Content warning: abuse
The brain stores trauma in pieces. Disconnect, in some instances, provides protection. Sound and sensation, taste and image, each becomes distinct from the other as the fragile human mind works to make sense of the traumatic event in the way it would every other memory.
Nikki Moustaki’s debut collection of poetry captures this divide and dissociation while establishing themes of darkness and light within the difficult narratives of suffering and abuse. These poems juxtapose the divine and the mundane, and situate pieces of Christian and Greek mythology side by side. Moustaki surpasses a meditation of the presence of beautiful within a world of ugliness, and says, “Where the beautiful mingles with the common, it is the beautiful thing that suffers.”
This sentiment sets a tone for the collection, asking the reader to both seek out beauty and accept life’s tendency to ruin or change that which is deemed beautiful. These poems make no attempt to shield beauty from the discomfort and pain of knowledge. At the same time, mundane pieces of everyday life are afforded a level of elevation— a bird or a Band-aid become so much more than the sum of a bird or a Band-aid.
Trauma within the mind more closely resembles a poem than it does a story. And so, the subject matter demands the form. The collection itself is divided into four sections, four of which house a single, winding poem. These poems roam with the fluidity of free verse, but never quite lose the thematic thread that guides the reader from piece to piece, poem to poem.
The collection opens with a poem in sections, which further emphasize the necessity of compartmentalization on behalf of the character(s). The first poem, “The Mind’s Negative” leads the reader in with a title of dual meaning, bringing to mind both photography— a moment preserved, and absence: memory blotted out for the safety of the mind.
The reader is offered a choice of interpretations: that which is missing from the mind or that which leaves the worst of stains. The poem employs a cast of characters, some of whom are women hoping to fit the pieces of their surroundings together and find their place within it. The poem grapples with the disorienting experience of recognizing oneself in the moments of surviving of abuse.
The poem wavers between first and third person, as the subject attempts to remove the experience from her own body. “I am not this woman, I thought. This is not my life. / The woman in the mirror tasted the temperature drop in there. / The trickle of blood— her blood— into her socks … Shoes by the door. / Where are my feet? Where are my hands? / I am not this woman. This is not my life.”
This disassociation is further emphasized by the sections titled “[The Stairs]” in which the lines themselves become a staircase the reader must climb alongside the speaker. Repetition reflects the sensation of falling, of struggling to find footing. Even so the poem does not over disorient, but offers image, “Inside the hand: / the shrieking bird, sirens, the fruit and pulp of ache.” The use of positioning and sensory details set up the collection as one of poignancy and unbridled reality.
The title poem emerges within the third and only section that contains more than one poem. This prosaic poem reels the reader in with a first person speaker, and immerses the reader into that speaker’s experience with sensory details: the sensation of greasy between fingers, of a pill swallowed; the taste of bullets; the sound of wine poured.
Amidst the staccato of the short sentences, the speaker juxtaposes items associated with beauty alongside things of violence. The image of the small gun in the panties drawer is particularly striking, suggesting that there may be an intimacy to violence.
Moustaki’s debut poetry collection demonstrates her ability to create lyrical friction between unlike things. By reminding the reader that gardenias and bullets can live in the same poem as they do in the same life, and even taste the same, Moustaki forces the reader to consider that beautiful things may be just as dangerous as they are vulnerable, and dangerous things can be beautiful too. Furthermore, these poems illuminate the way poetic line and image suit a survivor’s fragmented memory of traumatic events.
Extremely Lightweight Guns, by Nikki Moustaki.
Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2021.
Forthcoming: April 20, 2021