COMEDY, the old adage goes, is tragedy plus time. Or, to put it another way, comedy expresses pain, and also a kind of self-aware resistance to pain. Still, slipping on a banana peel is one thing, and severe, life-altering trauma another — can humor coexist with the latter? Frances Driscoll’s poetry collections over the past 20 years — The Rape Poems (Pleasure Boat Studio, 1997) and now seaglass picnic with a splash of post traumatic Stress (Pleasure Boat Studio, 2015) — deal explicitly with her life after rape and offer some answers to this question.
In Driscoll’s poems, to survive rape is to exist in an absurd state. Sexual trauma splits your life in two; one self remains in the present, while the other remains wounded — and in a state of still being wounded, again and again. This rift is rarely spoken of in polite society. Driscoll’s poems express anger at how, in the words of Leslie Jamison, “The most graceful victim […] is the one who doesn’t need to point at his holes or ask for sympathy […] [the one] who just keeps quiet.” When Driscoll tells a childhood friend that she’s been raped in “First Recital,” her friend replies with silence, after which they talk about the weather and haircuts.
One response to this absurd situation is to laugh, to put humor before trauma, and to insist on it in spite of trauma, or even at trauma’s expense. Claudia Monpere McIsaac — who teaches Driscoll’s work and has hosted the poet in her classroom at Santa Clara University — wrote me that, in addition to her fear, anger, sorrow, and anxiety, “Driscoll is an enormously funny woman. Her laugh is rich and inviting. I suspected bits of humor — dark humor, of course — when reading The Rape Poems, but worried I was misreading. When I asked Driscoll about this, she laughed and said, ‘Of course, darling. Of course. Where would we be without laughter?’”
In 1987, Frances Driscoll was 37 years old, divorced, and had just moved to northern Florida with her teenage son. (I worked with her a decade later, in Shanghai, more on which in a moment.) One night, a few days after her first chapbook of poems came out, while on the way home from her shift editing at a local newspaper, she had car trouble. A man she did not know, whom Driscoll calls Ray, offered her assistance. He then followed Driscoll home, broke into her house, and raped her. In the poem “Entertaining Ray” from The Rape Poems, she writes about trying — or failing — to entertain the idea of what this man did to her. She also describes the sickening “entertainment” he took, without consent, from her body:
Inventing Ray, I fail over and over.
Nothing sounds right. Or true. Except
hunger. Terrible hunger. Even in
the womb I see him, mute mouth moving,
wanting. In the middle of his time
inside me, he held himself perfectly
still and did not look down, but rather
stared straight ahead at blank dimly
lit wall. His face remaining, the way
I see his face always, a face without
In this, as in many of The Rape Poems, Driscoll describes the experience of being raped with a surgical, matter-of-fact precision. Her juxtapositions — between Ray’s blank stare and his aggressive invasion, or between her cool tone and the searing, painful actions she describes — endow the poems with blunt force.
Driscoll’s new collection continues this project of documenting life after sexual trauma. Like her first book, seaglass picnic is explicitly autobiographical in nature and at least one of the characters from The Rape Poems — Donald, a therapist — features in several of the pieces. Yet the collections cover different terrain emotionally and stylistically, and whereas The Rape Poems took Driscoll almost ten years to complete, seaglass picnic was written in a matter of months. When I asked Driscoll about her writing process for this book, she wrote:
these poems just began to fly out of me
write a poem immediately begin another
where is this new voice coming from my sister sally said
so have this terrible mess
poems handwritten on unlined copy paper
poems handwritten in steno pads
poems handwritten on long yellow legal pads
poems handwritten in composition notebooks
niece begins to type
even gets me typing
so then we have this mess of hundreds of poems
niece begins to propose various arrangements
when i say oh liz lets go out for lunch
liz says honey we can go out to lunch when the book is finished
Most of Driscoll’s responses to my questions about her life and writing arrive like this, in unpunctuated verse, sometimes rapid-fire, message upon message, the result of free-associating and hitting “Send” without revision.
By contrast, the form of the poems in seaglass picnic shows a careful editorial eye: there is standardized punctuation, unified theme, extended imagery, and a strong shape to the verse. The tone matches that of her correspondence: warm, unguarded, open. And this directness seems to correspond to how Driscoll described her writing process:
the rape poems
came very slowly
sometimes finish one get idea for another
say no get away from me
can’t can’t no
my then process
move to sound, ear
then back and forth
paper sound sound paper
none of that with seaglass
This rush of productivity was inspired by Andy, a former student who, when she taught him decades ago in seventh grade, Driscoll thought would be “his generation’s best American novelist.” They hadn’t seen one another in years, but he contacted her through Facebook, “three days off heroin,” she wrote me, “? days off crack / ? days off cocaine / ? days off methadone,” and began sharing poems with her. In the poem “Andy Finds Me,” Driscoll describes how he reveals — as many of her confidantes do — that he is also a victim of sexual trauma:
Age 8. The male babysitter.
It’s a game, he told Andy.
The long dead life after since.
She told me that Andy’s poems on the subject were “crucifying,” sending her into “a post traumatic stress episode from hell.” A couple of weeks later, another former student named Aileen got in touch with Driscoll after she was raped on her college campus by a friend. (Aileen also features in several of the seaglass poems.) Driscoll recounts this dark yet prolific time:
all reading one another’s poems
lots and lots of new poems
somewhere in this time
i somehow begin to come alive
seaglass picnic tells of Driscoll’s life now, almost three decades after her rape. Her suffering at this point is insidious. Traumatic flashbacks may occur at any moment, sparked by an object, a word, a gesture. She calls these triggers Minefield Spells, hexes that lie in wait, ambushing her, returning her once again to an incapacitated state.
Even ordinary objects become triggers for Driscoll: a comb, for example, brings to mind the rape kit a medical examiner uses to search through the victim’s pubic hair for traces of the rapist’s hair. A dental procedure involving the dentist’s hands in her mouth lays her low for the week leading up to it. Pumping gas is a nightmare. The sexual connotations of the term “pump” itself upset Driscoll, while the physical act of gassing up the car — sliding the hose’s nozzle into the tank — overwhelms her. In “Normal/Not Normal,” she unpacks how the associations of this weekly task accumulate, to the point where it becomes a reminder of what was taken from her:
I have to […]
hold in my left hand this terrible
huge penis like object and
Hate the word insert, hate to insert
which reminds me of that other word
I can’t now think about
but I am now thinking about
hate that word, hate thinking, about
that word, hate thinking about penetration
once before there was, a time, I actually liked
the feel of that
can’t imagine that now
Here, as in all of the poems in seaglass picnic, Driscoll’s voice is immediate, never shouting but always persistent, rambling to the point of breathlessness, the piling of commas like short gasps for air amid the repetitive phrases which, like a chant, slowly weave the Minefield Spell. Her insistent repetition keeps us close to her train of thought, and the incantation of “now” and “hate” grounds us in the moment of the poem.
What keeps us from falling into Driscoll’s nightmare completely is the deadpan, sarcastic wit she scatters through her words like a trail out of the woods. In one poem, Andy uses a euphemism for the word “penis” (Driscoll does not reveal which word, as if she still can’t bring herself to write it), and the poet descends into a several-weeks-long panic attack that culminates in visions of a large, pink phallus floating above her patio. The apparition follows beside her car as she drives to school one day, an image that would be comical if not for the terror it evokes in her. What is funny is the dry way in which Driscoll responds to her therapist, who tries to normalize the occurrence by telling her that even a brilliant person like Jung had visions. “[D]o you really think anyone thinks / Jung was normal,” she writes. “I do not find this helpful.”
And yet, normal or not, as the book goes on, Driscoll writes of how the Minefield Word Spells slowly lose their power. The panic attacks ease. She begins to show an interest in her body again, or at least to find it doesn’t frighten her anymore. In “Spontaneous Orgasm,” she describes lying in bed and feeling unfamiliar sensations below the waist:
[…] there is this tightening.
And, then there is this release.
What just happened to me, I think.
Then, I think, Oh, That was an orgasm.
As in The Rape Poems, Driscoll’s observations are droll, but there’s a new lightness to seaglass picnic, a self-deprecating sass that puts the reader at ease. Then, just as Driscoll is in the process of putting together the book, Andy kills himself at the age of 51. Driscoll told me about that early spring day in another one of her verse emails:
wake happy laughing
liz is calling out to me
its time to work on the poems
happy to find a happy good morning email from andy
the email is not from andy
the email is from andy’s son benjamin
urgent please phone
just tell me benjamin i write
just tell me
this changes the book
no liz says
maybe this changes the dedication
this does not change the book
no liz i say
this does not change the dedication
this changes the book
the book changes
As Driscoll recounts in seaglass picnic, Andy’s last words to her are “I loved you / more than seaglass.”
I worked with Driscoll in 2006, when I taught seventh-grade English at a private school in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area. Driscoll was the head of my department. From the moment I met her — her soft voice flinty with cigarettes, her reddish hair sodden with the city’s filthy humidity — she struck me as a delightful free-thinker, a lovable eccentric. She spoke so softly that I had to lean close, calling me “hon,” which is what her family calls her — hon, or honey. Like Alice’s caterpillar, she punctuated gnomic sentence fragments with a deep sigh, or trailed off with an “umm.” Early on, when I gave her a week’s worth of lesson plans to review, she took a quick glance and said, “Well, these are lesson plans.”
“Uh … Do they look okay?” I asked.
“Do they look okay to you?” she replied. Later, she told me she had never in her life followed a lesson plan.
She was well loved in the school, especially by her high school students, who took a protective interest in her. One or two of them would often carry her books as she ambled down the long, wide hallways, never in a rush, wearing what I jokingly referred to as her uniform: baggy khakis and oversized men’s button-up shirts. She writes about this getup in “Baskets,” one of her Rape Poems. The “repetition of a few safe clothes,” “Always / loose. Never ironed,” is an outfit of necessity, not choice. “I wear / what I can. Clothes as symptom not / statement,” she explains.
But I didn’t know that then. Likewise, I didn’t know, when she commanded me to tuck in a shirt I had arranged just so, partially mussed, what could account for her fashion conservatism. Now I wonder, might my shirt spilling over the waist of my pants have reminded her of things she couldn’t bear to think about? Some mornings she came in with a smile, while other times she was nervous and snappy, seemingly exhausted — and sometimes, she didn’t come in at all.
“What’s her deal?” I asked one of the more senior teachers, at some point that September.
“She’s a rape victim,” she told me, as if that explained everything.
Reading Driscoll’s poems makes it clear that these kinds of overly simple explanations are themselves symptoms of life after rape. Maybe Driscoll was always a flighty eccentric; it’s impossible to know how much her sexual trauma explains about her, because who she is now is forever tied to that one night when she became a victim. In a series of poems in seaglass picnic that focus on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Driscoll corrects the show’s writers on their choice of adjective:
Special is not the right word.
[…] We’re not special.
We were tortured.
We are tortured.
The present tense in that final line is important. For while the Pulitzer Prize–nominated poet Bruce Weigl has said that, in seaglass picnic with a splash of post traumatic Stress, Driscoll “has discovered and artfully nurtured a poetics of trauma not yet seen in our American poetry,” Driscoll’s work does not conflate poetic achievement with mastery over trauma. She consistently repudiates the cliché that one can heal from an event as damaging as a rape, though this isn’t to say she doesn’t contemplate ways — Xanax, red wine, even hints of suicide — to stop feeling hurt and scared.
What brings Driscoll back from nihilism — because for all her darkness she rarely represents complete hopelessness — are simple delights like sweet desserts, and blueberries, and picnics, and lingering in bed on soft white cotton sheets dreaming, and children, including her nephew, Ocean. In “Leftover dreams & more inside a small yellow butterfly world,” she imagines the quiet, peaceful life of a sunflower, with only a butterfly for company. “In a small yellow butterfly world / there is no sexual violence. […] Well, it’s possible.” Here, Driscoll recasts a butterfly, which might seem like the living embodiment of nervousness and unease, as a symbol of freedom and innocence. These are moods, the poem suggests, that Driscoll can no longer inhabit in a simple way, but she still takes joy in seeing them in the world around her.
In Driscoll’s work, as in her life, the boundary between trauma and recovery is blurry — though the Minefield Spells have loosened, she sometimes still falls under their sway. Even the act of reviewing this profile for accuracy brought one on:
having a shaky day
should not have read this now
have to go pick ocean up
tried to stand up and difficult to stay steady
it’s a beautiful article
can’t re-read now
will respond later
wish had not now read
have to be somehow ok to drive to ocean
This response speaks to the persistent pain and threat of pain evident throughout Driscoll’s poetry. But its repetitions, its matter-of-fact and even self-deprecating account of fragility, suggest one reason why her work offers comfort to the traumatized. In one of my favorite pieces from seaglass picnic, “The Definition of Fragile,” Driscoll first objects to being described as “fragile” but then comes to realize that it is indeed the proper word for her because she is breakable — she is, in fact, broken. She may be broken, irreparably so, but the resilience of her poetic voice comes from her ability to bring humor out of this brokenness. In her hands, laughter is a form of rebellion, an act of resistance and empowerment.
Brian Gresko is an essayist, short story author, and the editor of the anthology When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood.