Ugly Duckling Presse ($16)
by Isaac Pickell
In picking distance decay from a shelf, one might imagine that Cathy Eisenhower spends her third collection of poetry meditating on geography. And yet, enclosed within the cover’s aerial photograph of a pacifying beach scene are testaments to violence. In this collection, the poet splinters the body of both victim and rapist, combing through remains in search of pieces that retain humanity: fist, rib, eyelid, tongue. She progressively blurs her voice and its sympathies, slipping into a series of perspectives from which the body trauma is perceived.
Throughout, distance decay seems to be searching for a language and form that can navigate the experience and consequence of rape. Early on, Eisenhower remains tethered to the viscerally exclusive, bleeding her personal iteration of survival through poetry that is foregrounded in the doubt, distance, and fury often associated with the aftermath of sexual violence. The poetry gives voice to the assumed questioning of her project, then implicates the reader for their complicit silence: “you don’t have to write about rape / if you want to . . . / you don’t have to rape / to not write about it . . .” This presence gives way, in turns, to scientific detachment and graphic violence, as both subject and object are put under the microscope, burned, torn, and bloodied.
What’s left is desiccated by an elaborate and dialectical chain of metaphor, renaming rape and its various requisite violences while also applying rape to mismatched ideas and practices, from whiteness to gardening. The device is never ambiguous. Rather, Eisenhower destabilizes meaning in order to remind us how obvious and pervasive the assumptions about rape really are: “Rape is a great metaphor for rape.”
The work slips into satiric solidarity with her rapist, at times blaring the full volume of her anger in sardonic, bold font. Declarations like “rapists need the most love” feel titular to a book of apologetics generations of victims have written, in living rooms, courtrooms, bedrooms, poetry. Eisenhower succeeds in inverting the burden with which victims are supposed to be weighed down, producing a liberatory narrative and opening a space for the survivor.
And yes, despite the strength and confidence of the work, distance decay is a poetics of survival. Moments of pure vulnerability carve through the pages, disrupting the witty, associative play Eisenhower indulges in, a successfully uncomfortable game for a reader to witness: “does my rapist recollect raping me as often as I do?” At times, the verse abandons its energy altogether, and one can actively experience the trauma as it overwhelms the poet’s syntax and spelling: “aw iating neck scent pro ximity or feed thirst y on cold me tallic flow ers.” In distance decay, Eisenhower invites us to observe as she investigates her own survival.