When Trauma is the Muse

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Circadian
By Chelsey Clammer
Red Hen Press, 2017
176 Pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Naomi Kimbell

When I cracked Circadian, out now from Red Hen Press, I knew what to expect. Having followed Clammer’s work for years, I expected excellence in form and ingenuity. I expected to be bothered and disturbed. I expected to be impressed by Clammer’s command of genre-bending writing, of her attention to the sound and feel of language, of poetry, and in all these, I was not disappointed. Circadian is like a rare perfect album, a collection of essays whose purpose it is to expose, explore, and discuss loss and grief through death, sexual assault, and alcoholism. Each essay stands on its own, its own fully unique song, but is also integral to the whole, part of a well-mastered collection of vision and feeling and sound, mixed together for one intense read. Circadian is about trauma, and as hard as the stories hit, I read it in a single sitting.

“No one ever told me the law of verbs. No one ever told me you can’t verb a noun, that you can’t Chelsey a sentence.”

Lyric and hybrid essays are sometimes too clever at the expense of story, too full of tricks, lacking substance by burying meaning in forms too obscure to parse. Clammer avoids this pitfall by using form to reveal the story rather than hide it, delivering a deeply personal and touching collection, which recently won a Reader Views Choice Award for Societal Issues. I was invited into the author’s experience, channeled through story by form and language rather than distanced by them. You can Chelsey a sentence. In fact, you can Chelsey a whole essay. Clammer’s choices in form and words work beyond the aesthetics of skill and technique, conveying her experience and allowing the reader to share it.

In “On Three,” Clammer chooses a simple bulleted list to describe her father’s alcoholism, a story whose instructive, matter-of-fact tone is subtly rife with bleak humor, enhancing the horror of the narrative. On moving day, Clammer’s father is passed out on the bed when the movers encounter him and entreat his wife for help:

  • “Ma’am? We have a problem here.”
  • In order for a person to hear you speak clearly from 20 feet away, your voice needs to be projected at the force of 60 decibels.
  • The movers stand 10 feet away from his bed. It is not he who responds, but his wife. She is 30 feet away from them and behind two sets of walls as she packs up the Fiestaware in the kitchen. Their voices are a whisper, but she still hears them, or rather senses the sound of desperation brewing in the master bedroom down the hall.
  • The movers look at him, at each other, at the wife as she enters the room, arms immediately crossing her chest. He is a problem she does not know how to solve.

Through the format of an interview, Clammer takes on trigger warnings in “Trigger Happy,” and whether or not the writer is responsible for the readers’ emotional reactions to material that deals with trauma. She wants to push us “harder to think critically about [our]discomfort” with difficult material, asking us to consider whether “art [that is]made from pain will only incite more terror.” Or, conversely, can it bring connection and release.

In “Re: Collection,” Clammer begins with the mundane, by dusting a neglected bookshelf with a wet paper towel, and is surprised to find her father’s ashes, which are also collecting dust, among the debris, leading Clammer to wonder and to ruminate upon what we can keep and what we can’t of our memories and the people we love. A part of this rumination includes the composition of dust—pollution, pollen, and, as it happens, skin cells. This deposit of dust on the box that contains her father’s ashes blurs the lines between life and death, separation and connection. “Through his death,” she says, “our bodies have finally grown close to one another.”

Clammer writes both about trauma and about how trauma is written. “There is one place we go,” she says, “for absolute solitude—inward. The safe space. Until it’s not, and we try to find somewhere physical to go, somewhere to hide from the world. Ourselves. Because no one feels safe when everything feels so exposed.” Clammer’s experience is exposed on the page, but because she includes an element of the meta in each essay, the hardest truths are possible to hear. When the reader enters the story, we also enter it through her reflection and direct addresses, inviting us not only to participate in the experience itself, but also in the conversation. This distance makes room for the reader to breathe, to reflect. “I don’t know if you’ll like this,” she writes. “I don’t know how to read all this.” Clammer makes it clear that the reader is integral to her process of understanding.

Each essay in Circadian is arresting, in subject and arc and realization. The language is tuned. Each story is a journey in pain, yet Clammer makes it possible to read the unutterable truths of alcoholism, suicide, rape, and grief. She exposes the details of her experiences plainly and doesn’t hide behind language and form, using these, instead, to illuminate. Yet, even with her candor, she does not “incite more terror” by writing about trauma, but rather, through clarity and specificity, offers an opportunity for others who have experienced trauma to see a common experience on the page.

Clammer’s voice is compassionate to both herself and to other survivors. This, combined with artistic acumen and astute aesthetic choices, enhances the narrative rather than obscures it. She invites the reader to take part in something sacred, something as simple as a conversation, or as transformative as a rite of passage, into trauma, through it, and out the other side.

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About Author

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Naomi Kimbell is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker living and working in Western Montana. Her essays have been published in the Iowa Review, Black Warrior Review, The Baltimore Review, The Indiana Review, Crazyhorse, Calyx, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and other journals and anthologies. Her films can be viewed on Vimeo, and YouTube, and she is currently working on a novel.

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