It seems an oxymoron to say that poet Jennifer Clark beautifully describes the conflict faced by the victim of domestic abuse in, “Not a fast runner, I consider other ways to escape this relationship.” But her scene setting, visual and auditory references, as well as metaphors, are so strong, the reader is drawn into the narrator’s dilemma.
I chose this piece from our June 2018 issue as my “Staff Pick” not only because it is so artfully written but because it also illustrates the difficulty of leaving an abusive or toxic relationship. I saw this dilemma firsthand during a college internship at the U.S. Attorney’s office in D.C. doing intake interviews for victims of domestic violence. I saw it again, many years later working as a Child Advocacy Lawyer for the D.C. Volunteer Lawyers Project.
For ease in writing and reading my comments, I will refer to the narrator or protagonist in the poem as “she” and the antagonist as “he,” fully recognizing that there is no gender distinction between abusers and victims.
In the first line of the poem, the reader learns the narrator has built something of a life with the antagonist when she says she plays “dead, like a ‘possum [i]n the den, we have built…” We see her on the “mossy” couch, playing possum but tense with fear as the antagonist throws a lamp and “darkness crashes.” The den is a metaphor for their relationship—the thing they’ve built that now confines her.
Her inability to take action is illustrated in lying on the “mossy” couch and brings to mind the adage “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” She is stuck, even as she says, “I pretend to be blind to the rubble of us.” But she’s aware, thinking and dreaming, in a constant internal conversation about leaving, and the treacherousness in so doing,
The languid language in the poem belies the violence in the house. (“I wait on the mossy couch for you to grow bored.” “I feign no interest in the lamp you throw across the room.” “I could shamble out the door.”)
First she compares herself to possums, which when “[t]rapped in a maze…find their way out better than rats.” Possums play dead. But I note, they also have a protein in their blood known to detoxify a number of poisons, including venom found in snakes. And notice she discusses “rats” rather than mice in the maze, rats being a more appropriate metaphor for the abuser.
Knowing that the possum can find its way out of a maze better than a rat, gives the reader hope for her. She will find her way out. She is smarter than the rat with whom she is living. But later her self-doubt shows. She recalls that possums live up to eight years in captivity but only two in the wild.
She dreams she’s a dragonfly nymph who survives underwater for six years. When the time is right, it flies away. But then she recalls that dragonflies only live two months after fully formed.
She’s conflicted—should she stay or should she go? She faces the dilemma of the dangerous status quo or the risk of the unknown. The reader hopes that she will bravely “shamble out the door.”
Lastly, she compares herself to a bandicoot, an Australasian and New Guinea marsupial with a backwards-facing pouch that she says can shield her “from debris you fling my way.”
Research on bandicoots indicates some of the species are endangered and all are in decline. She too is endangered. She may become extinct.
Her internal conflict—whether to stay or go, the references she makes to animals who die sooner in the wild, illustrates the increased risk the abused face upon leaving their abusers. Experts say the most dangerous time for victims is when they actually get up the courage and leave. The abuser realizes he or she is no longer in control and resorts to even greater violence. News headlines recount this reality. That is why a well-designed plan to leave an abusive relationship and having a safe place to go are vital to victims.
She wants to leave, go “against gravity,” slide away from the thing that is keeping her down. But she refers to leaving as “the honorable thing to do” rather than the life saving thing to do. The manipulative pull in an abusive relationship is strong, strong as gravity. But her last two lines give the reader hope she just might find her way out.
“I blink my eyes, stretch opposable thumbs, and rise.
I am a seed in search of a pouch.”
And I pray she will find that pouch to carry her to safety so she can survive and grow, just as I prayed for the victims I met.