May 27 2023
Poetry review – TRAUM/A: Peter Devonald is beguiled by the vivid impressions, recollections and memories conjured up by this innovative hybrid poetry book by JP Seabright
Traum/A JP Seabright fifth wheel press, May 2023 ISBN 979-8-9871168-7-6 £12 for U.K.( includes p&p) and $10 for US
Traum/A, JP Seabright’s abecedarian catalogue of experimental, visual and prose poetry, is a harrowing, searingly honest and deeply powerful work exploring the impact and devastation of abuse – but also allowing the possibility of survival, acceptance and a future. It is probably worth mentioning that the book contains a trigger warning:
There are many subjects in this book which may be triggering for people.
It covers a multitude of experiences, dysfunctions and challenges that are
common for those dealing with complex PTSD… Don’t suffer in silence,
there will be someone who understands what you are going through.
However, Traum/A is not only an exploration of trauma but also of types of poetry. Form, theme and message become a beguiling hybrid. Pages are redacted, or become black backgrounds with white print; text is altered and skewed, different sizes, shapes and patterns emerge or falter; there is progress till the page disintegrates and repetition, unbalance, memory play over events, trying to make sense of the impossible.
For me the work feels like the journey of therapy and tells me that surviving trauma is never linear but rather an exploration with ups and downs, breakthroughs and break-downs, elation and deflation. Therapy can never be an a-z. It is a process – and everyone’s search for survival is different. The inscription to the book sums this up beautifully:
to my self & all survivors & to all those who did not survive we hold you in our arms and gently whisper it's not your fault
In this way some passages and poems remind me of the work of the poet Andreena Leeanne (Charred) who also fearlessly confronts abuse and the struggle for survival. As Andreena wrote in her poem “No Longer Keeping Secrets”:
I am a woman/ I am resilient/ I am courageous / I have achieved amazing things/ despite my circumstances I remain strong/ I now know full well what he did was wrong/ I am not to blame
The horror and terror of abuse is never far from the surface in Traum/A. I found one of the most devastating poems to be “Traum/P – PTSD in Tetraptych” which is so painful to read, like a grenade exploding as a poem.
In “Traum/T – Trauma Porn [Inverted] or An incomplete list of things I haven’t yet found a way to write about (or decided if I even should)” the work is entirely redacted, nothing can be said in our culture which still doesn’t understand. A very interesting insight from Seabright is that this poem was actually written out text, blacked out with the most ‘challenging’ words or phrases. Originally she kept it like that but then whited out the rest, leaving it to chance in terms of whether it was published on a white page or not. In this sense, she ‘unsilenced’ herself, but it’s down to luck/fate whether anyone is able to listen.
The book is so often visceral and cuts through the page – using style and innovation to make the work completely now, raw, powerful and painful. In “Traum/F Fractured”, the longest poem in the collection, we really feel the sense of injustice and impossibility of ever fully confronting what has occurred.
F is for Fractured. Behold as trauma is birthed. Dragged from the womb, kicking and screaming into the room.
We are left with PTSD and fractured memories. We can see and re-see terrifying moments on repeat, but how does this help us? We attempt to put the past back together, but all we have are fractures, splinters and terrifying moments. This is jarring, complex, complicated. Memory both protects and mocks us: and then it collapses. We are left trying to piece together the impossible; abuse at its most vile.
The following poems are the response: blackness, absence, confusion. The effect is disconcerting and life-like. We live in between the cracks – memories, abuse, absence. It seems strange when we veer into prose-poems; everything is so sparse, then the world changes. We are on a desperate search to survive, somehow. Our analytical self takes charge, we shut off. A good example of this is “Traum/M – murmur” where bold text and repeated words like scars across the page. Then obliteration. Similarly “Traum/Y – ?” visually says so much in one word. The endless repetition of why did this happen? How could it? It is imprinted on the page and in our thoughts.
In many ways dealing with trauma is the same as dealing with grief; we have to mourn the death of our old self, slowly to come to terms with the tragedy and find a way to reach some sort of resolution. One theory developed by Swiss psychiatrist Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, suggested there are 5 stages of grief: over time this has become 7. Traum/A largely deals with each, but more the early stages – shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression. There is hope here, but desperate hope. A chance of reconstruction and acceptance, but it is a jagged terrible road.
False hope and expectation are played out and parodied in “Trama/D – Dumb Terminal”. All the things we should do to recover in bullet points, the poem ending with:
Determine: that the answer must be in the missing pages.
There are no easy answers in this book, more questions and revelations than solutions. Again this mocks the idea of an a-z; there are no road maps to freedom from abuse. It also echoes the middle of the Contents/ Trauma Symptom Checklist:
there is a hole at the centre of everything
I think one of the joys of this book is that different poems will resonate for different people. For me “Traum/V – Rear View Mirror” has a Sylvia Plath quality to it:
your scars like badges of honour your body a battlefield
There is hope here, “a dubious truce”, but mostly a growing self-awareness that hints at finding a way through, however painful it is to go through the mockingly agonising “why do you do this to yourself?” and the endless PTSD repeats. This sense of trying to make sense of events that aren’t rational or understandable for our minds to fully comprehend runs through the work. The book is fiercely personal and powerful, an extraordinary voyage staring into the abyss.
The final word is given to “Traum/Z – zuflüstern” – to whisper. In a world where abuse is still such a terrible taboo, what other response is there? The anger, pain and sorrow have already been screamed throughout the book – the final word is just a whisper. A series of statements about the long term effect of abuse: feelings of disconnection from place, disassociated with one’s own body. To lose oneself, to be the trauma, where does that leave the self? In the end it is so easy to say it is not our fault, but so much harder to really know it, accept it, move forward. There is too much salt available for wounds. But the last words mirror the opening inscription: ‘it’s not your fault’.
Traum/A is a fearless exploration of the experience of trauma, a glimpse of the process of surviving/ attempting to survive. Its insights are deep and vital, they resonate and question society, especially its failure to allow more open discussion. Only then can there be an honest debate and a chance to root this out for good.
Overall Traum/A is a mesmerising book with so much to admire. It is beautiful, savage, heart-breaking and heart-felt. The innovative layout and poetry experiments give a multi-layered approach to poetry that needs to be experienced. Poetic form, trauma and inspiration yield a unique and dynamic encounter, a collection that is well worth exploring.