicked the setting in which they took place. Each poem has a distinct ambience connected to a room in a house, such as a nursery, kitchen, attic, or even the front sidewalk. The idea for the house came late in the writing process, and as such, served more as an editing tool. In February, after months of haphazardly attempting to explain to my thesis advisor, Professor Carr of the English Department, how the poems link together as a project, I finally spat out that my poems live together in a house. So Professor Carr looked at me and said, “Then build the house.” The issues that were arising in the editing process were mostly linked to the question of how I would convey that house in a two-dimensional writing space, and by building the actual house, I was able to format the thesis in a manner that paralleled the physical presentation. The structure proved to be the most helpful editing tool, especially since I had so much raw material to prune into a refined manuscript. When I was deciding which poems were relevant to the project, I realized that the poems needed to demand a space in the house. If I was struggling with a piece and I realized that it actually belonged in a park down the street, it was an automatic cut. Just as the poems are divided into sections of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, so too are they allocated to different rooms in this house. In each room, in each section of the house, the narrator meets versions of herself at infancy, nine and fourteen years old. There she is in the corner of her nursery; there she is playing in the garden she helped her grandmother plant; there she is violently becoming a woman.

Originally, several of the pieces in this collection switched between Italian and English, which is what prompted my asking Priscilla Craven from the Italian department to sit on my committee. During the editing process, Professor Carr made note of the bilingual poems and questioned me on the artistic intent of the Italian. She told me that if I didn’t have a better reason than, “I don’t know, it just came out,” then I should take the Italian out. The process of entirely eradicating all trace of Italian from the poems felt clunky and inauthentic, so I chose to justify my sense of bilingualism in a mode particular to my experience. The Italian lines became an exercise in translation. I began studying Italian only in the past few years, and as such, the language has an influence on my identity in a manner different from a native speaker. My exposure to the language has been structural and academic, but it still has an organic presence in my mind. I study it daily, so it’s always knocking around my head. When I write in a stream of consciousness, the words are usually bilingual because my thoughts are. Likewise, the lyric of my line structure falls naturally into the cadence of a romance language. When writing in English, my training in a romantic syntactical style bucks the guttural, clunky style of my native tongue. With these exercises in translation, I broke out of a syntactical rut and developed my personal style.

In a thematic sense, one of the books that most influenced the development of this thesis was Vladimir Nabokov’s infamously unnerving novel, Lolita. I admired the manner in which he took such a taboo storyline about the love affair between a grown man and a child and created such a beautiful novel with enticing, choral language. Not only did this novel highlight the same themes of sexualizing young girls and sexual trauma from a parental figure, it also taught me how to write about these unspeakable acts of violation. It was the first and strongest reference point I continually returned to when I struggled to allow myself to write about brutal trauma with soft language. I read Lolita alongside Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, which helped solidify the thesis’s driving image of a house haunted by a baby girl. Because I was interested in developing an attractive lyricism in my poems, I also drew inspiration from Carole Maso’s Aureole: An Erotic Sequence as an extreme example of how to push language beyond logic. Both Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral and domina Un/blued by Ruth Ellen Kocher provided examples of code-switching between English and a romance language, which was a helpful reference when creating poems that reflected my own relationship with such a language. Because my project developed beyond a straightforward poetry manuscript, I utilized several art projects to help me visualize the house and determine how I wanted to transfer the atmosphere of the poems onto a physical structure. Finally, I wanted to include several musical inspirations in the bibliography. I referenced some works for their similarity in subject matter, such as Melanie Martinez’s album Cry Baby, which is the optimal amalgamation of babies, sex, and gore. Other works are listed because of their influence in the sense that these songs play in certain rooms where the poems live. These influential works were an essential tool in molding these raw poems into a manuscript with a purpose, and they helped guide me through the writing process, editing, and presentation.

Throughout the thesis-writing process, I grew as a person and as a writer. It would have been impossible to remain stagnant, though. Writing poetry that put me in a deeply vulnerable place was painful in itself, but knowing that these poems now exist in a public arena is exponentially more exhilarating and terrifying. But this was work that needed to be done and stories that demanded to be told, for myself and other survivors of abuse. In the prospectus that I turned in to the English and Honors department over six months ago, I stated that one purpose of my thesis was to open a dialogue about the themes of sexual and domestic abuse on a creative platform. Now that the manuscript is complete and ready to exist in the world, I look forward to seeing how it does that prospectus justice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Influential Books:

 

Beloved: A Novel by Toni Morrison (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007)

  • For a lesson in building a house haunted by a dead baby girl
  • For a lesson in the repercussions of repression

 

Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe (Creative Education, 2001)

  • For a lesson in progressing through a physical space (rooms) as a mode of narrative

 

Turneresque by Elizabeth Willis (Burning Deck Press, 2003)

  • “Glassy Death of Gibson Williams”
  • For a lesson in creating tiny prose poems that have a cinematic world inside them, because everything is better when you think it’s not real

 

The Volta Book of Poets (Sidebrow Books, 2015)

  • For a survey in contemporary poetics
  • For what I’m sure is an indeterminable source of inspiration and guidance

 

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010)

  • For a lesson in making people uncomfortable
  • For a lesson in talking about the things we don’t talk about
  • For a lesson in sacrificing the narrative for the lyric
  • For a lesson in sleeping with inappropriate people and calling it “love”

 

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage International Books, 1989)

  • For when he called Lolita “a painful birth, a difficult baby” (pg 65)

 

Aureole: An Erotic Sequence by Carole Maso (City Lights Books, 1996)

  • For a lesson in lyricism and abstraction above language

 

Slow Lightening by Eduardo C. Corral (Yale University Press, 2012)

  • For a lesson in the relationship between romance language and romantic lyricism

 

I Wrote This For You by pleasefindthis, Jon Ellis (Central Avenue Publishing, 2011)

  • For a lesson in creating a soft, honest place to discuss vulnerability
  • For a lesson in controlling the second-person address throughout an entire book
  • For a lesson in pairing emotion with the correct loaded images

 

domina Un/blued by Ruth Ellen Kocher (Tupelo Press, 2013)

  • For a lesson in translation, Italian

 

The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan (Penguin Books, 2000)

  • For a lesson in writing sonnets, tearing them apart, then recreating something better (like “Fourteen”)
  • For a lesson in building a house and filling it with people, then wandering through the rooms and watching them all interact

 

The Book of Frank by CAConrad (Wave Books, 2010)

  • For a lesson in creating surreal child portraits that unsettle people
  • For a lesson in saying something and not saying it again but then saying, “I’m going to tell you again.”

 

Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O’Hara (Grove Press, 1967)

  • For a lesson in telling stories that hurt

 

Citizen Of by Christian Hawkey (Wave Books, 2007)

  • For an imitation of his style as reflected in “Honey, Honey – E”

 

Multimedia Influences (for aid in visualizing and filling the house with noise)

 

American Dollhouse (art exhibit)

  • For a lesson in interior decorating (i.e. wallpaper, television)
  • The exhibit strives to showcase the “private lives of the family that inhabits” the dollhouse, which helped me create a house that talks about itself
  • Ryan Schude is a participant in the event, whose photography series “Tableaux Vivants” depicts artificially posed people in artificially happy and organically destructive rooms

 

Doll House Series by Suzanna Scott: a “figurative assemblage work featuring antique medical illustrations”

  • For a lesson in getting literal, especially when it comes to women’s bodies as houses and visa versa

 

Cry Baby (album, 2015) by Melanie Martinez

  • “Sippy Cup”
    • For its perfect amalgamation of sex, blood, children, and corpses in cradles
  • “Dollhouse”
    • “One day they’ll see what goes down in the kitchen.” (for everything that goes down in the kitchen)

 

Syro (album, 2014) by Aphex Twin

  • “aisatsana [102]”
    • For a soft place to walk out the back door and into the garden

 

HEIR (album, 2014) by Balmorhea

  • “HEIR I”
    • For the static that knocks around the adolescent hallway, how it mourns the girl

 

Finally We Are No One (album, 2002) by Múm

  • “We Have a Map of the Piano”
    • For the little feet running through the childhood home
    • For something incessant, that denies rest

In a Safe Place (album, 2004) by The Album Leaf

  • “Twentytwofourteen”
    • For “Caro Soggiorno”

Secret (album, 2015) by Angel Snow

  • “Secret”
    • For “The Lies My Mother Told Me”

 

Critical Works

 

Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire by Carole Maso (Counterpoint Press, 2000)

  • For a lesson in using every available space, even essays on literary criticism, to talk about your sex life