Unplotting Trauma: On Elisa Gonzalez’s “Grand Tour”
By C. Francis FisherOctober 21, 2023
Grand Tour by Elisa Gonzalez
Critics have long argued that poetry has a special place in trauma studies, unmoored as it is from the pressures of linear storytelling and coherent characters. As readers of poetry, are we being precious if we imagine that the genre might evade the issues raised by Sehgal? Grand Tour (2023), the first book of poems by Elisa Gonzalez, explores these questions head-on.
World-shattering events take place in the scope of Grand Tour, including the death of the speaker’s sibling. The title of the second poem in the collection, “After my Brother’s Death, I Reflect on the Iliad,” shows how one turns to literature, particularly canonical works, in times of difficulty. But a darker avowal awaits us if we follow the speaker—that loss disrupts the possibility of likeness. Near the end of the poem, the speaker laments: “It’s like how sometimes I forget / you’re gone. / But it’s not like that, is it? Not at all. When in this world, similes / carry us nowhere.” The question probes the very idea of similarity, negating the assumption that any experience can be matched by another. What are the possibilities for literature when grief breaks down its most intimate literary technique, that of comparison? Put another way, in the age of trauma, how can we still turn to literature to emote, express, reflect?
Gonzalez offers one possible answer in another poem, entitled “In Quarantine, I Reflect on the Death of Ophelia” (notice how the title echoes the construction of the poem title discussed above):
The window shows men digging a place for survivors of the
future, the rich ones.
It will be a condo tower, glass walls for better envy.
They’ve built the frames, I see, around the holes where doors will
Capitalism! So full of holes and hope.
Here, the speaker brings together class realities and the international trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gonzalez draws attention to the collective traumas we may forget when we focus on an individual’s personal trauma. Perhaps this is one place where poetry divests itself of the trauma plot since its speaker—“I”—often does not undergo the same type of character building as the narrator of a novel. While the narrator of a novel might serve as a guide, in many poems the reader has the opportunity to experience the poem as the speaker. The lyric “I” allows a reader to move beyond themself and out into the world. In this way, the reader focuses less on the “I” as a potentially traumatized individual, and instead becomes more attuned to what the speaker says, does, and notices.
Whereas fiction or television might feel bound by the story of the traumatized individual, contemporary poetry addresses traumatic realities without the obligation to focus on the personal at the expense of collective experience and varied perspectives. I think here of Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018), which addresses the realities of Black men in the United States through the recurrence of the sonnet. In poetry, our eternal return might be form, might be sound, might be rhythm, rather than one person’s narrative. In this way, poets have the tools to address trauma without falling into the trap of the trauma plot.
With a wider aperture, we move out of the therapeutic register and into a generational, social, and political one. Or, as Sehgal writes, “in deft hands the trauma plot is taken only as a beginning—with a middle and an end to be sought elsewhere. It becomes a portal into history and into a common language.” This is precisely what Grand Tour manages, and in a political moment that is rolling back protections such as affirmative action, the collection could not be timelier.
Take the poem “Failed Essay on Privilege,” which opens, “I came from something popularly known as ‘nothing’ / and in the coming I got a lot.” The speaker clarifies from the outset that this “nothing” is only in the eye of society and does not bear any relevance to the actual lived experience of poverty or economic hardship. Through the syntactical move of the second line, the speaker illustrates her estrangement from what she is saying by making the verb “coming” a noun, suggesting that the speaker has trouble reconciling where she came from and where she finds herself. The estrangement of the grammar invites the reader to reconsider what is true: is it that she came from “nothing” and now has a lot in the eyes of hegemonic American culture? Or is there a more nuanced and nonlinear evolution that the speaker can’t articulate to herself or chooses to keep private? It is the syntax and tone of uncertainty, her removal from herself, that makes the poem most emotionally compelling and invitingly complex.
The speaker goes on, continuing to play on the expectations of the reader: “My parents didn’t speak money, didn’t speak college.” Here, the repetition of the verb “speak” evokes language without directly naming it. The autobiographical is held at a remove until we reach the next line, “Still—I went to Yale.” This clipped declaration leads to the following couplet with similar syntax: “For a while I tried to condemn. / I wrote, Let me introduce you to evil.” Here, the reader experiences shortened syntax as the speaker withholding something from her audience. As the poem moves forward, the syntax lengthens and luxuriates in repetition:
And I know a fine shoe when I see one.
And I know to be sincerely sorry for those people’s problems.
I know to want nothing more
than it would be so nice to have
and I confess I’ll never hate what I’ve been given
as much as I wish I could.
In this moment, we hear the speaker’s empathy. Though she came from “less” than many of her classmates, she is able to “be sincerely sorry” for them. It brings to mind another great American writer of class and race, James Baldwin, when he writes in “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”: “It is a terrible thing to say, but I am afraid that for a very long time the troubles of white people failed to impress me as being real trouble. They put me in mind of children crying because the breast has been taken away.” Of course, Gonzalez’s insight is not necessarily racialized; however, as Americans, we should know better than to think we can separate race from class. Throughout Gonzalez’s poems, the speaker holds a place of liminality that allows her to find the wealthy frivolous, while also understanding that all people are capable of suffering real psychic pain.
Grand Tour offers a speaker who resists any overly simplistic viewpoint, instead maintaining a sense of opposition to prepackaged ideology or form. In poems throughout the collection, Gonzalez uses lines so long that they overflow the margins and cascade, indented, below. In a beautiful coincidence of form and content, the poet’s thought process cannot be contained by political realities any more than her line can be contained by the page itself.
In the final poem of the collection, “Present Wonders,” she writes:
[T]here’s no elegy for the ongoing.
When elegy travels from lament to solace, to return us from grief
to life, to strip us from the dead.
Not yet. Not yet.
To honor suffering when honor puts gravestones where no body is,
hides bodies where no gravestones are.
Well, I can’t.
We find ourselves at the limits of what poetry can offer. Just as comparison, earlier, was rendered impossible in the face of grief, here elegy is not enough in the face of surviving. Still, the title pulls us back to a sense of wonder, a wonder that the speaker shares: “And yet have I ever not been shocked at pain? Like a toddler / falling down.” Wonder at the continued shock of pain is certainly a dark version of the emotion, but there it is, nonetheless, even in grief. There is something of Beckett’s famous truism in Gonzalez’s work—that the speaker must go on and can’t go on and, in the face of it all, will go on. Pointing to the failures of poetry, to what language cannot express, without compromising the beauty of the effort, Grand Tour earns our trust, not only in the poet but also in the power of poetry itself. Gonzalez refuses to plot trauma but also refuses to be healed from the past. In so doing, she writes at the margins of what is possible, creating new forms where old ones lack, and carving a space for the continual journey onward.
C. Francis Fisher is a writer and translator based in Brooklyn. She received her MFA from Columbia University, where she now teaches writing.
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