Talking Back to Silence & Unburying Ghosts in Kristin Garth’s Puritan U
Carla Sofia Ferreira’s review of Kristin Garth’s poetry anthology Puritan U (Rhythm & Bones Press) explores a powerful and structured work of art that uses interplay of sonnets, footnotes and ‘true crime’ investigative journalistic procedure to help the reader explore Kristin Garth’s experience of a personal journey from a restrictive and abusive Mormon household to the horrors awaiting her at a Puritan university she was forced to attend.
Content Warning: Rape; Sexual Assault; Sexual Abuse; Emotional Abuse; Parental Abuse
The scene felt eerily familiar, a sickening déjà-vu that comes not only with the feeling that you have seen this before, but also that you will inevitably see this again. I am watching a woman speak in front of Congress: Christine Blasey Ford gives voice to her story of sexual assault by a man who is now up for a seat on the highest court of our country.
Ford is like so many women who are watching. As Kristin Garth will note in her foreword to Puritan U, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) reveals that “the majority of sexual assaults, nearly two thirds, in this country go unreported.” There is an insidious irony to what men can talk about, without fear or shame, in locker rooms and on national television in contrast to the truths so many women are forced to hide and then when spoken, scarcely believed.
Puritan U talks back to this silencing, unapologetic and unafraid. Calling to mind Ilya Kaminsky’s sweeping narrative progression in Deaf Republic, Garth builds her story in a domino series of poems. To set an overarching narrative in poems is ambitious, all the more so with Garth’s decision to write almost entirely in sonnets. Her skillful turns of rhyme are a rarity in contemporary poetry; I forgot how much I craved that music until reading Puritan U. The work’s sonic brilliance matches the intensity of the story Garth chooses to share with us: that breaking of silence is emphasized by how rhyme calls us to focus on sound. Like Ford’s testimony, these poems reckon with an unspoken history.
The collection is divided into five parts, replicating the structure of a five-act play: Florida; Utah; Desert; Dorm; and Hell. Before reaching the act of sexual violence in the third section of the book, Puritan U documents the emotional abuse of a childhood defined by restrictions and lack of agency. As the poem, “Mormon Means,” indicates, “No Coca Cola, MTV, / slumber parties (heathen families).” The speaker of these poems is caged in by the isolating restrictions of her guardians and finds autonomy only in the dark of her “Closet”:
I’m not allowed to lock a bedroom door.
They own this house. A body has to hide.
Long nightgowns or it’s ‘you look like a whore.’
I take off all my clothes when I’m inside.
As children, so much of our identities become enmeshed with that of our parents. In ideal situations, as we grow towards adolescence, our parents teach us how to begin forming healthy boundaries to distinguish ourselves from them and from others. In cases of abuse, these boundaries becomes blurred; to assert a boundary is to threaten the dominance of the parent in charge. And so, our speaker is not “allowed to lock [her] bedroom door.” There is little space for privacy in a house she does not own; as such, she becomes an object owned by the abusive caretakers. In order to be in her own body, and not just exist as a possession, she “has to hide.” The closet becomes a secret sanctuary where she performs the ultimate act of rebellion in a house where the rule is to not “look like a whore”: she undresses and is completely naked.
From childhood’s closet, we leave for the dorm-rooms of Puritan U, or Brigham Young University: “she is shipped to Utah,” speaking once again on how our narrator’s body becomes an object. Garth’s description of campus life at BYU and Margaret Atwood’s of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale hold much in common: both depict an intricate world held together by silences and supervision. As Garth notes in “Long Distance Charges,” “The honor code / requires reports, the overheard unchaste / lewd words, retorts.” Here, the speaker attempts to speak with her long-distance boyfriend and once again, is without any room of her own. Much like the unlocked doors of her childhood, her private life remains without boundaries in the hyper-religious culture of BYU: like the handmaids in Gilead, speech is monitored and reported on if “unchaste,” with all members as potential spies.
Garth addresses this complete lack of boundaries most directly in “Degraded Ballerina,” asserting that “A body is a door. You keep it closed.” As elsewhere in the text, the “You” is at once an address to the reader and to the speaker herself. I think of Garth, the accomplished poet, looking back at this younger self in suffering, with compassion and grace. Perhaps poetry is limited in its ability to effect change, but I like to think that poetry like Garth’s can constitute a kind of healing.
Remarkably, we see moments of healing even within an atmosphere heavy with despair. Much like the resourceful child who makes a refuge out of a closet in Florida, in Utah, our narrator finds ways of carving out escape, as depicted in “Fire Ride With Me.” This poem is the most celebratory of the collection, the delightful buoyancy of the meter matching the bouncing beach cruiser moving through the hills. This ode, with its “popcorn sacramental exorcism / with cherry Clearly Canadian,” delights in Garth’s small escape from Puritan U to go watch a movie. As she explains in her footnote to the poem, “I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t know anyone who had one that I trusted with my R-rated movie secrets,” and thus she took to her ill-equipped bike. Despite the “hills that felt like mountains,” this escape becomes “one of the best afternoons of [her] life in Utah.”
Garth’s decision to close this section with this moment of exuberant freedom before heading into the desert where her sexual assault takes place makes the devastation of that act all the more difficult to witness. Even now, I pause before returning to the desert because the poems that follow are hard to hold. It is in this third section that I begin to fully appreciate the value of the footnotes.
Throughout Puritan U, Garth includes a footnote with each poem, explaining part of the context in further detail. At first, I was admittedly put off by this, thinking that this might rob me of my own opportunity to examine the poems for myself. And yet, this section made me realize that such a desire is exactly what we force upon victims of sexual assault: they provide us with evidence, we make assumptions, and rarely do they get to respond. Garth’s footnotes become a way of claiming the narrative as her own, a counternarrative to whatever framing the reader of evidence might impose. Much like the closet that Garth fashions into a space for her own autonomy, she creates out of this paratext the boundaries she otherwise is not given within the space of what the poem describes. Like the narratives of sexual assault victims, footnotes are often overlooked or ignored. Here, Garth uses them skillfully to give herself the last word in each poem. It is a risky move of subversion which I think few poets could pull off well; Garth does so with style.
In writing her depiction of sexual assault, Garth also takes Christine Blasey Ford’s words out of the background noise of the trial coverage and into the forefront of her poem as an epigraph: “I thought he might inadvertently kill me.” Ford’s words reflect the speaker’s own experience in “A Sleeping Bag Can Be A Body Bag”, which you can read in its entirety on Mookychick:
contents can be a corpse, a blow up doll
small neck you throttle without remorse.
some sleeping skeleton you find to fall
atop inside a darkness, desert. Force
your way — “so wet” you say as if it seems
okay despite the crying, desperate
midnight, choked supplications of something
you dragged across the dirt asleep you shake
Once again, the speaker’s body is objectified to that of a “blow up doll,” with “blow up” meaning at once “inflatable” and “explosive.” Both represent the objectification and destruction of the body. The imagery of the body as “corpse” and “sleeping skeleton,” underscore the real threat of death in sexual assault. The assaulter’s observation of “so wet” is used to ignore the tears of our narrator, a justification: “as if it seems okay.” In the eyes of an abuser, the body becomes a “something” to “be dragged across the dirt.” The totalizing loss of agency is echoed in the unevenness of the rhymes: while the first stanza of the poem follows a typical ABAB pattern, the second stanza dizzies with its internal rhyme: “way,” “say,” and “okay”; “so wet” with “desperate”; and “supplications” (emphasis added) and “shake.” This transition into internal and slant rhyme is a jolt: this sense of losing one’s bearings replicates what happens to our narratives, emotionally and physically.
What comes next is depressingly familiar to anyone even remotely familiar with how we address sexual assault in the United States. In reaching out for help, Garth is confronted with a university culture that reports zero sexual assaults while nevertheless having a part of campus nicknamed Rape Hill. In seeking help from the Bishop at her school, another boundary is breached when he gives her phone number to her assailant. In “You Drop Poli Sci Because Of A Guy,” we see one of a litany of sacrifices that Garth must make in order to survive following her assault. Since she receives no protection, she decides to leave her major given the presence of her abuser within those circles: “Your major is one more thing you give up. / A part does die beneath a desert sky. / You drop poli sci because of a guy.” The sheer number of things of what we as women must give up in order to be safe is astonishing.
But I want to direct my attention to another kind of bafflement, or rather an awe that beholds how Garth, despite feeling a “part [of herself] die beneath a desert sky,” manages to survive. In the final section, “Hell,” we see the aftermath of a sexual assault that went untreated, unlistened to, uncomforted. Gathering the strength to document this is beyond what I can imagine; what I can imagine instead is how many will read this and feel seen and listened to.
Such imaginings are a balm as I read through “Hell.” Garth decides to leave BYU and in doing so, reimagines herself as a succubus: “You talk it all through from dark to daylight. / A ticket to Texas, a succubus takes flight.” I appreciate how in a collection that spotlights so many unjust ironies, Garth takes the final irony for herself: a succubus is a female demon who has sex with sleeping men. In light of what she has suffered, this reimagining of self becomes a way to confront the darkness. As Garth notes in the footnote to a later poem, “An Entrance Is Not An Exit”: “I feared that I might die on my back in that desert, and when I didn’t, something happened. Something new was born.”
This phoenix of a soul reclaims religious Sundays as her own, making it a time of personal sacrament, as depicted in “Revirginized,” one of only two non-sonnets in the collection:
while everyone’s in Sunday school.
she sips sacrament of absolut
with horseradish, tomato juice
for the blood of prostitutes,
harlots, heathens, whores depraved
decried the day puritans are saved.
In the face of all that religious institutions have taken from her, this poem is such a delicious ode to freedom, one that acknowledges how the existence of “puritans” and their salvation necessitates a dichotomy in which “harlots, heathens, whores depraved” are damned. The blood here, in our speaker’s cup, is not that of violence, but “tomato juice” in homage of those sacrificed for a system which demands violence to exist. It is a cheeky response to the celebration of Sunday mass, that looks unsparingly at cruel systems while also reveling in a freedom from them that has been hard-won.
Garth ends her virtuosic collection with the line “You’re talking to a girl who didn’t tell,” a final flourish of irony, as this poetic presentation of evidence becomes her loud and clear telling. This is a book that will stay with you and will dare you to speak your own truth in so vulnerable and so brave a voice.