And I Shall Again Be Virtuous by Natalie Eilbert
Big Lucks, December 2014
44 pages – Big Lucks
When we die, our bodies become not our own, become fragments of minerals, become dirt/dust/decay. A sexual assault is much like a death in this way—we feel our bodies have been taken and discarded. An assault on the body, an assault on personhood. When I first read through Natalie Eilbert’s And I Shall Again Be Virtuous, I felt that tug of death again. The brush with disgust and dysmorphia. I prepared to die.
Only, I was surprised to learn that And I Shall Again Be Virtuous is not, in fact, a death story, but a creation myth. As much about the act of rape as the aftermath and the before-math, this chapbook is the body mind and soul behind violent action and must keep living in this world no matter how strong the desire to be part of the next.
It’s telling that Eilbert chooses one of her epigraphs from Frankenstein—a man-made birth story written by a woman with a distinct absence of female mothering. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, there is “ambition to create life without the other,” without women, which becomes an inarguably failed experiment. And I Shall Again Be Virtuous is not exactly the opposite, but close—a world where men are created, shaped, and controlled by women, reappropriating the grotesqueness and violence of rape culture projected onto women by men. A reversal of the power dynamic. A way out. If we are to follow the epigraph, then we must also “destroy the work of our hands,” for the created always returning to the creator to face demise, and to be born anew.
Eilbert’s poetry is a raw and ragged two-sided knife of both the weakness and strength that come from destruction. “What he did to me was a crime,” she writes of the destructive act in the opening poem, “Golem,” but has since already birthed her own power to create and thus to crush and conquer: “I can animate lifeless clay any hour of the day” highlighting the power to create that quickly then switches to an anti-creation: “I would teach it to be never.” Here the woman is a space of destruction or growth; which one depends on the autonomous choice of the speaker. “Golem” sets up a reclamation of choice of mental and bodily autonomy, and thus the poem in itself an act of creation, a growth.
Creation/destruction as antitheses continue through the entire chapbook. We are flooded with images of creation—“A belly forms out from this crop-top,” the word belly hardly used outside of a description of pregnancy—that then are broken down and rebuilt only to be destroyed again. “Skinny bodies” are everywhere, anorexia itself a way to control what the body makes and is made into. In “Black Walnuts,” a woman is born from a tree nut, grows into a tree. In I Shall Again Be Virtuous we see images of crocheting, sewing, we are given lessons in etymology, the creation mythos of language. Leaves grow from between legs, an act of reproduction or construction, depending.
The central long poem “Man Hole” repeats syntax like a work song: “I left him,” “I make him,” “I make him,” “I give him.” Eilbert constructs a man her own way through this grotesque creation myth—“shit lake, shit river, shit rat god”—moving in and out of multiple frames of thought, multiple narratives nested within each stanza, multiple holes each birth different creatures. That which was destroyed is suddenly made holy again: “My cunt is a star with its darkness pressed to the floor to temporarily light me, to lighten me.” Later in the poem, she repeats “I make him hundreds of times” implying hundreds of creations as well as hundreds of destructions. And same goes for the last line, “My love is a hole I can only make once. I make it hundreds and hundreds of times.” Destruction gives way to possibility, growth, light.
But this is not to distract from the act of rape itself. The rape here is so real it hurts to look at as a reader, as a woman, as a victim of abuse, as whoever you are. Eilbert’s poems do not falter in their presentation of the act as real; they do not seek to hide. In “How the Hand Was Returned” and its partner “How the Wrist Was Returned” creation is a source of great pain, the remembering, the repeated prongs of death: “The funny twitch of men inside me,” “I create them anew, create them to hurt me the same.” She writes, “You can’t imagine how cold it was there in the midst of creation.” You cannot imagine.
The problem with most creation myths is that they presuppose a “perfect state” that we must strive to return to—the virginal cosmos, the Garden of Eden. They assume that where we are now is dirty, and where we came from is clean, the most immaculate. “In this play I am a little monsoon of Eve,” writes Eilbert, “beautiful until torn into life and ruining water.” And I Shall Again Be Virtuous is a successful reprogramming of the creation myth, where the “virtuous” state isn’t static. It can be achieved and redefined in the context of rape, birth, creation, destruction. So that the “virtuous” state can be reimagined as what we are rather than an amorphous idea of what we should be.
I was crushed by this book. I was at the edge of death and I created myself anew, reading it. It’s a power that most great books have. “The Rapist Joins AA” split me right down the middle. There is weakness and strength simultaneously in a line like “My curse to him was that I would not speak.” There is realness in the surreal: “Sucked so hard / all his great big dogs died of cancer… His mother a sick cat with worms they had to put down.”
This is what rape does: “A man I loved turned my wrists into alien twigs,” and this is what And I Shall Again Be Virtuous does to us, to poetry. Breaks down what we know. Rebuilds it back into something more sinister and more beautiful: “The wrist I’ve constructed is a weapon.” We wield the weapon back at society, at rape culture, at the people who’ve split us down the middle. It may be significant that I, countless times, misread and miswrote the title of the chapbook as And I Shall Again Be Victorious rather than Virtuous. This chapbook is a way to look at rape that allows us to keep living. If it’s violent, so be it. If it’s green and growing, so be it. If it’s a new world, so be it. If it scares you, so be it. So be it.